What a performance from Derry in Celtic Park on Saturday evening. The Oak Leaf boys were simply superb!
Every one of Brian McIver’s players stepped up to the plate and it was a fully deserved victory. This season was always going to be about progression with so many young players being introduced to the panel, but Saturday’s Qualifier provided tangible proof that progress is being made.
That said, and I don’t want to take anything away from Derry’s display, the second round draw never sat easy with me.
It’s rare in any sport for a team to get a second chance in the manner Derry did and the mechanics of a draw that throws up Derry v Down and Cavan v Fermanagh so soon after the respective counties met in full blooded Ulster Championship clashes needs to be looked at. But that was never Derry’s fault. They did exactly what every Derry supporter would have wanted them to, they seized their opportunity with some aplomb but I have more than a little sympathy for James McCartan and his players.
Imagine if the scenario had been reversed. Derry travel to Newry, take part in a thrilling contest were there is little more than a kick of a ball separating the two teams but emerge victorious. After throwing everything at All-Ireland champions Donegal, Derry then come up just short, only to be told we must travel back to Newry and defeat Down in their own backyard for the second time in five weeks to continue our Championship summer! It’s a ludicrous situation and something Croke Park should be looking at.
In some ways Saturday was the dream draw Derry wanted. It wasn’t as if Down were rampant in their Ulster Championship win. Had Derry been a bit more clinical in the minutes before and after half-time on June 2nd they would have been taking on Donegal, not the Mourne men. Then, while Derry are registering a morale boosting and comfortable victory over Sligo, Down were demoralised as they fluffed their lines against Donegal.
No doubt about it, the cards were stacked in Derry’s favour but there was still a game to win and the manner in which McIver’s side grew into the game showed how much they have learned since exiting the Ulster Championship. The return of P. J. McCloskey was an obvious boost but it’s too simplistic to say the big Banagher midfielder’s presence was the sole reason for Derry gaining revenge. McCloskey ensured Derry dominance in the middle of the field but Patsy Bradley played and tackled like a man possessed alongside him and looked a totally different player from the one who wasn’t fully fit when the sides met the last time.
Young Ryan Bell was another who looked a changed player. Out of his depth and over run by Kevin McKernan in midfield the last day, Bell was brilliant on Saturday but one could say that about every player in a Derry shirt. Attitude, ability and application were all first class and one has to congratulate McIver and his backroom team for that. It certainly leaves plenty of room for optimism.