DERRY GAA: Difficult job just got more difficult

Derry's Ciaran McFaul battles to hold off these Westmeath defenders in Celtic Park on Sunday. DER0518-107KM
Derry's Ciaran McFaul battles to hold off these Westmeath defenders in Celtic Park on Sunday. DER0518-107KM

Allianz National Football League Division Three

If Damian McErlain was under any illusions about the size of the task he has to restore Derry’s footballing fortunes, it took only three minutes of Sunday’s League opener to lay it bare for him.

Derry's Niall Toner contests this ball with Westmeath player Boidu Sayeh at Celtic Park on Sunday. DER0518-109KM

Derry's Niall Toner contests this ball with Westmeath player Boidu Sayeh at Celtic Park on Sunday. DER0518-109KM

By 2.33pm on Sunday, last season’s Division Four champions Westmeath had hit the Derry net twice and the Oak Leafers’ Division Three start became a chasing game.

McErlain’s men never quite caught up but, thankfully, no one needs to tell him anything about the job he has on his hands.

The Ulster championship winning minor manager knows exactly the job he has taken on. In many ways it is remarkably similar one to the under performing minor set-up he inherited in 2015. That didn’t turn out so badly so any knee jerk reactions to a two point defeat in his first game need to be kept in check.

Sunday wasn’t the start anyone wanted but then again the circumstances around the build-up to the league are not ideal either.

Would Callum McCormack have been afforded so much space for the first goal if Chrissy or Karl McKaigue had been available?

Would Luke Loughlin have been able to manufacture himself (I think that’s the polite term) that third minute penalty had Brendan Rogers been on him and Kevin Johnston freed to take up his more natural half back role?

Doubtful on either front but instances like those highlights the restrictions under which McErlain is working. He isn’t complaining but perspective is important in the age of instant judgement.

This will be a process for the new Derry manager. There is no instant cure for years of under achievement at senior level but it will be important not to get marooned at the wrong end of what is a competitive division, made more difficult by trips to Longford, Armagh and Fermanagh.

Sunday had positives. Hitting 2-14 should win you a match. Conceding 2-17 won’t.

Any criticism of the defending though has to be tempered by that opening to the game.

Conceding two goals at any stage changes the mentality of a player on the pitch. Regardless of instruction, the instinct is to chase the game and Derry were guilty of trying to force their way back into the contest which leads to increased pressure and poor decision making.

The more inexperienced the team, the more they are likely to be affected.

“The first two goals stand out really,” explained the Derry manager after the game, “There was an error in our defence, we gave the ball away and there was a man standing on his own.

“A start like that when you’re playing with the breeze is not ideal, and then the penalty came straight after that. The referee seemed to be the only man in the ground who knows what it was for.

“It was a big start but there was a big enough breeze, we battled back well and showed character all day long. We kept battling away and got it within shooting distance at the end with the penalty. Those are the margins. It’s going to be the same in every game in Division Three.

“You can’t afford to miss the penalty, you can’t afford to give the two goals away. It’s very frustrating to not win the match against one of the better sides when you have the opportunities to do that but that’s county football. If you miss those chances, the game’s going to go against you.”

And McErlain agreed the mentality of the team changed following the shock of that Westmeath start.

“When you concede two goals like that, it clouds things and there’s an urgency about the thing. It’s a learning curve. We have to learn from that. You can’t give the ball away like we did on the first goal.

“It’s the start of the league, there’s another six games and we’ll regroup and go again.”

In terms of promotion, Derry are now in another chasing game and can ill afford too many more slip ups.

The loss of James Kielt on Sunday was a critical blow and punished Derry twice because the Kilrea man would have been the likely penalty taker when Niall Toner was upended in injury time had he still been on the pitch.

Westmeath were cute. They constantly thwarted attempts by Derry to hit quick frees and managed the lead well until the closing moments. Even the loss of Sam Duncan to a red card failed to unsettle them and while Kielt deserved his second booking, he was reacting to a challenge which merited at least a yellow card itself, if not more.

“I didn’t actually see anything,” said McErlain of the incident, “The first thing I saw was James remonstrating with the referee after whatever happened. I don’t know what happened. He was already on a yellow from before so he had to show restraint one way or the other.”

Going forward Derry appeared to have enough to hurt the opposition and Terence O’Brien and Benny Heron, who both should be fit for next week’s trip to Longford should add to the attacking options.

McErlain is using Mark Lynch sparingly, probably with one eye on managing his workload for later in the season, but the Banagher player remains influential. It was surprisingly he didn’t push up to the edge of the square for the latter stages of the game but at the end of the game, all that separated those sides was that generous looking penalty after Johnston and Loughlin tangled.

It is the sort of decision that is probably correct by the letter of the law but if referees start awarding spot-kicks like that, the game will see one every time a high ball is hoisted toward the posts.

Enda Lynn’s goal showed Derry at their best. The ball from Toner into Niall Keenan who picked out Lynn was worth the admission alone. It took out the entire Westmeath defence. Superb.

The balance isn’t quite there in the team yet but, again, McErlain is operating without perhaps 10 players who would be vying for a start in the championship. That makes a huge difference and all the ‘play with what we have’ spin doesn’t change that fact.

It makes promotion more difficult but, as McErlain points out, it was never going to be easy in the first place.

“It was very hard from the start. This was one of the big fixtures, Westmeath are a good side and they’ll be up around the top for sure.

“We have to look after ourselves. The fixtures will come at us and we’re going to these away grounds and they’ll be very tough matches. We’re light in terms of the men we have.

If you talk about what we have today, it’s frustrating because we didn’t win the match with the squad we have. It doesn’t matter who’s missing. It doesn’t matter that we lost Benny (Heron) and Terence (O’Brien) from the team we named on Thursday night – that’s this time of year, it’s hard to get 25 men from Thursday to Sunday but we will regroup and go again.”

For all the plaudits which will be lavished upon Westmeath and the criticism that will come Derry’s way, the game was about two penalties, one scored, one missed.

Those two kicks could yet play a pivotal role in the promotion race.