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McErlain is focusing on the positives as he aims to stop gloom sweeping over Derry

 

By John Campbell

Derry football boss Damian McErlain has made a rather startling confession as he prepares to undertake a forensic examination of Donegal's meeting with Cavan in the preliminary round of the Ulster Senior Football Championship at MacCumhaill Park, Ballybofey on Sunday.

With his team scheduled to meet the winners of this game at the quarter-final stage on May 27, McErlain expresses relief as he comes to terms with what for him is a new but very welcome experience since he took over the county reins at the start of the year.

"The fact that we are only now able to get our full squad in the one room together as it were at this stage of the year tells its own story," said McErlain.

"We are not complaining, though. We're just focusing on trying to get our own level of performance right on the day, that's all that matters as far as we are concerned."

The return of six Slaughtneil players - including the McKaigue brothers Chrissy and Karl, along with Brendan Rogers - and the re-emergence of Coleraine's Sean Leo McGoldrick is a considerable boost for McErlain as he steps up preparations for his team's opening assignment against as yet unknown opponents.

He may have endured disappointment - heartbreak even - when Derry, who won the then National League title in 2008, were unceremoniously despatched into Division Four a few weeks ago - not a development calculated to nurture morale in advance of the Championship - but McErlain remains upbeat, although his approach to the Ulster series is weighted with realism.

"While our training has been going well, we have had various rounds of club league fixtures being played within the county and we are keeping our fingers crossed that we do not get any more injuries before our involvement in the Championship," stated McErlain.

"We took a couple of weeks off after the Allianz League and then the boys came back to training and they have responded massively ever since. So the mood in the camp would be positive."

Injuries, unavailability and club commitments certainly took a toll on Derry's resources until the concluding stages of the league but, rather than engage in recriminations, McErlain's sights are set on a recovery mission.

Not since 1998 has the Ulster Championship title came to rest in the Oak Leaf County and, while they remain removed from the short-odds favourites' arena, McErlain retains an inherent belief in his players' ability to come good when the pressure is on.

Yet there remains an air of apprehension within the county, sparked to a large extent by the team's defensive frailties over the course of the league and their inability to close out games.

In their final game against Sligo, McErlain's warriors looked to have the better of their opponents until they capitulated in the closing moments of a contest that up until then could have gone either way.

The sickening slump into the relative anonymity of Division Four enveloped the county in a pall of gloom, the county's vociferous battalion of armchair supporters professing their theories in relation to the team's demise.

Yet, while clearly under pressure, McErlain remains intensely focused on the challenge he has set himself - to improve Derry's fortunes over a period of time, although he would not have objected to a short-term tonic.

If the league failed to deliver this, the hope now is that the Ulster Championship, which has proven to be a barren battlefield for the county for so long, might just deliver an improvement in performances if not a panacea for all ills.

For the moment, McErlain and his backroom team will continue to take stock of their resources and assess their potential strategy.

"Obviously we can't get down to the finer detail of our quarter-final until we know for sure who we will be playing, where the match will be staged, who is in form for the opposition, what is their strategy and all the rest of it," pointed out McErlain.

"But while we are looking forward to getting to that particular point, we are continuing to prepare as best we can. The fact that we have seven players back gives us a lift.

"Some of our best county players are included in this bunch and this helps to give added depth to the squad.

"We want the fans to get behind us but at the same time we have to give them something to shout about.

"I think the lads deserve support because they have been working extremely hard and we would certainly appreciate all the vocal backing we can get after what has been an extremely tough league campaign."

Belfast Telegraph

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