A ‘POINT that never was’ threatened to overshadow two that were richly deserved as Derry produced their best performance yet under Brian McIver to record a superb victory over Justin McNulty’s promotion chasing Laois at Celtic Park on Sunday.
Michael Wilson reports from Celtic Park
Photographs: Lorcan Doherty)
McNulty called it “unacceptable,” Chrissy McKaigue admitted it went straight between the posts but all that really mattered about Ross Munnelly’s 47th minute shot which bounced back off the Celtic Park posts’ stanchion and back into play was how the respective sides reacted to it.
McNulty called it pivotal, a game-changer but to lay the blame for his side’s defeat at that single moment of madness from the officialdom is to drastically under-value an Oak Leaf display full of grit, determination and superb football in truly awful conditions.
The O’Moore County led 2-08 to 0-12 when Munnelly’s shot caused the controversy. Even after Dermot McBride had rubbed salt into the visitors’ wounds by reducing their lead back to one point almost immediately, they were able to regroup. Further points from Padraig McMahon and Conor Boyle suggested the ‘phantom point’ and Padraig Clancy’s tame follow-up which he should have put in the net were out of Laois’ minds.
Neither did that moment breath new life into a failing Derry challenge. It was a boost, no question, but Derry were in the ascendency for long periods and but for first half defensive slips would have been comfortably ahead.
No, Derry’s path to victory was secured by a second half game plan that neutralised the crucial attacking axis of Munnelly and Clancy who had given the Oak Leaf backs a difficult opening 35 minutes. The O’Moore County’s direct approach often left Clancy one-on-one against McKaigue with, more often than not, Munnelly the willing support runner and that double-act was the major supplier of scores in the opening half.
It meant that despite being the better side in the opening 35 minutes, Derry were punished severely for defensive mistakes which gifted McNulty’s team 2-1 on their way to a four point interval lead.
That didn’t happen in the second half with McKaigue particularly impressive as he stepped up his game to render Clancy little more than a passenger. All over the pitch, battles that had been in the balance in the first half swung Derry’s way in the second as the midfield pairing of PJ McCloskey and Patsy Bradley got more impressive as the game wore on.
As a team, Derry got the defensive side of their game right but much of it boiled down to McKaigue winning almost every ball directed toward Laois’ big full forward. He wasn’t alone though. Every player in a Derry shirt put in a shift with the character of the performance as impressive as the style with which they fashioned it.
“It was a very good performance against a very good Laois side in very heavy conditions,” agreed the Derry manager.
“We knew Laois were a good side and that we were going to have to play very well. Unfortunately in the first half, through a bit of carelessness on our own part, we gifted them two goals but I thought we had been the better side in that first half.
“We felt at half-time that if we could just continue to play that way and cut out the silly mistakes then we would be in with a big shout and we got the break at the right time to give us the lead. To be fair to the players they really hung on well there at the end.”
The sides had traded scores in the opening 10 minutes and were locked at 0-4 each before Laois accepted Derry’s first gift. There appeared little danger as Derry captain Mark Lynch made his way out of defence along the left hand touch line before inadvertently turning inside and presenting a perfect pass to Clancy who was in acres of space 20m from the goal. The full forward took his time, drew the last defender and found Munnelly who had a clear run and goal and rolled a lovely finish under Thomas Mallon.
Emmett McGuckin responded immediately only for another Walsh free to restore the three point cushion. Derry regrouped though and deservedly fought their way back to level at 0-8 to 1-5 courtesy of points from James Kielt (2) and an Eoin Bradley free.
Just when it looked like the Oak Leafers would go on to control the remaining five minutes of the half, their defence went missing again as Damien O’Connor was afforded the freedom of Celtic Park to stride through three non-existent challenges and finish with a well struck shot into the net.
“We knew ourselves that we had played a lot of good football in the first half but if you make mistakes like we made you are going to be punished,” added McIver, “We were well punished by two very bad goals from our perspective. There was, maybe, seven points that we were down (at half-time) that we shouldn’t have been. After the first goal the players showed great character to battle back and again after the second and I thought over the course of the second half we were definitely the better side.
“This is a side that is learning. If you look at the level of experience, that was a much more experienced Laois side than we were but last week the players learnt from their poor first 15 minutes and we had a good first 15 minutes this week which set us on our road.”
The second half was excellent with Munnelly’s controversial point perhaps offering Laois a ‘get out of jail free’ card they didn’t deserved. Derry held them scoreless for 20 minutes and even when reduced to 14 men by James Kielt’s needless second booking, the Oak Leafers were composure personified as they retained possession and forced the visitors to chase the ball.
“To get two points against a team that, alongside Galway, are favourites to get out of this division, well, that’s a big two points and in many ways it opens up this league. Every game in this division is going to be competitive, that’s the one thing about all the divisions, they are very competitive. We know ourselves, all we have taken from this is two points but it is a very good points.
“Yes, I thought Chrissy McKaigue did very well but as a unit, I thought our defence was much better. To be fair, outside of giving away the two goals, our defence wasn’t too bad in the first half but we gifted them 2-1.
“I have to say, even when we went a man down at the end, every player chipped in and battled and I thought we deservedly held out. It was no fluke, I thought we were the better side for a large periods of the game.”
Rather than Munnelly’s shot, the real game changer was Emmett McGuckin’s opportunistic 53rd minute goal which brought Derry level at 1-13 to 2-10. James Kielt’s effort may have been aimed between the posts but when it dropped short the big Magherafelt man leapt above both Eoin Culliton and Kevin Meaney to punch into the net and Derry suddenly went to another level.
Belief surged through McIver’s team as Eoin Bradley this time rose highest to touch McGuckin’s shot over the bar for a lead which Kielt added to with an audacious effort off the outside of the foot. It was a five point swing in three minutes and Laois never recovered.
When Lynch strode onto a Benny Herron pass on 67 minutes to fire over the score of the day the writing was on the wall for Laois with Enda Lynn wrapping up a victory that offer plenty of reason for optimism.
DERRY - Thomas Mallon; Ryan Ferris (0-2), Chrissy McKaigue, Dermot McBride (0-1); Charlie Kielt, Mark Lynch (0-1), Sean Leo McGoldrick; Patsy Bradley, PJ McCloskey (0-1); Barry McGoldrick, James Kielt (0-3, 2f), Enda Lynn (0-1); Coilin Devlin, Emmett McGuckin (1-3, 2f), Eoin Bradley (0-5, 3f). Subs: Raymond Wilkinson for B McGoldrick, 50mins; Benny Heron for R Ferris (inj) 53mins; Daniel Heavron for C Devlin, 64mins.
LAOIS - Eoin Culliton; Cahir Healy, Kevin Meany, Peter O’Leary; Darren Strong (0-1), John O’Loughlin, Conor Boyle (0-1); Brendan Quigley, Colm Begley; Ross Munnelly (1-3, 2f), Gary Walsh (0-3, 3f), Billy Sheehan; Ambrose Doran, Padraig Clancy (0-1), Damien O’Connor (1-0). Subs: Denis Booth for Cahir Healy, 34mins; Colm Kelly (0-1) for A Doran, H/T; Padraig McMahon (0-1) for G Walsh, 49mins; Kevin Coss for B Sheehan, 59mins.
REFEREE - Joe McQuillan (Cavan).