Derry manager Brian McIver believes his players will put aside club loyalties and play with burning passion and desire when they line out against Down in the quarter-final of the Ulster Championship in Celtic park today.
If the bookies are to believed then Derry are odds on favourites to beat last year’s beaten Ulster finalists but as anyone involved with inter-county football anything can happen on a Championship Sunday.
“Club rivalry was one of the things we talked about initially. We felt that all this talk about club rivalry that existed in Derry is no different to any other county, and I always thought it was just used as an excuse. The line was drawn underneath it. No excuses. You’re given a county jersey, you play for your county, full stop.
Ballinderry man McIver went on say he had not seen any evidence of club rivalry impacting on his panel and said the development of the gym at Owenbeg outside Dungiven has helped to cement a united dressing room.
“There was a lot made over a number of years about the club rivalry in Derry, that lads didn’t really pull together. I couldn’t say that I’ve seen any evidence of that. The lads have worked together really, really well. I would safely say the opening of the new facilities here and the fact that they have a gym where they can all work together has been a big, big plus.
“There’s nights there where Paddy Tally would take some of the Belfast lads down there to save them coming up, but for a great percentage of the time they’re used training here. Lads are used to being together two and three nights a week, training together, and it’s a big, big plus,” he said.
Quality within the county was something that never worried McIver when he took over from John Brennan last year. The former Donegal boss led the Oak Leafers to Division Two victory earlier this year and while he was obviously happy with the victory he is refusing to look any further than today’s crunch match against Down.
“One thing I never queried was the fact that there was ability in Derry. The key was going to be getting them to play as a team, and thankfully we have managed to do that. We put no pressure on them in terms of how they were going to do in the league. In most people’s eyes, Laois and Galway were the two sides that most people expected to get promoted. We just took every game as it came. Our approach to the championship is going to be exactly the same. We’re not going to be setting ourselves out that we have to win an Ulster title or an All-Ireland title. What we want to do is beat Down on June 2 and move on from there. With a young squad of players, they’re enjoying that approach.”
The youthfulness of McIver’s panel is something he is excited about. Several players in today’s panel are still teenagers whilst the oldest is 28 years old. McIver said the young players in his panel are there on merit.
“At the minute we’re running from ages 18 to 28. In the league final we had one 19-year-old started and another who came in, and we had two other 19-year-olds in the panel. They’re not just there for the sake of bringing them on, they’re there because they’re good players.
“We have brought in a very, very young squad, which we had deliberately set out to do. The oldest player’s 28 years of age. Long-term, that’s one of the things that we want to do is brings those lads on. But the other side of it is that if you’re playing well enough at 18 years of age, you’re going to be on, you’re going to get a starting position. It’s as simple as that.”
Derry’s performance against Meath in the Division Two final at Croke Park recently was exactly the kind of display McIver would like to see replicated today against Down. McIver said he hoped his players could build upon the win the Croke Park.
“With a young squad of players, it’s important for them to see that they’re making progress. A national title is good evidence for them. You’d hope that the momentum will help them in this game.”
Down reached the final of the All-Ireland Championship three years ago where they were beaten by Cork. Their experience of finals and clashing with some of the most prolific football counties in Ireland is something McIver is very aware of.
“I know James only too well, and that come 2 o’clock and the ball being thrown in, Down will be well up for this. The injuries will have made a miraculous recovery. Down are a great championship side. They’ll bring to this equation a level of experience that we can’t bring. They were in the All-Ireland final three years ago, they were in last year’s Ulster final, they’ve been playing the Kerrys, Tyrones, Dublins of this world. We haven’t been doing that. You’re going to have a side with momentum against a side with great experience. I’ve no doubt that Ambrose Rogers will return and he poses a serious threat to you no matter what position he plays. I know that all the talk is about Donegal and Tyrone but this has the makings of a clinking game. This will be a totally different game to what I expect from Donegal and Tyrone. I expect it to be a very tight game. Ourselves and Down will be a much more open game. But on the other side of it, they’ve done a lot of work in terms of improving their defence. We’re going to have a real battle,” he said.
DERRY: (v Down): Eoin McNicholl; Gerard O’Kane, Chrissy McKaigue, Ryan Scott; Charlie Kielt, Mark Lynch, Sean Leo McGoldrick; Patsy Bradley, Ryan Bell; Aidan McAlynn, James Kielt, Enda Lynn; Benny Heron, Eoin Bradley, Coilin Devlin.
Substitutes: Thomas Mallon, Declan Brown, Dermot McBride, Brian McCallion, Conor McAtamney, Kevin Johnston, Bliain Gormley, Declan Mullan, Emmett Mc Guckin, Lee Kennedy, Aaron Devlin.