IT HAS BEEN described as a ‘joke’ but James Conway’s red card was no laughing matter for Derry boss John Brennan.
Michael Wilson reports
His conundrum was simple. How exactly does a linesman - around 100 metres away on the far side of a pitch - spot an incident serious enough to warrant a straight red card when his colleague - positioned approximately five yards from that incident - sees nothing?
On the face of it, it’s a simple enough query but Brennan is not likely to get any satisfactory answers. Not that he is expecting to. In previous games the Lavey man has watched as Sean Leo McGoldrick and Emmett McGuckin were hospitalised after challenges that went unpunished. Barry McGoldrick’s name was also added to Derry’s growing injury list after a challenge that annoyed the Derry boss in the Cavan game.
Then, in the 18th minute of Saturday’s final, James Conway tangled with Tyrone’s Colm Cavanagh close to the Derry dug-out and Fermanagh referee Martin Higgins, after consulting linesman Padraig Hughes, dismissed the Ballinderry midfielder to the shock of everyone in red.
By his own admission, Conway conceded to having a hold of Cavanagh’s shirt but not even the television cameras present at the Morgan Athletic Grounds could clear up what exactly the red card offence was.
Whatever it was, it changed the game and Derry, who had strolled into a 1-03 to 0-01 lead thanks to Paddy Bradley’s second goal since his return from injury, were suddenly up against it.
“I have to give credit to my players because we were down to 14 men for long periods of time and they came back to within three points so I have to give my players full credit,” explained the Derry manager afterwards.
“I was impressed with their attitude and the pride they have for the Derry jersey but as everyone knows, the turning point for us was when we lost James Conway. The game took a u-turn from that point.
“I have faith in my players. They are a good bunch of players. They are dedicated and I feel sorry for them and the Derry supporters because we feel cheated tonight.”
The Derry manager pointed an accusing finger at Cavanagh, who was booked in the incident, who he felt had made something out of nothing.
“We could have accepted what happened had the linesman three metres away given the decision but he didn’t, it was the linesman who was 100 metres away who gave it. I find it very difficult to accept because for us that decision was wrong and up until it happened we were in a great position to win the game.
“Everything was going really well up until James was sent off. I haven’t seen any footage of it yet but the reports that I’ve heard suggest absolutely nothing happened. The linesman who was right beside me and only a few metres away from what happened said that nothing happened.
“If a player wants to get an opponent sent off that way then let him live with it. We think that what happened was unfair but listen, we have prepared well and now our attention must turn to the National League because it’s the big competition starting now.”
Despite his obvious frustration at the result, the Derry manager said the Power NI McKenna Cup had once again proved a good season opener for his players.
“We were disappointed in the final result naturally enough because we would have liked to have won, we wanted to retain the trophy.
“We have done very well in the McKenna Cup and much as we would have loved to have retained the trophy, the players battled, I am proud of them and I am disappointed for them and for the supporters – but we’ll fight another day.
“The bottom line for me at the minute is that I put out the best panel possible for the national league. We’ll get together on Tuesday night again and start working towards the game against Galway in Celtic Park on Sunday.”
While all pre-match eyes were fixed on Peter Robinson, once the action got going Derry did their best to upstage the First Minister with a superb opening salvo that put the Oak Leafers firmly in the box seat. They took an early two point lead when Bradley converted two frees in the third and seventh minutes respectively as Conway and Joe Diver took a firm control of the midfield.
Tyrone were struggling to contain a Derry forward line in which Mark Lynch looked superb and the Banagher man took full advantage of poor handling in the Tyrone half-back line to fire over the bar in the 11th minute for a fully deserved three point lead.
Tyrone had seen two early chances sail wide but the impressive Michael Murphy finally got his side’s first point on the board in the 12th minute though it looked like there would be little respite for Mickey Harte’s men when Bradley found the net five minutes later. James Conway’s high free was touched on by Cailean O’Boyle for Bradley - who had anticipated the touch -to gather, step inside and smash the ball past John Devine from close range for 1-03 to 0-1.
Then came Conway’s red card which will undoubtedly bring a Derry appeal but, initially at least, Conway’s sending off appeared to have little impact. Lynch scored an absolute ‘belter’ of a point in the 23rd minute when he linked up with Conleith Gilligan on the right before sending over a huge score whilst hugging the touchline to give the Oak Leafers a six point lead.
Murphy got his and Tyrone’s second score when he received a wonderful pass from Owen Mulligan in the 27th minute but as Conway’s red card and a nasty knee injury to Gerard O’Kane which could seem him miss the start of the National League started to takes it toll, Tyrone roared back into contention with an excellent score from Peter Harte and a free from Stephen O’Neill.
Buoyed by the brace, Tyrone started to take hold of the game and when Mulligan somehow squeezed the ball past Danny Devlin at his near post in first half injury time, Derry’s lead was reduced to one leaving Cathal McCarron to restore parity at 1-05 each on the stroke of half time.
Tyrone broke from the blocks first after the restart with a phenomenal point from Stephen O’Neill on the left hand side and they extended that lead to three when Mark Donnelly pointed after the ball rebounded off the post and O’Neill converted his second free of the game.
Gilligan pulled a point back but Tyrone were making full use of the extra man and in no mood to let Derry off the hook as four scores without reply from Mattie Donnelly (2), Dermot Carlin and Cathal McCarron gave them a five point lead.
Cailean O’Boyle’s late injury time penalty was scant consolation for Brennan whose attention now turns to Sunday’s league opener.
“We have two big games coming up in the National League and it would be brilliant if we could get four points from our opening two games. But, as of now, we are looking only to Sunday’s game against Galway. If we get two points, then so well and so good, because then we can start building towards the next game. It’s going to be a difficult league.”
One notable bright spot from Saturday’s frustrations was the continued progress of Paddy Bradley, although the Derry manager admitted his front had little to feed from after the red card.
“Paddy did well right up until we had our man sent off because after that he was starved of any real ball going into him. Paddy will come good like a lot of the other players. James Conway will be back and we have a few other players to come back from injury too.
“We’ll get stronger because we have prepared well and hopefully we’ll get better.”
DERRY: D. Devlin; D McBride, L. Morrow, R. Dillon; G. O’Kane, B.McCallion, B. McGoldrick ; J. Conway, J. Diver; C. McKaigue, M. Lynch (0-2), S.L. McGoldrick (0-1); Cailean O’Boyle (1-0), P. Bradley (1-2, 2f), C. Gilligan (0-3, 2f).
Subs: N. Forrister for G. O’Kane 10 mins; K. O’Neill for N. Forrester 40 mins; P.J. McCloskey for J. Diver 46 mins; M. Craig for R. Dillon 54 mins; E. Lynn for C. Gilligan.
TYRONE: J. Devine; A.McCroy, J. McMahon, P.J. Quinn; C. McCarron (0-2), P. Harte (0-1), D. Carlin (0-1); M. Murphy (0-2), C. Cavanagh; Mattie Donnelly (0-3), P. Hughes, M. Penrose; O. Mulligan (1-1, 1f), Mark Donnelly (0-1), S. O’Neill (0-2, 1f).
Subs: J. McMahon for C. Cavanagh 21 mins; J. Lafferty for M. Penrose 38 mins; S. O’Neill for J. McMahon 47 mins; R. O’Neill (0-1) for S. O’Neill 64 mins; S. McNulty for M. Murphy 64 mins.
REFEREE: Martin Higgins (Fermanagh). Attendance: 4,715.