THE Ulster Championship fortunes of Derry and Armagh over the past decade or so could not be more contrasting.
MICHAEL WILSON reports
On Sunday at 2.00pm in St. Tiernach’s Park, Clones, the Orchard County go in search of their eighth Ulster Final appearance since 1999. The have won every final they have appeared in during that time, their last a 2008 victory over Fermanagh, a run that includes a single point defeat of Derry back in the 2000 final.
In the same time, Derry’s record consists of that solitary final appearance and a litany of near-misses and non-performances, usually at the semi-final stage. History, it seems, is not on John Brennan’s side.
Except the Derry manager has never been one to look backwards. If he was, he could call on a not-insignificant record of his own, a record that had brought him seven senior county championships spanning three counties with five clubs.
He doesn’t dwell on that, nor will he dwell on Derry’s recent failures. The Lavey man has always looked to the next target and right now he has his sights firmly fixed on an Ulster Final.
“Last year’s game is gone and has no bearing, nor does any other year. This is a different year, different set-up and different panel,” explained Brennan.
“Let’s be honest, we could talk about any number of games over the past 10 years or so and where do you draw the line? How far do you want to go back? We could talk about the final in 2000 but it’s of no significance to what will happen in Clones on Sunday. We have to look forward.
“Both sides will be under pressure but it is the pressure that goes with these sorts of occasions and you have to handle it. We have prepared well and have a good panel of players but Derry certainly need the win more than Armagh.”
Last year, Armagh came to Celtic Park in the preliminary round and brought Derry’s Ulster campaign to an end before it even got up and running. Gerard O’Kane’s second half penalty miss was a crucial factor in that three point defeat but the Glenullin man will miss this weekend’s game after injuring himself playing for Glenullin.
Where one ‘Mr. Consistent’ drops out however, another steps in and Brennan will be glad to see captain Barry McGoldrick’s return, as he tries to shore up a defence that made an unfortunate habit of conceding goals during their league campaign.
That is something Brennan and his backroom team will have worked on since the defeat of Fermanagh and with the likes of Jamie Clarke and Stevie McDonnell on form, the Oak Leaf back line is sure to have their hands full.
The midfield sector will be key as both sides seek primary possession but while there are key battles wherever you look in the respective starting line-ups, the Derry manager believes the game could turn on those not starting.
“The most important part of the whole game could be the respective substitute benches and we have some very good impact subs. The players coming on have to make a bigger impact than those who are taken off otherwise I have made the wrong call but you have the starting 15 and then there is really only a thread between those players and the next ten.
“Every Ulster championship game has a ‘sorting out session’ in the opening 15 or 20 minutes and some players can handle that period better than others, so you have to consider that when picking your starting team. Add in the hype that goes with these sort of games and some players thrive on that whereas other don’t enjoy it. We have to battle through that period and earn the right to play football.”
Armagh will be favourites following their defeat of James McCartan’s highly fancied Down team in the quarter-finals but the underdogs tag is not something to worry Brennan.
“I saw Armagh in the flesh against Down in the quarter-final and I have watched the game again since. They are a very good side. Down would have been most people’s favourites for Ulster this year but having beaten them, Armagh are probably the favourites now, especially given the experience they’ve had over recent years. They have always been there or thereabouts. We might go in as underdogs with some people but that won’t annoy us.
“People like to concentrate on one or two of the Armagh players but they’re all good players but we have some good players as well and Armagh will have to think about them. It is not simply about us going out and stopping Armagh play.
“If you look at the two quarter-finals, Armagh have to sustain that type of performance they put in against Down while we have to improve on our showing against Fermanagh. The meeting point will be somewhere in-between.”
Venue Unfair on Fans
One thing that has confused the Derry manager is the Ulster Council’s choice of venue and he has more than a little sympathy for the Derry supporters who have undoubtedly got the raw end of the deal.
“I don’t really understand the choice of venue, especially as we had been led to believe Omagh was going to be selected. It will not make any real difference to myself or the players because Clones is a very good pitch but it’s unfair on the Derry supporters.
“It will probably cost Derry supporters three times what it would have if the game had been played in Omagh for example. Some Armagh supporters can be in Clones in 30 minutes. I hope I am wrong because we want all the Derry support to come out and get behind us but it could impact on the numbers and you might only see half of what you would had it been in Omagh,” he added.