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Football now the focus for Derry’s Craig

Few counties have been engulfed in the dual code syndrome to quite the same extent as Derry over the past two decades.

The list of high-profile players who successfully fulfiled the onerous task of carving out distinguished careers in both football and hurling certainly makes for interesting reading.

How’s this for starters — Brian McGilligan, Henry Downey, Seamus Downey, Geoffrey McGonigle, Kieran McKeever, Liam Hinphey, Kevin Hinphey, Emmet McKeever and Johnny McGurk.

There are many others too who have served their county well in the different codes and yet this vast reservoir of sporting talent has on occasions proved the Oak Leaf county’s Achilles heel.

Time and again players found themselves having to make the hard call when inter-county hurling and football matches clashed — and invariably on those occasions one manager had reason to rejoice while the other was left to rue the absence of important cogs in their side.

But the increased demands in both codes — particularly in football — in terms of preparation, training and conditioning meant that the days of a player being asked to serve two masters quickly became numbered.

And that’s why Derry’s Mark Craig is entirely comfortable within himself as he gears up for Saturday’s vital Ulster Football Championship confrontation with neighbours Donegal.

Yet it’s a safe bet that Derry hurling manager Ger Rogan would love to have him in his side for the Ulster Championship quarter-final against Armagh at the Morgan Athletic Grounds which is scheduled to take place less than 24 hours after the high-profile Ballybofey shoot-out.

A gifted hurler, as a shoal of under-age honours will testify, Craig’s qualities as a teak-tough defender impressed football boss John Brennan to such an extent that, despite a broken cheek-bone which rendered him unavailable for some games, he was still viewed as a key player during the recent Allianz League.

Craig, lean and lithe, is expected to fill the centre-half-back role in the Derry side on Saturday — it would be his first start in the Ulster series — and admits that he cannot wait for the action to unfold.

“I wanted to give football my 100 per cent attention to see where it would take me and I’m happy enough with the way things have panned out so far,” said Craig.

“Hopefully I will get a starting place on Saturday, but we have a very strong panel and competition for places is extremely strong.

“We’re going in against a Donegal side that won the Ulster title and reached the All-Ireland final last year and then retained their place in Division One this year, so that says a lot about them, but we are itching for action as we want to reverse last year’s Ulster final result.”

On that occasion, Derry felt they were the victims of some dubious refereeing decisions but Craig maintains that this is firmly in the past.

“All the boys see this as a new ball game, we are carrying no baggage. We are very positive and John Brennan has us in the right frame of mind,” he said.

And win, lose or draw on Saturday, he will quickly turn his attention to the hurling championship encounter on Sunday.

“I would love to see a Derry double this weekend, that would be terrific for the county. I think the hurlers have a decent chance against Armagh and I will be right behind them,” adds Craig.

Belfast Telegraph