Allianz National League Division Two: Derry V Down (Sunday, Celtic Park, 2.30pm).
Derry forward Niall Loughlin claims no team is safe in Division Two and has challenged the Oak leafers to push for the top two ahead of this weekend’s crucial clash with Down in Celtic Park.
Damian Barton has named an unchanged line-up for the meeting with the Mourne men despite Glen forward Danny Tallon, and Jack Doherty who is on the Derry bench, facing an Ulster Under 21 Final meeting against Crossmaglen 24 hours earlier.
Barton will be hoping both come through unscathed for a League meeting which had its complexion changed considerably by victories for both Derry and Down last week. Previously billed as a relegation ‘shoot-out’, a victory for either county on Sunday will have them looking toward to top of the table rather than the bottom.
“Division Two is a strange division because one defeat can drop you toward the bottom two but a win can boost you to the top, so you cannot afford to relax wherever you are in the table,” explained Loughlin.
“There is very little between the teams in this division. Last week we played a Kildare team who had been flying and played a great style of football but we managed to get over the line. That shows you that, on any given day, any team is capable of defeating any other in this division.
“There is nothing in it, in terms of points, from the top to the bottom.”
The 21-year-old Greenlough player says no one with the Derry camp will get ahead of themselves after one victory but believes the team should be aiming for the top two.
“We have to take each game as it comes in a Division as tight as this but when you are winning games, you want to be pushing on,” he added.
“There is no point putting the effort in to win games and then just being happy with that. You want to push on and get in that top two; get into a league final. Confidence breeds confidence.
“It is another big game but it’s one we are looking forward to and a chance to push on from last week’s result against Kildare. That’s the main thing.”
Loughlin has been in excellent form this season and established himself in the starting line-up but he is expecting competition for places to heat up considerably as players like Mark Lynch, Ciaran McFaul, Danny Heavron and the Slaughtneil contingent rejoin the panel.
“I’m doing alright. I have been in and around the panel now for a couple of years and I’m trying to push on as best I can.
“I’m only 21 but in terms of experience, maybe I would be one of the older heads,” he laughs at suggestions he is now one of the panel’s ‘old heads’.
“There are definitely some good young players coming through in Derry. I think the young players have done very well. They have been given a chance and they have taken it.
“When you consider that over the next few weeks there will be a number of more established players coming back, the competition for places is increasing all the time and no one can afford to relax.
“Boys are fighting for places and young players are hungry to hold on to their position. Hopefully that bodes well for the rest of the year.”
Sunday will be the second meeting between the teams after the counties met back in January in the McKenna Cup, Eamon Burns’ team emerging one point winners and Loughlin expects the league meeting to be just as close.
“We played them in the McKenna cup and it was a very tight game which could have gone either way that day in Newry. It was ‘nip and tuck’ but they edged it although we missed a few chances that day.
“We play a similar style of football. Down are a very good side and this is going to be tight again, there won’t be a lot between the teams.
“Both sides have come in for a fair bit of criticism recently but showed good character last week.”
Of course Loughlin is not the only Greenlough man starting for Derry on Sunday. Oak Leaf captain Enda Lynn has been a player Loughlin has looked up to since he first broke into the St Oliver Plunkett’s team.
“I have been playing with Enda at the club now for a few years. He is just the same with the club as with the county and deserves his chance as captain.
“He doesn’t miss many training sessions, he doesn’t miss much at all. He is one of the most committed men I have ever played with. He is a great role model around the club.
“He only lives up the road from me and if I can emulate what he has done, I will be doing very well.”
The Derry team to play Down in Celtic Park on Sunday is;
1. Conor McLarnon
2. Niall Keenan
3. Conor Nevin
4. Peter Hagan
5. Neil Forester
6. Oisin Duffin
7. Michael McEvoy
8. James Kielt
9. Conor McAtamney
10. Enda Lynn
11. Emmett McGuckin
12. Carlus McWilliams
13. Danny Tallon
14. Niall Loughlin
15. Benny Heron.
16. Thomas Mallon; 17. Oisin Hegarty; 18. Conor McGrogan; 19. Gavin O’Neill; 20. Ciaran Mullan; 21. Mark Craig; 22. Ryan Bell; 23. Michael Warnock; 24. Niall Toner; 25. Barry Grant; 26. Jack Doherty