A first defeat of the league season but the feel good factor in Derry hurling survived its biggest test of the season against Carlow in Celtic Park on Sunday.
The two point defeat lifted Carlow top of the table and put them in pole position for a place in the league final but Derry probably took more from the game than the visitors. Tom McLean’s men were left to rue Ruairi Convery’s 58th minute penalty miss which would have brought the Oak Leafers level but there were plenty of positives, notably the performance of Na Magha’s Brendan Douban on his full league debut.
As things stands, Derry’s league fate could still lie in Carlow hands. Derry finish against Wicklow at Owenbeg on March 22nd, a match they will be expected to win, which means Carlow’s visit to Westmeath on the same day could determine if Derry qualify.
Kerry remain dangerous outsiders but can only reach seven points which Derry would have with victory over Wicklow, not that Derry manager Tom McLean is worrying too much about the permutations.
“If we win our next match, it’s out of our hands,” explained McLean, “We will have to wait to see how the other results work out. We will be going out to try and win and if winning that gets us to the league final, well and good. If not, we start preparing for the Christy Ring.”
It’s a pragmatic approach which has served Derry well so far in 2015. They have already exceeded expectations with performances that prompted Carlow manager Pat English to label them the “most improved hurling team in Ireland.”
At the start of the year, had someone said we would have a draw and two wins from our first three games, lose by two points to Carlow, I think we would have been happy enoughDerry manager Tom McLean
Sunday wasn’t their best display of the season but the disappointment at losing to a Liam McCarthy Cup team says everything about how expectations have changed.
Carlow were indebted to Seamus Murphy’s goal one minute before half-time for seeing them go in only one behind at 1-7 to 1-6 and while they dominated large spells of the second half, Derry could still view this as one that got away.
“You could say that but the way I would look at it was, we were playing a Carlow team that is classed as one of the better teams and we showed in the first half we were fit to compete with them,” added McLean.
“Maybe we could have been further away because we missed a few scores and adding on a few could have taken the pressure off but if we can cut out the mistakes, there were a lot of good things to come out of that.
“We’re still in the running. We play Wicklow and if we win we could be in the league final but we can’t get too carried away with ourselves. At the start of the year, had someone said we would have a draw and two wins from our first three games, lose by two points to Carlow, I think we would have been happy enough.
“We are always learning. We haven’t put the same team out two weeks running, we’re giving boys a chance so I wouldn’t be overly disappointed. Maybe the second half we would have liked to do that bit better but there’s still plenty of positives.”
Douban was certainly one of those. The live wire Na Magha man caused Carlow plenty of problems with his pace and grabbed Derry’s only goal on three minutes when he touched home Ruaidhai Leonard’s sideline ball which had drifted over the full-back line. He finished with 1-02 and McLean said he was more than happy with Douban’s contribution.
“I was very pleased with Brendan. He’s a good fella and has worked very hard. He had a good hour and maybe tired a bit at the finish, but he really showed what he could do and that’s what we were looking to see.”
The game changing moment arrived one minute before the break when Derry were caught in possession in midfield and in an instant, Carlow had moved the ball through to Murphy whose low finish gave Darrel McDermott no chance.
Had Derry went in four points up it may have been enough, especially given they grabbed the first two points of the second half.
Carlow missed plenty in the second period themselves but regardless of a league final or not, this campaign has already shown what Derry are capable of and it bodes well for a Christy Ring Cup campaign.