It was unlucky for Cavan in Clones on Sunday as Damian McErlain’s Derry Minors ended the county’s 13-year Ulster title drought in style and immediately set their sights on further silverware.
Not since Chris Brown’s All Ireland winning Minor team of 2002 has Derry tasted success at provincial level. That team included the likes of Eoin McNicholl, Gerard O’Kane and Barry McGoldrick but has yet to make the notoriously difficult transition to senior success.
This title will be different is McErlain has anything to say on the matter. The Magherafelt man has brought a new pride to a minor set-up that has been much maligned over the past decade. The players bought into his approach and now McErlaine is hoping it can galvanise further Oak Leaf silverware.
“It is a long time since we won a title in Derry so it is brilliant,” explained McErlain, “The lads, all together, bought into the set up and this is an indication of where club football is, and has been, in Derry.
“These boys just got it together and delivered. We have had good support from everyone. The county board has given us pretty much everything we have asked for and it takes that.
“It is not perfect yet but there is a lot of quality at underage level in Derry and if we get the whole thing right, well, you seen Cavan went on won four under-21 titles and there is no reason Derry can’t kick on and start wining them on a more regular basis.
“Thirteen years without an Ulster title at any level is ridiculous with the quality of clubs and players that we are producing in Derry but there has to be much more support for the county set-ups. The whole fixtures thing in the county is not easy either; clubs put big pressure on for the players to play.
“This is a big result for Derry football, a good lift after last night’s disappointment (in Galway). Building on this success comes from the under 12s upwards but there is no other county in the country doing the work our clubs are doing. Now that has to translate into the county set-up. We’ve got to give them the structures to allow them to flourish.”
It is difficult to ignore a manager who has brought together so superbly a talented but also disjointed minor set up to upset the odds of a championship they were all but written out of before the semi-final victory over Donegal.
And Sunday was as much about grit as it was about grace.
Cavan threatened to blow Derry away in the opening minutes as the raced into a two point lead and also struck the upright twice. It took some superb Derry defending to weather the storm with Niall Keenan shackling Cavan danger man Thomas Edward Donohoe to the extent he grabbed only one point over the hour.
Keenan’s defensive compatriots, including Steelstown’s Eoghan Concannon, were equally assured after the nervous opening which was halted by the emergence of Derry midfield triumvirate; Patrick Kearney, Jack Doherty and the elusive Conor Glass. Once those three got to grips with the middle of the pitch, Derry were off and running and no-one more so than ‘Man of the Match’ Shane McGuigan who was unplayable before the break en route to a personal tally of five points from play.
It was McGuigan who claimed the Oak Leafers first point on 10 minutes and within seconds Glass had held off three Cavan defenders to undo Cavan’s good start inside one minute. From there until half-time it was about Derry and in particular, McGuigan.
The Slaughtneil player had already four points when strike partner Barry Grant got in on the action but it was Derry’s third forward, Tiarnan Flanagan, who appled what turned out to be the killer blow, one minute before the interval. Running off McGuigan’s shoulder Flanagan took the pass at pace and fired a low shot which Cavan keeper Fergal O’Rourke looked to have cover but somehow spilled over the line. Derry weren’t complaining though and went in six point up at 1-08 to 0-5.
If that opening half had been the ‘grace’, the second 30 minutes saw the Derry grit. Against their manager’s wishes, perhaps because of the energy expended in extremely hot conditions, Derry sat back and Cavan took the initiative.
Twice Ben McKinles, standing in for the injured Callum Mullan-Young, was called on to make match-winning saves from David Brady who caused no end of trouble once Cavan moved him to the edge of the square.
Glass had dropped back to counteract him but that only drew the Oak Leafers further back toward their own goal and if McGuigan was the first half hero for Derry, every defender in red and white ran him close after the break as they dug deep to hold off a Cavan fight back that threatened to spoiled the party.
Longford now await in the All Ireland Quarter-Finals. McErlain’s men are entering new, unknown territory but for the first time in 13 years, they make the journey as Ulster champions.
DERRY - Ben McKinless; Niall Keenan, Conor McGrogan, Conor Maunsell; Oisin Duffin, Michael McEvoy, Eoghan Concannon; Patrick Kearney (0-3), Jack Doherty; Patrick Coney, Shea Downey (0-1), Conor Glass (0-1); Tiarnan Flanagan (1-0), Barry Grant (0-1), Shane McGuigan (0-5). (Subs) Fergal Higgins for B Grant, 37mins; Francis Kearney for T Flanagan, 54mins; Niall McAtamney for P Coney, 57mins.
CAVAN - Fergal O’Rourke; Patrick O’Reilly, Donal Monahan, Luke Fortune; Dillon Raythorne (0-3), Shane Fortune, David Wilson; David Brady (0-2, 2f), Conor Brady; Darragh Gannon (0-3, 2f), Paul Leddy, Ryan O’Neill; Darragh Kennedy, Thomas Edward Donogue (0-1), Robbie Fitzpatrick. (Subs) Conor Smith (0-2) for R Fitzpatrick, H/T; Rhys Clarke for P Leddy, H/T; Lewis Fay Cooper for S Fortune, 42mins; Stephen Smith for R O’Neill, 55mins; Eoghan Cooney for T Donohoe, 56mins.
REFEREE - Paul Faloon (Down)