Derry minor manager Damian McErlain admits this weekend’s All Ireland Minor Football semi-final against Kerry will be the biggest challenge his Ulster champions have faced this season.
McErlain’s young Oak Leafers accounted for many people’s All Ireland favourites, Donegal, in a tight Ulster semi-final before clinching the Ulster title in style against Cavan in July.
They followed that Clones victory up with a 0-12 to 2-04 All Ireland Quarter-final win over Longford to set up a showdown with ‘The Kingdom’ which the Derry manager admits will be another step up in class.
“The more I look at Kerry, they’re seriously comfortable on the ball,” explained Magherafelt man, “Their basic skill levels are very high all over the pitch. All the things you’d expect from a Kerry team. Their work rate’s very good, they work as a team. There’s no one individual lording it. You have very good individuals playing together as a team, which is the ideal situation, I suppose. It’s the biggest challenge we’ve had yet.”
The reigning All Ireland Minor champions have been in impressive form this season. They had 11 points to spare against Clare in their opening Munster Championship game before coming through by the tightest margin against Cork in a semi-final that went to extra-time. ‘The Kingdom’ had six points to spare against a good Tipperary team in the Munster Final before brushing Sligo aside by nine points in the All Ireland quarter finals.
“When they don’t have the ball, everyone’s tackling,” adds McErlain. “There were times against Sligo that we would have looked up and they maybe only had the full-forward inside the 65’. Maybe that’s not a particularly purposeful thing, but it shows that everyone’s working hard when they don’t have the ball. They’re not playing with sweepers but they’re all working hard. It’s not the kind of team you want to invite on to you.”
Derry should have Glen keeper Callum Mullan-Young fit again after he missed the Ulster final and despite the pedigree of the opposition, McErlain believes his players have plenty to offer, especially on the wide open spaces of Coke Park.
“We enjoyed Clones, I have to say. We do a lot of work on our kick-passing. We’re similar to Kerry in that sense. In my own head, I’ve never seen a man run faster than the kick pass yet.
“Even energy wise, in Croke Park, how could you carry the ball for a full hour? We learned in the Longford game that you have to be flexible. If the kick pass isn’t working, you have to change your way of doing it. The emphasis on keeping possession is great. Even if you want the ball to move quickly, there’s still no point in kicking it away.”
The Derry Co. Board has agreed to postpone the Minor Club championship to aid preparations with McErlain relieved to see his players come through their weekend senior championship matches unscathed.
“Kerry will be very confident in their ability to go and beat teams with the way they play, moving the ball quickly and executing their kick-passing to create good opportunities,” he added, “That’s the challenge we have. We’ll try and dominate possession if we can and break up their play as best we can.
“We’ve been working on different things. Without giving too much away, you work on all aspects of it; playing with one sweeper, with two sweepers, we’ve toyed with them all. It’s the whole thing at minor level where you haven’t played these teams before.
“You’re watching videos but you don’t know what they’re actually like. You’re not sure how strong the teams they’ve played are. Kerry played the last day without Mark O’Connor, who’s their captain and main driving force, and one player like that can make a big difference to a minor team.
“Your perspective is never right until five or 10 minutes into the match, and you get to see how your boys are matching up to their boys all over the pitch. It’s the same for Kerry. At this level, you have to be very flexible on how you play the game. You could work for three weeks on a particular system and after 10 minutes realise it’s not the way to go and try to change the whole thing.”