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McErlain keen to end the Oak Leafs' long run of Ulster football misery

 

By John Campbell

It has been 20 years since Derry last won the Ulster Senior Football Championship title and right now manager Damian McErlain is confronted by what many consider to be an impossible task - reclaiming the provincial crown from the backwaters of Division Four.

McErlain is currently reviewing his panel ahead of the Oak Leaf County's Championship meeting with the winners of the Donegal v Cavan preliminary round tie on May 27.

He is expected to look to his Slaughtneil representatives to provide additional experience with Brendan Rogers, Chrissy McKaigue, Padraig Cassidy, Christopher Bradley, Karl McKaigue and Shane McGuigan possibly in the frame for starting places.

It was not until the closing phase of the league that Rogers and the two McKaigues returned to the Derry colours following Slaughtneil's defeat in the All-Ireland Club semi-final to Nemo Rangers, but a healthier ration of players from the reigning county and Ulster champions would certainly help to bolster Oak Leaf prospects.

Over the course of what proved to be a disappointing league campaign, McErlain took stock of a number of younger players such as Padraig McGrogan, Ben McKinless, Ruairi Mooney, Conor McCluskey, Conor Doherty, Peter Hagan and Danny Tallon but his Championship line-up will now contain a more seasoned flavour.

When it became known towards the end of last year that Liam McGoldrick, Kevin Johnston, Emmett Bradley, Terence O'Brien and Michael Bateson were making themselves available again, hopes rose that Derry might mount a strong bid to gain promotion into Division Two.

But a poor start to their campaign, the concession of unusually high scores in some games, a lack of overall experience and lapses in concentration at crucial spells ultimately saw the side relegated to Division Four.

McErlain, though, remains determined to restore Derry pride despite what can only be described as lukewarm public support.

McErlain has contrasted this with what he feels was a passionate atmosphere when his side lost a vital league tie to Armagh at the Athletic Grounds last month.

"Armagh had big support that day. The fans got behind their team and I would love to see the Derry people come out in numbers for the Championship," asserted McErlain.

The consistency of Emmett Bradley and Conor McAtamney at midfield, Enda Lynn's ongoing influence as playmaker, the growing maturity of Carlus McWilliams and the finishing of Mark Lynch and James Kielt are among the positives that McErlain can take from the league.

"We have had to face challenges over the winter in terms of the squad we had which limited the work we could do. We may have more selection options for the Championship so we must try and put Derry football on the map again in a Championship context if we can," insisted the dedicated McErlain.

Having spent three years as Derry minor boss before taking up the reins of the senior team, he is well versed in the depth of under-age talent within the county but at the same time is only too well aware that experience can count for a lot in the white heat of Championship action.

"We will be assessing all of our options. The Championship is a whole new ball game as everyone generally acknowledges," added McErlain.

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