In a game where neither side had created a goal-scoring opportunity, and had been seven times level, a two point advantage looked a match-winning position for Derry as the stopwatch showed just two minutes of normal time remaining.
And, in what was his first official game in charge of Derry, new manager Brian McIver was in reflective mood following a performance - if not a result - that he will have taken a number of positives from.
“It was a great game of football for early January on a very heavy pitch and fair play to the Omagh ground staff that they were able to get that match played today,” explained McIver, “it was a good game of football that went to the death and I thought we were very, very unlucky not to take something from that game.”
That Derry didn’t take anything from the game was due to the alertness and clinical finishing of Tyrone substitute Conor McAlliskey, who had replaced Joe McMahon in the 22nd minute and grabbed the only goal of the game two minutes from the final whistle.
Another substitute Plunkett Kane had swung the ball across the goal from the right, probably trying to score a point. It missed the far post and looked to be dropping wide but, unfortunately for Derry, it stayed in play and McAlliskey outfielded Ciaran Mullan, took a couple of steps and buried it with power, accuracy and aplomb into the back of the net.
“They got the break,” agreed the Derry manager summing up the winning score, “It looked like the ball was going wide but it ended up in the back of our net. Then we get the break at the other end and the ball goes the wrong side of the post when Collie Devlin shot. We could have got a draw there or maybe even stolen it. But small things happen like that in every game. There’s nothing you can do about it. That’s beyond everybody’s control.”
For 20 minutes the 4,089 spectators watched as the two teams shared eight points, level on four occasions.
Lee Kennedy put Derry ahead in the first minute, Sean Cavanagh levelling from a free two minutes later. Ryan Bell, from a ‘45’ and Stephen O’Neill from a free, made the score 0-02 each, Bell then edging Derry in front before Cavanagh converted another free for 0-03 each.
After 20 minutes the sides were still locked, Eoin Bradley and Stephen O’Neill from frees the marksmen.
P. J. McCloskey was in dominant form for Derry at midfield, Mark Lynch providing quality ball inside from centre half back. However Sean Cavanagh took control in the middle third and Stephen O’Neill became a threat inside as he put them 0-05 to 0-04 ahead with their first point from play in the 23rd minute.
Matthew Donnelly and Cavanagh, with an exquisite score from an acute angle, then opened up a three point gap three minutes from half time.
However Derry reasserted their authority in the closing minutes with two superb Eoin Bradley points and an equally outstanding point from James Kielt for a deserved 0-07 a-piece interval score line.
Within eight minutes of the restart Derry added three more points, Derry’s player of the game McCloskey twice blasting over the bar from distance while Lynch who was also very much in contention for that accolade added a magnificent point in the 41st minute.
When it was pointed out to the Derry manager that his side had scored six unanswered points either side of half time but failed to score for 20 minutes from the 13th minute when they led 0-04 to 0-03 and again from the 43rd to the 55th when they had led 0-10 to 0-07, McIver admitted it was something he would be looking at.
“Yeah that’s something we will have to take a look at. We went out of the game in both those spells. And, as you know, Tyrone can go, in a very short space of time, from two down to four up. That’s the nature of their attack. It’s an area for us to look at. We know ourselves that this game was only a start and we have a lot of work to do,” said the Derry boss.
Sean Cavanagh may have scored five of his seven points from frees but the Moy powerhouse, who was playing his first competitive county game since last year’s NFL Division 2 final, was a hugely influential player for the O’Neill County.
Derry did concede two rather sloppy frees that gifted Cavanagh close range frees for 0-10 to 0-09 in the 50th minute, Donnelly levelling the score midway through the half.
Cavanagh put Tyrone back in front with an outrageous point from the right but Derry once again raised their game, their twin Banagher stars Lynch and McCloskey on target for a 0-12 to 0-11 before James Kielt created space as he sold Barry Tierney a ‘dummy’ and then guided the ball over the bar for 0-13 to 0-11 12 minutes from time.
When the performances of Lynch and McCloskey were flagged up the Derry manager remarked, “I don’t like singling out players because it is a team game and, to be fair, I thought everybody played really well.
“Yes, P. J. McCloskey had an excellent game in the middle of the field, as had Mark Lynch at centre half back, but a lot of other lads stepped up to the mark as well. At stages we played some very good football.”
A former Derry manager once opined that games are won and lost in the last fifteen minutes of games, and so it proved in this one.
Ryan Bell hit Derry’s 8th wide in the 57th minute and Raymond Wilkinson their 9th three minutes later as the Oak Leaf County failed to build on their two point lead.
Still they did have a let off when a Darren McCurry effort rebounded off the post and the Edendork player was just off target when he gathered the rebound and lobbed the ball over the advancing keeper and just wide.
And then, after James Kielt had pointed a free in response to a Kevin Gallagher point came the defining moments of the game.
When asked if he was disappointed at the concession of the goal, with the Derry player being left isolated in front of goal so late in the game, McIver retorted, “It was one of those things. To be fair the fella was going for a point. I’d safely say that everybody on the field thought the ball was going wide but it ends up in the back of our net. But these things happen and it’s something we’ll have to talk about. The play is never over until the ball is dead. The ball wasn’t dead and it ended up in the back of our net.
“But from our perspective the lads came out and gave it a real go and played some very good football and took some very good scores.”
When it was put to the Derry manager that the inexperienced players would have learned a lot from a game that will have provided a perfect example of what county football was like, he agreed.
“That’s exactly it. We have UUJ at the weekend and then Antrim in midweek, that’s two more games and we’ll get a look at a few more players than we hadn’t on show today. Hopefully we’ll get things right for February 3rd for the start of the NFL in Galway.
In the early part of the game Derry had delivered the ball early inside to the two inside forwards, with Mark Lynch prominent in that ploy, McIver saying that had been the plan for this game but adding, “We’ll have to look at different players in different positions, and different ways of playing. That’s what we set out to do today, rather than getting caught in possession and the play getting clogged up, to use the ball and to hit the open spaces. And for spells in the match it worked very well. I thought we worked some very good scores.”
It was suggested that, even though Derry had lost the game, the main purpose of the game had been to unearth some new talent and the performance was heartening in that respect.
“To be fair I thought that all the lads who came in today did very well, and showed a lot of character. You had Ryan Bell and Declan Brown straight out of minor football, coming to Omagh, up against an experienced Tyrone side and before a big crowd, that’s a fair test.
“You can look good in club football but you really only know how good a player is when you see him at county level. And that was one teating game for January 6th”.
In the closing minutes Peter Harte and Sean Cavanagh extended the lead to three points, James Kielt landing a Derry free in the last play of the game.
When asked his overall view of the Derry display McIver commented, “I am never happy not winning matches and I thought it was a game that we should have come out of with something. But in terms of performance you could not say that any of the lads went out on the field today and did not perform. They were handed a jersey today and they played for it.”
Tyrone scorers: Conor McAliskey 1-00, Sean Cavanagh 0-07 (5f), Stephen O’Neill 0-03 (1f), Matthew Donnelly 0-02, Kevin Gallagher and Peter Harte 0-01 each.
Derry scorers: James Kielt 0-04 (1f), Eoin Bradley 0-03 (1f), P.J. McCloskey 0-03, Ryan Bell 0-02 (0-01 ‘45’), Mark Lynch 0-02 and Lee Kennedy 0-01
Tyrone: Niall Morgan; Dermot Carlin, Conor Gormley, Barry Tierney; Ryan McKenna, Joe McMahon, Danny McBride; Conor Clarke, Sean Cavanagh; Kevin Gallagher, Mark Donnelly, Matthew Donnelly; Martin Penrose, Stephen O’Neill, Jonathan Lafferty. (Subs) Conor McAlliskey for J McMahon 22 mins; Peter Harte for J Lafferty 48 mins; Daren McCurry for M Donnelly 48 mins; Plunkett Kan for C Clarke, 59 mins.
Derry: Eoin McNicholl; Ryan Ferris, Dermot McBride, Ciaran Mullan; Charlie Kielt, Mark Lynch, Sean Leo McGoldrick; Patsy Bradley, P.J. McCloskey; Barry McGoldrick, Ryan Bell, Raymond Wilkinson; Eoin Bradley, Lee Kennedy, James Kielt. (Subs) Aidan McAlynn for SL McGoldrick Blood Substitution, 18 mins (reversed 26 mins); Colin Devlin for L Kennedy, 59 mins; Declan Brown for R Ferris, 52 mins; Aidan McAlynn for B McGoldrick, 57 mins; Declan Mullan for P Bradley, 62 mins
Referee: Martin McNally (Monaghan)