Twelve months ago Derry were beaten at the final hurdle by Kerry in the Division 3A Hurling league final. Now with a new manager and a new panel, the Oak Leafers are back to face Wicklow on Sunday’s at Cusack Park, Longford (2.30pm).
It is a scenario few would have imagined after James O’Kane stepped down due to a lack of co-operation from some clubs. At short notice Belfast man Ger Rogan took the job and with only about a third of last year’s panel available, no-one envied the job that lay ahead of him.
However, along with Banagher man Sean McCloskey and a willing backroom team, he has turned Derry fortunes around, the players responding to his leadership in a positive manner.
Opening lague wins over his former charges Armagh, then Kildare and Meath lifted spirits before Derry headed to Aughrim to face unbeaten Wicklow. After a titanic struggle Derry suffered their only defeat of the season when they went down 2-15 to 1-17, and it was a heart-breaking defeat that Derry will be determined to avenge.
That game was delicately balanced until deep into added time when two goal Andy O’Brien snatched the winning score and once again O’Brien will be a key player for the Garden County.
Derry battled bravely from start to finish but even though Paddy Kelly (1-03) and Paddy Henry (0-06) contributed handsomely, the Oak Leafers could not match the scoring threat posed by Jonathan O’Neill (0-10, 7f) and the pacy O’Brien (2-03).
With Wicklow safely through to the final it was London up next for Derry but Banagher was no place for the faint-hearted, the outcome in the balance until the final whistle. Indeed it took a kicked goal by Kevin Hinphey three minutes from time to put Derry into a one point lead in an intensely physical encounter but the home side still needed a Paddy Kelly point in added time after substitute Jimmy Mulcahy had levelled to give them a place in the league final.
Wicklow themselves are something of surprise packets having come through their campaign well. Like Derry they were not fancied to make an impression at all following a few bad years. In their final game, after beating Derry, they were shocked by an Armagh team who had suffered four straight defeats.
One of the strong points for Derry has been the displays of Kevin Hinphey and Oisin McCloskey at midfield and the ability of the attack to pick off scores. The pace of young Paddy Kelly and the power of Alan Grant has been notable in opening up defences while the team’s most experienced player, Ruairi Convery, has been very accurate from frees and play.
Cathal McKeever is a good late addition to the squad and with Ruairi McCloskey fit again there is strength on the bench.
Rogan gambled with some inexperienced players like Lee Hawkins, Sean Cassidy, Anton Rafferty, Bliadhan Glass, Oisin O’Doherty and Kelly but that injection of youth has worked.
The Derry manager said, “These players are thoroughly enjoying playing together. That counts for a lot in a very tight game. The lads work together, for each other, and they do not want to lose. They want to win together.
“After the loss to Wicklow you could see how much it hurt. There was not a word spoken. They were so disappointed. They came back and regrouped but, as you said, we could easily have lost the London game but that shows the character of the players.“
However what they have achieved so far in reaching the league final has already been consigned to the past.
“We’ve won nothing yet. We’ve just got to a league final. We have to go out and win. Some might say that the squad is too young to go up but, sure you don’t know how cold the water is until you get into it. I would much prefer to go up with a young squad that will develop and learn than to go up with a more experienced one, where you cannot change their habits.
“From a progression point of view it’s great to get to a league final and I’m looking forward to getting another crack at Wicklow after the narrow defeat in Arklow. That was a smashing game of hurling, a full blooded affair. So we’re looking forward to it.”
Derry believe that they can avenge the earlier defeat by the Garden County but Wicklow have added a couple of their dual players to Sunday’s panel, including Leighton Glynn, and that will make life more difficult for the Oak Leafers.
However they have shown great character and belief right through the campaign and a victory in Cusack Park would be just reward for their perseverance.