Derry’s love affair with the Dr. McKenna Cup under John Brennan continued at the Morgan Athletic Grounds Armagh on Sunday afternoon with two point win over pre-match favourites Down.
For Brennan and Derry it was a ninth successive win in this competition and they now look forward to a final against old rivals Tyrone at the same venue on Saturday night.
It was Derry’s ability to come strong in the second half, similar to their first three games, that took them through but with a four point lead after 63 minutes they had every opportunity to put Down to the sword
However a tendency to ‘over-cook some moves allowed Down the opportunity to regroup and get two late scores but really Derry never looked like losing once Conleith Gilligan put them ahead ten minutes into the second half.
Paddy Bradley must have felt that he went through a mangle after this game, as he was pushed, punched, pummelled, tripped and wrestled. He was denied at least three frees in scoring positions and on one occasion, after being pulled down by a head-high tackle, he had the infuriating sight of referee Hughes waving play on. But Bradley is back and in his first full game in nine months his display was tremendous. His ability to win the high ball may even have been an improvement on previous years as on several occasions he plucked a high ball out of the air with two defenders hanging on to him.
Glen midfielder John McCamley has been Derry’s ‘find’ of the McKenna Cup but he looked to have suffered a serious leg injury after colliding with Benny Coulter just before half time. He missed out last year because of injury and while the full extent of his injury is not yet known, it looked serious enough when he was taken off by stretcher after several minutes’ treatment on the field.
Centre-half Dermot McBride was out with a slight injury so Mark Craig, who had missed the last two games with injury, was called up. He got injured in the warm up and Neil Forrester was given the call with Mark Lynch reverting briefly to centre half and Gerard O’Kane moving back to the pivotal position with great effect.
From the game against Donegal four days earlier, Liam Morrow replaced Philip McGlade and Swatragh’s Ryan Dillon came in for Colin Murray. Joe Diver replaced Michael Bateson at midfield and Paddy Bradley, wearing an unaccustomed No. 28, was corner forward for Eoghan Brown.
He may have been the smallest player on the pitch but Steelstown’s pocket dynamo Neil Forrester tramped on every blade of grass on the Athletic Grounds. His blistering pace and ability to win the ‘dirty’ ball, allied to his ball carrying ability makes him a very useful player to have in any county panel.
For only his second appearance at senior level, the city man is making a real name for himself although he admitted he is simply happy to be involved with the county panel.
“I only got the call to play about five minutes before throw-in so in that sense there was no time to get nervous and I probably enjoyed the game more because of it,” revealed Forrester.
“We were warming up and Mark Crag tweaked his back so I was straight in but I have been itching for a second chance since the Jordanstown game. Maybe the fact that I didn’t know I would be starting this time normalised things more because I enjoyed it probably more than I had against Jordanstown. There was a huge crowd and the whole team played well.”
The Steelstown man said he was delighted to be lining out alongside the likes of the Bradley and admitted even he was surprised by how good some of his county colleagues were.
“Training has been excellent but I had been hoping to get another chance. Having Paddy (Bradley) back is a big thing and the likes of him and Conleith (Gilligan) are a dream to play with. The positions they take up make it easy to play alongside them. Some of the scores Conleith took were outrageous against Down but he wasn’t the only one,, everyone played well and the defence in particular was water-tight.”
And Forrester wasn’t the only one to impress. Gerard O’Kane was at his excellent best, sweeping up at centre half while behind him Liam Morrow did okay at full back, Brian McCallion held Benny Coulter scoreless and Ryan Dillon was impressive in a very solid Oak Leaf back six.
Chrissy McKaigue improved on the Donegal game as did Sean Leo McGoldrick whose ‘engine’ allowed him to traverse between defence and attack. Diver had a decent game at midfield as had James Conway when he replaced the unfortunate McCamley.
The attack played with a great amount of understanding but they probably could have had more scores had they gone slightly more direct. As stated, Bradley was top drawer but in an ever higher drawer was Conleith Gilligan who opened his bag of tricks and skills to cause havoc in the Mourne defence every time he got the ball.
Cailean O’Boyle is proving to be an excellent target man, Mark Lynch put in a big effort before going off late as a precaution with a niggling injury. Barry McGoldrick improved on his performance against Donegal in midweek but there were times when he was in a scoring position and played the ball back. Apart from Conway, the other subs came on late in the game.
James Conway is an imposing figure of a man but Kalum King is no nine-stone weakling. As Down put on a bit of late pressure when the game went into three minutes of added time, the Ballinderry man drifted back to help out at the back. As he went past King, the man from the Mournes must have mistook the Derry man for the ball as he lashed out with a powerful boot to the shins which grounded Conway. After consultation with his linesman and umpires, King got a fully deserved red card that could keep him out for eight weeks.
Down manager James McCartan who was given short shrift by John Brennan after straying into the Derry half of the sideline during the first half has been beefing up his team with bigger men and in Conor Gough he seems to have a useful midfielder. The Newry Shamrocks man had a good game all through but Down managed just two points from play and this bears testimony to the effectiveness of the Derry defence.
A crowd of close on 9,000 attended the magnificent Athletic Grounds for the double header and if the second was a bit one-sided, the first was entertaining and competitive. Down led 0-04 to 0-03 at half time but, with Bradley in terrific form and Gilligan scoring freely, holders Derry reached their second successive decider.
Derry scorers: Conleith Gilligan 0-6, 4f, Paddy Bradley 0-2, 2f, Mark Lynch, Gerard O’Kane, Cailean O’Boyle 0-1 each.
Down scorers: Aidan Carr 0-5f, Arthur McConville 0-2, 1f, Mark Poland 0-1f and Dan Gordon 0-1.
Derry: Danny Devlin; Brian McCallion, Liam Morrow, Ryan Dillon; Chrissy McKaigue, Gerard O’Kane, Sean Leo McGoldrick; John McCamley, Joe Diver; Barry McGoldrick, Mark Lynch, Neil Forrester; Paddy Bradley, Cailean O’Boyle, Conleth Gilligan. (Subs) James Conway for J McCamley H/T; Emmett McGuckin for M Lynch (64); Kevin O’Neill for J Diver (66); Aidan McAlynn for G O’Kane (70); PJ McCloskey for J Conway (70); Philip McGlade for B McCallion (Blood Sub) 8mins, reversed ten minutes.
Down: Michael McAllister, Keith Quinn, Dan Gordon, Daniel McCartan, Niall McParland, Niall Brannigan, Kevin Duffin, Conor Gough, Peter Turley, Kalum King, Aidan Carr, Kevin Anderson, Marcus Miskelly, Eoin McCartan, Brendan Coulter. (Subs) Aidan Brannigan for N Brannigan H/T; Damien Turley for K Anderson H/T; Mark Poland for E McCartan H/T; D Hughes for M Miskelly (49); Arthur McConville for P Turley (65)
Referee: Padraig Hughes (Armagh).