Where do Derry go from here?
Sunday felt like more than a defeat. At Celtic Park, Tyrone, the Oak Leaf county’s oldest and most bitter rivals, ripped the heart out of Derry football and put it on display for the watching country.
The ‘sympathetic’ shooting at the end from Tyrone was, perhaps, the hardest to take. They were shouting to anyone who hadn’t yet guessed it - Derry are no longer serious rivals.
That might be hard to hear from a Derry perspective but Sunday merely confirmed what most have feared for months. Now, not only is the All Ireland series in need of a two-tier competition, the Ulster Championship is as well.
Most in Oak Leaf red who travelled to Celtic Park did so in hope, not expectation. The problem was that hope was built on the glories of past battles and had no logical grounding in the current state of Ulster football. Outside of Tyrone, Donegal and Monaghan, who can win the so-called most competitive of championships?
Tyrone no longer look to the likes of Derry. Their rivals are Dublin and Kerry.
We had big expectations but I’m not sure. Everybody prepares differently but it’s a different the day when you walk behind the band compared to just going out onto the pitch and the ball is thrown in.Damian Barton
The question for Derry in the aftermath of such a mauling is not about bridging the gap to the Red Hand. That is fantasy stuff at the moment. The first task is restoring pride.
The Derry squad will be greeted with the usual nonsense about not caring enough about the cause and not putting enough effort in - and that’s all garbage. No one will be hurting as much as the players who have worked as hard - sometimes even harder if you consider club commitments - as any other county.
The root of Tyrone’s victory was mental. For almost 20 minutes, Derry appeared to have a plan that was working reasonable well, albeit with the concession of a painfully easy first goal from Ronan O’Neill.
There was only two points in it when Sean Cavanagh held off Brendan Rogers and saw his shot superbly saved by Thomas Mallon. But, when the rebound fell to O’Neill to slot home, something inside Derry heads said: ‘Game Over’.
That’s the biggest worry. Tactics can be dissected and formations lauded but, when players feel inferior to an opponent, the game is lost. This wasn’t a tactical battle. It was a mental one and Derry were found out.
“We have to sit down and look at whether or not we were emotionally ready for the game,” conceded Damian Barton after the game. “I thought we looked tired at times. I have to accept responsibility in terms of the whole package.
“Emotionally - were we right for the game? Physically - were we right for the game? Eleven points of a deficit and, with Tyrone pulling up at the end, I think we are much better than that.
“We have to (regroup). I mean, our season started off in a blaze of glory and I think when you look at the McKenna Cup performances, early league performances, we were pacy. We were creative and played with some fluency. That has left us. People have to manage it on the pitch.
“I thought our leaders on the pitch didn’t stand up, from the youngest to the oldest, but that’s where we are at.”
The shell-shocked Derry manager deserves credit for fronting up and accepting full responsibility but the truth is the fault isn’t his to claim in totality. He needs his players to show those same characteristics and dig him out.
He added: “Losing any game is devastating but the manner in which we lost is even more devastating and confusing. It is my job to make sure people are in the right place. Quite obviously, that job was not done too well.
“We were well beaten. Eleven points in it at half-time, I mean, there wasn’t too much to play for in the second half, a bit of pride, perhaps. We had a couple of opportunities at the beginning of the second half and lost a couple of men during the second half and, really, as a championship contest, it was not a contest, not since the third goal went in.”
Tyrone’s Ronan O’Neill could have packed up and went home before those opening 20 minutes had elapsed. His 2-02 had already won the game for his side. He didn’t score again. It didn’t matter.
But for Barton - who has never been shy about showing his passion for the Derry cause, either as a player or manager - it was that psychological side of the game which left him so perplexed.
“I don’t know, maybe there was a bit of pressure being at home. We had big expectations but I’m not sure. Everybody prepares differently but it’s a different day when you walk behind the band compared to just going out onto the pitch and the ball is thrown in.
“We were very much in the game in the early stages. A couple of enormous points from distance but we didn’t threaten goal and we have to look at that. We have to look at our personnel, our method.
“When you are fighting a game and the scoreboard, you see that extra pace; you see that leadership and, really, once we went 11 point down in the first half, we couldn’t recover.
“Obviously, we wanted to go out and restore a bit of pride in terms of our football ability and we did that to a certain extent. We had a couple of goal chances but, typically, we didn’t take them at the start of the second half. We lost a couple of men and the game as a contest just fizzled out. I have got to accept some responsibility for that but it is just where we are.”
Derry will appeal Chrissy McKaigue’s harsh red card but the sad fact is neither that incident nor Ciaran McFaul’s dismissal had any bearing on the game. It was a Tyrone training session by that stage.
“We are out of one competition and into another and we have to focus on that. Hopefully, we will get a favourable draw. Nothing is easy in championship. Just look at Kildare last night against a Division Four side. People said Kildare would win comfortably; they didn’t - they scraped through by a point. There are no givens in the back door system.
“We just need to start winning matches,” he added.
Derry: Thomas Mallin; Oisin Duffy, Brendan Rogers, Karl McKaigue (0-1); Kevin Johnston, Christopher McKaigue, Gareth McKinless; Niall Holly, Danny Heavron (0-2); Shane Heavron, James Kielt (0-5, 4f), Ciaran McFaul; Niall Toner, Emmett McGuckin, Mark Lynch (0-1). (Subs) Dermot McBride for O Duffy (Blood sub), 22mins; Eoghan Brown (0-1) for M Lynch (inj) 39mins; Ryan Bell (0-2, 1f) for Emmet McGuckin, 33mins; Cailean O’Boyle for S Heavron, H/T; Gerard O’Kane for K Johnston, 46mins; Conor McAtamney for N Holly, 63mins;
Tyrone: Michael O’Neill; Aidan McCroey, Ronan McNamee, Cathal McCarron; Tiernan McCann, Niall Sludden, Peter Harte (1-0); Colm Cavanagh, Matthew Donnelly (0-1); Cathal McShane (0-1), Mark Bradley, Richard Donnelly (0-1); Connor McAliskey (0-3, 1f), Sean Cavanagh (0-1), Ronan O’Neill (2-2, 1f). (Subs) Darren McCurry (0-4, 1f) for M Bradley, 16mins; Padraig McNulty for R Donnelly, 46mins; Jonathan Monroe (0-1) for C McShane, 51mins; Padraig Hampsey for C McCarron, 60mins; Kieran McGeary for N Sludden, 63mins; Barry Tierney for McAliskey, 69mins.
Referee: David Coldrick.