Derry face Antrim as promotion quest begins in earnest

The Derry panel that started the McKenna Cup  back in December  has now welcomed back the Slaughtneil contingent as well as players absent on University duty as they get their Division Four campign underway against Antrim on Sunday. (�INPHO/Lorcan Doherty)
The Derry panel that started the McKenna Cup back in December has now welcomed back the Slaughtneil contingent as well as players absent on University duty as they get their Division Four campign underway against Antrim on Sunday. (�INPHO/Lorcan Doherty)

Allianz National League Division Four: Antrim v Derry

(Sunday, Corrigan Pk, 2.00pm)

Derry manager Damian McErlain knows what’s at stake and isn’t preparing any excuses as Derry try to plot a promotion path out of Division Four.

Youthful squad?

Not having it.

Favourites?

Have to deal with it.

New rules?

Same for everyone.

McErlain’s mantra couldn’t be clearer; ‘We’ve got ourselves into this - it’s up to us to get ourselves out’.

There will be no plaudits handed out if his target is achieved. It’s not exactly ‘no win’ territory for the Oak Leafers but it’s close and Derry are the scalp every other bottom tier county is looking to use as a springboard for their own aspirations.

That’s why McErlain believes focus is so important. Start believing the bookies’ odds and things could go pear shaped quickly.

The recent McKenna Cup performance against Tyrone, albeit in defeat, merely underlined the Oak Leafers’ status as promotion favourites but that tag is coated with dangers, especially for a county facing the rebuilding job Derry are.

“That’s just something we have to deal with,” shrugs McErlain when Derry pre-season billing is put to him, “We have got ourselves into this situation so we have to go out each match and do what we need to.

“We couldn’t have a bigger match than Antrim away for the first game. Antrim are a good side, well coached, well drilled and we have been watching them closely this last few weeks. It couldn’t be any tougher for us going there.

“We have a young side, yes, but we have experienced players too. Don’t get carried away with saying, ‘You have a young side’. Antrim have young players too and it will be up to us to get our performance together, concentrate on ourselves. It is going to be a massive, massive game.”

Division Four is a division of miles, lots of miles. In that regard, Derry’s road to redemption begins with a gentle introduction in terms of Corrigan Park though McErlain is at pains to point out that his travel plans will be the only thing gentle about Sunday’s league opener.

“Somebody has to been seen as favourites and we are the scalp in the Division but again, that’s why it’s so much about ourselves and getting our own game right.

“We have to get our commitment levels up and have a squad competing with each other so you have the depth to cope with whatever comes at you whether it be injuries or form etc.

“Antrim are a quality side with a lot of players we would be familiar with us being neighbouring counties,” adds the Derry manager.

“Antrim and ourselves were the only teams competing in the McKenna Cup who were in Division Four, everyone else was above that. You could probably do with another three games under your belt before you start the league (with players being unavailable etc) but that’s not the case. We are looking forward to it though.”

And they should be. Whatever pessimism was lingering from last season’s disappointing relegation was taken care of by some positive performances in the McKenna Cup, the reintroduction of the Slaughtneil contingent and the successful integration of younger players who have breathed new life into the panel.

“Yes, there are guys who have come in there like Sean Francis Quinn and Eoghan Concannon who have added a bit of quality and depth to the squad and that’s exactly what we are looking. It is brilliant that some of the more experienced players are now battling to get into the side.”

Antrim are in a similar position to Derry in that they face a rebuilding job. The Saffrons are well used to the rigours of the league’s bottom tier. They know how precarious it can be.

Alongside Wexford, Leitrim and Limerick, Lenny Harbinson’s men are among a group of counties the bookies would have you believe are playing for second spot but that would change with one victory over Derry

The McKenna Cup was experimental for Antrim. They impressed in victory over St. Mary’s but only after defeats to St Monaghan and Armagh.

They have retained experienced players like Ryan Murray, Paddy McBride and Niall Delargy who will be expected to carry the bulk of the Saffron attacking threat this weekend. Not for the first time in recent years, the powers that be have dealt them a tough hand in terms of home and away fixtures with four of their seven fixtures on the road which could prove pivotal to their own aspirations. It also means Harbinson will be stressing the need to maximise the return from their three home games, starting this Sunday.

With a trip to Wexford, the second team relegated from Division three last season to follow, Antrim’s promotion hopes could hinge on their opening two games so they need a big start.

Damian McErlain will know all this. So too, his Derry players. This is going to be a battle.

“Everybody is going for it,” adds McErlain, “Antrim will be gunning for promotion, Wexford are very strong, there are some very tough places to go in Division Four. There are some good footballing sides with good structures behind them.

“Division Four is going to be tough and week in, week out, we are going to have to turn up and produce a performance but all we can think about is Antrim in the first game.”

The McKenna Cup has been good for Derry this year but the season starts on Sunday.