Ulster Championship: Brennan facing judgment day
IT was winning ways that earned John Brennan his current post as manager of Derry.
Five championship titles with different clubs from three counties bolstered the Lavey man’s CV to such an extent that sooner or later he was destined to take charge of his native county.
Forced to exercise patience in his bid to land the job he coveted, his chance came towards the end of last year when Damian Cassidy finally called time on what had been, in essence, a frustrating tenure.
Brennan slipped into the hot seat at the start of this year and quickly masterminded a Dr McKenna Cup coup before taking the Oak Leaf county to within touching distance of a place in Division One of the National League.
Now he faces up to his biggest test on Sunday when he attempts to bring Derry into an Ulster final for the first time in 11 years.
Standing in their way is an Armagh team that has dined out lavishly on success in the competition while Derry themselves have existed on a starvation diet, having last won the provincial crown in 1998.
History, though, is unlikely to prove a burden to the loquacious Brennan.
“I have always believed that there have been good footballers in Derry. My task is to get the best out of the current squad. Armagh will show us where we are at on Sunday,” he insists in his typically forthright manner.
Having thrived on challenges in the past — he is a past master at resurrecting the fortunes of club teams — Brennan is clearly anxious to prove himself on the big stage.
Self-belief, infectious enthusiasm and solid pragmatism underpin his whole approach to the job and these virtues have rubbed off on his players.
Skipper Barry McGoldrick for one is in no doubt that the gospel according to Brennan has won many disciples.
“John is his own man. He has freshened things up, there is no negativity and he is immensely keen to see Derry do well,” enthuses McGoldrick.
In making bold selection decisions — Danny Devlin was thrust into the goalkeeping position, Conleith McGilligan was brought in from the cold — Brennan has already shown himself to be a shrewd judge of form and character.
Yet his fierce pride, palpable thirst for success and faith in his players are not allowed to cloud his view of Sunday’s opponents.
“Armagh’s track record in the Ulster championship speaks for itself. They were not expected to beat Down but they did so. Don’t forget they held onto their place in Division One too. Maybe we were unfortunate not to get there but Armagh are a top bracket side,” points out Brennan.
If Brennan’s regard for Armagh is obvious, then the feeling is mutual. From the moment his side despatched James McCartan’s team from the Ulster title race orchard county boss Paddy O’Rourke has been flashing warning signals concerning Derry’s ability.
“They have very good players, considerable experience and a great hunger. To my mind that is more than enough to bring to the table for a championship match. There has been a lot of talk about the match being in Clones but to the Derry players this will be just another pitch on which they can win a game,” insists O’Rourke.
While Kevin McCloy, Enda Muldoon, Eoin Bradley, Conleith Gilligan and skipper McGoldrick constitute Derry’s old guard, Steven McDonnell, Andy Mallon, Kieran McKeever, Aaron Kernan and Paul Hearty form the experienced core of the orchard county outfit.
Armagh’s honours haul in a provincial context since 1999 has been impressive to say the least but manager O’Rourke has already served a reminder that this will guarantee them absolutely nothing when Sunday comes.
John Brennan, for his part, is fervently hoping that this is precisely what they will take from the game.