Brian McIver believes Derry must hit the ground running in tomorrow’s All Ireland Qualifying reunion with Down in Celtic Park (5.00 pm) if they are to gain revenge for last month’s Ulster Championship defeat.
Last week’s comfortable victory over Sligo in Owenbeg allowed McIver to hand out four Championship debuts while tweaking his system slightly to place more emphasis on defence, but the Derry boss admitted tomorrow’s game leaves no margin for error.
“One of the ways you would like to work through the back door is to gradually build up momentum,” explained McIver. “That is obviously not going to be the case now.”
“From a defensive point of view, neither team would have been happy about conceding 2-17 and 1-15 during the Ulster Championship game so I would imagine you will see a totally different type of game this Saturday.”
“We will have to be at full throttle for this weekend. We know that is the case because it’s a massive game for us.”
As expected, Eoin Bradley returns to the starting 15 while Lee Kennedy’s impressive four points from play against the Yeats County last week is enough to keep him in the team but Ciaran McFaul can be considered very unfortunate having been dropped to the bench.
Elsewhere, the team is unchanged as a recurring knee injury, originally picked up in a club game, continues to keep Gerard O’Kane doubtful but he should be fit enough for at least a place on the bench. Ryan Scott and Benny Heron are both back in training but it will be a very late call to assess their availability for tomorrow.
In all, there are six changes from the 15 that started against James McCartan’s team on June 2nd with the return of P. J. McCloskey to the Derry midfield, probably the most crucial change. With Ryan Bell likely to drop in when needed, McCloskey will be charged with curtailing the influence of Kevin McKernan who dominated the middle third in the first game and whose four points from play provided the Mourne men with the platform for victory.
While nobody is expecting a re-run of that free-scoring 2-17 to 1-15 Ulster encounter, both teams went for a decidely more defensive approach in their last game, Down probably more impressive in the defeat against Donegal than Derry were in strolling through Sligo.
Derry though had the Sligo game all but won after 15 minutes and exercised an impressive level of control to limit the opposition to only two scores from play. Tomorrow is an obvious step up in class from last week’s encounter and will test Derry’s new defensive work ethic to the maximum.
“We were very concerned (after the Down game last time), 2-17 was a worry,” admitted McIver. “We scored 1-15 but conceding 2-17 was obviously far too much, but we have done a lot of work on that since. We took a big gamble against Sligo, we started with two 19-year-olds in defence but I thought both were very good.
“It is something we are very conscious of. Derry have a lot of really good players but a lot of them don’t think defensively and we have had to start and change that mindset and that was very good against Sligo. A large percentage of their scores were from frees so maybe as bit of work in terms of our tackling but at least we were defending in numbers, defending well and then breaking at a good pace.”
The return to full fitness of Eoin Bradley is a boost, but after the way the Glenullin man ran the Down rearguard ragged, especially in the first half of the last game, but he is unlikely to be afforded as much space this time. With both teams expected to pack the respective defences, the pace of counter-attack and the ability to break tackles will be key.
Last week, Derry started superbly but once they had forged a lead, the intensity dropped with too many lateral passes and not enough runners alongside the man in possession. This could be put down to being comfortable against opposition who never got close to challenging but McIver will want to see more incisive attacking against Down.
From a Down perspective, the question will be whether they are able to match the defensive intensity displayed in their Ulster semi-final defeat. In that game, they were huge underdogs and their approach suited but tomorrow they will be favourites and expected to win which means a shift of both emphasis and expectation for McCartan and his team.
Without expecting the fireworks of the first meeting, tomorrow’s tactical battle could be every bit as fascinating and every bit as close.