DERRY manager Brian McIver is hoping his players will spare him the need for final day calculations after setting up a top of the table showdown with Westmeath following Sunday’s hard earned victory over Louth in Drogheda.
Despite enjoying an almost gale force breeze at their backs in the first half and facing 14 mean for much of the second period, it wasn’t until Benny Heron’s late goal that Derry finally put to bed a gutsy Louth team who ironically played their best football after Mark Brennan was red carded.
However, in difficult conditions and having conceded a first minute penalty for Aidan McAlynn’s foul on Louth forward Ciaran Byrne, Derry once again demonstrated the ability to dig deep and grind out a win. And not for the first time, it was a man not among the starting 15 who came off the bench to take centre stage.
Last week’s Raymond Wilkinson’s cameo earned him his place against Louth and on Sunday Eoin Bradley show cased his match winning ability after being introduced for Michael Bateson after 20 minutes. The Glenullin forward was superb as he linked together Derry play and helped himself to four frees in a performance which the Derry manager admitted is likely to earn Bradley a starting berth for the Westmeath game.
“Well, like I was saying to the players there, you come down to a pitch like this, against a very, very strong Louth side, with a hurricane of a breeze and it’s back to the wall,” explained McIver, “That’s when you really know the courage of your team. When that game turned in the second half, we had to really dig in and get a couple of points, and then a great goal from Benny Heron to finish it off.
“I’d rather go in five points up as five down, but we knew that particularly with young White being a great free-taker, Louth were going to work scores in the second half. We knew that we were going to have to score ourselves. They scored 1-4 against the breeze so we knew we were going to have to equal that.
“The red card actually changed the game in Louth’s favour. We were playing really well and then the red card. They came into it and we maybe sat back for a while, and it was only when we had to go chasing the game again to win it that we did that.
“But we’ve been fortunate all season that any lads we have sent in to change games, it has worked for us. Eoin this week, Raymond Wilkinson last week after he had earned himself a starting place last week. Eoin came in there today and it would be hard not to give him a starting place the next day. That’s the nature of the panel we have and that’s the way we want it.”
With Derry now one game away from promotion, McIver was keen not to add to a growing sense of expectation with the Oak Leaf county.
“Listen, we have a very young side, a very young panel, and we didn’t put any pressure on them. When we started out, the first game on February 3rd in Galway was our target. We fell short that day but since that, I have to say, the players have learned and learned, and worked. If you were looking for a test of character, that was it today.
“If we get a result against Westmeath, it’ll put us in a position where we’re promoted and we’re in a league final down in Croke Park, which would be fantastic for these young players. Believe me, if I don’t need a calculator I’ll be happy enough.”
Heron’s fantastic late goal not only ensured the Derry win, it also ensured a finale as explosive as the game’s start although it was not what Derry had planned. With McIver stressing the need to limit Louth scores against the breeze, it took only 30 seconds for the ‘Wee County’ to win their penalty which Shane Lennon dispatched high into the roof of the net.
It was exactly the start Derry didn’t want but within five minutes they led as James Kielt highlighted once again that he is a player capable of performing at the highest level. The Kilrea man got Derry moving with a neatly taken free after four minutes but things got better for Derry and for Kielt a minute later when Louth’s Derek Crilly was adjudged to have pushed over Raymond Wilkinson in the square. Up stepped Kielt to confidently put away the penalty and give the visitors a one point lead.
The game was level just two minutes later when Crilly partially redeemed himself for that penalty foul with a great score from the right yet a Derry onslaught followed with four points unanswered in four minutes.
The home crowd had something to cheers about when Shane Lennon converted a 12m free in the 16th minute but that three point margin for Derry was extended further when another Kilrea man, Lee Kennedy, tapped over an easy free with the aid of the strong breeze.
As the game descended into an attritional battle, Louth began to fight back as Kevin Rogers and Lennon closed the Derry lead to just two with nine minutes to go before the break.
But the visitors finished the half on a high as three points from Bradley, Kennedy and Kielt again left them ahead by five at the interval.
With the wind against them, Derry surprised the home side by scoring two quick points in the opening two minutes, to push their advantage to seven points but Shane Lennon kept Louth in touch with a free after 41 minutes.
Bradley remained the focal point for most of Derry’s attacks and scored a free two minutes later. But far from wilting, the home side laid siege to the Derry back line, and despite the red card for Brennan, Louth fired over seven points without reply to level the clash.
Two more frees from Bradley relieved the pressure and when Heron found himself one-on-one with Neil Gallagher in the Louth goal, he made no mistake to earn a vital victory for McIver’s men who will take on Westmeath in Celtic Park on April 7th with the prospect of a League final against the same opposition two weeks later.
According to James Kielt though, any thoughts of an appearance at Croke Park will be put aside until after that final fixture.
“We’d be lying if we said promotion wasn’t in the back of our heads, but we just want to win the league match,” said the Kilrea player, “There’s a good chance we could play Westmeath in a final a fortnight after as well. People would be asking about weakened teams or whatever but we’ll be going to try and win the first game. We’ll not be holding anything back and I’m sure Westmeath will be the same, I’d be disappointed if they weren’t. I’m sure it’ll be a good game,” he added.
Louth scorers: Shane Lennon (1-5, 4f), Brian White (0-2, 1f), Kevin Rogers (0-1, 1f), Ciaran Byrne (0-1), Derek Crilly (0-1), Conor Rafferty (0-1), Darren Clarke (0-1).
Derry scorers: James Kielt (1-3, 3f), Eoin Bradley (0-4, 4f), Lee Kennedy (0-3, 1f), Enda Lynn (0-2), Benny Heron (1-0), Gerard O’Kane (0-2)
LOUTH: Neil Gallagher, Padraig Rath, Dessie Finnegan, Gerard Hoey, John O’Brien, Derek Crilly, Adrian Reid, Ronan Carroll, Brian Donnelly, Andy McDonnell, Mark Bennan, Brian White, Ciaran Byrne, Shane Lennon, Kevin Rogers. Subs: Derek Maguire for G Hoey, 35 mins; Conor Rafferty for R Carroll, 48 mins; Darren Clarke for K Rogers, 53 mins; Jim McEneaney for C Byrne, 64 mins.
DERRY: Eoin McNicholl, Aidan McAlynn, Christy McKaigue, Carlus McWilliams, Charlie Kielt, Gerard O’Kane, Sean Leo McGoldrick, Patsy Bradley, PJ McCloskey, Michael Bateson, James kielt, Enda Lynn, Daniel Heavron, Lee Kennedy, Raymond Wilkinson. Subs: Eoin Bradley for M Bateson, 20 mins; Benny Heron for L Kennedy, 56 mins;Declan Browne for C Williams, 60 mins; Colin Devlin for R Wilkinson, 70 mins.
Referee: Martin Higgins (Fermanagh).