Neil Forester believes Derry’s McKenna Cup campaign has made the Oak Leafers a stronger unit whose sole focus is Sunday’s Division Two opener against Fermanagh at Celtic Park (throw-in 2.15pm)
Forester was a second half substitute in last week’s extra-time defeat to Tyrone in the Athletic Grounds final but is in contention to start against the ‘Erne’ men after costly injuries to both Brendan Rogers and Enda Lynn.
“Last week’s final was a double-edged sword in some ways,” said Forester who is a GAA Promotion Officer in the city.
“Obviously, we should have seen the game out and won from the position we put ourselves in but the extra-time also meant players like myself got extra game-time which is useful at this stage of the year. It wasn’t the result we wanted but our focus has always been towards the league.
“Those sort of games, with that intensity, is perfect preparation for going into a league campaign, especially in a division that has five Ulster teams in it.”
Forester admitted there had been some tired legs when the players reported back to training at the beginning of the week but said everyone was now up to speed and looking forward to building on the work already done.
“The McKenna Cup has been good for us but it’s still preparation. The league is when things start and this Fermanagh game is what we have been aiming towards for a few weeks now. There were a few tired legs at training in the early part of the week after playing such an intense game on Saturday night but that was soon got out of our systems and we are totally prepared.
“The quality of the panel is fantastic, probably even stronger than the last time I was involved, but now it’s about us pushing ourselves to the next level of performance and maintaining a level of consistency.
“The McKenna Cup has helped us gel as a squad and proved there are players willing to fight for each other and for the Derry jersey. Everyone has settled in well within the panel and helped push each other on.
“It’s a cliché but at inter-county level you cannot afford to look any further ahead than the next match because there are too many variables. Our sole concentration is Fermanagh. We want to produce a performance which would mean the result looks after itself and then hope to build on that for the following week.
“Having so many Ulster teams can work both ways. Obviously, most know each other well so the element of surprise goes out the window but it can help with your preparation. You are always assured of a tough test against any team from Ulster.”
Derry will be among the favourites for promotion behind Tyrone which could yet mean a final against Mickey Harte’s team as well as the normal league date - all before a May 22 Championship meeting. Forester, though, believes it would be a major mistake under-estimate Pete McGrath’s team this weekend.
“I have a few friends down in Fermanagh and, from what I know, Pete McGrath has managed to create a close unit of players, almost like a club environment, which has been a big plus for them and you only have to look at their results to see they have some serious talent within their squad.
“Barry Mulrone is a player I love to watch but you also have the likes of Tomas Corrigan, Eoin Donnelly and, of course, Sean Quigley, so there’s no danger we’ll be underestimating them on Sunday at Celtic Park. People seem to have forgotten that Fermanagh reached the All Ireland quarter-finals last year which shows their pedigree so we are expecting a very tough game.”
The Steelstown player is one of a number hoping to force their way into Damian Barton’s league and Championship plans and has done himself no harm with a number of encouraging displays off the bench. His strong running and energetic style is well suited to Barton’s football philosophy but describes any time he spends in a Derry shirt as something to savour.
“Damian has been top drawer. He is a very progressive manager with some very good ideas on the game and he has assembled some really good people around him. Brian McGuckin has a great tactical mind while the likes of Mickey Conlan (goalkeeping) and Eoin Bradley (Strength and Conditioning) really push you in a positive way.
“From a personal point of view, naturally you want to start but the performances in the McKenna Cup highlight the quality of players we have and how difficult it is to get a place, especially when you consider the players who still have to come into the squad, players like Sean Leo McGoldrick.
“Performances are what we are after because this is going to be a tight league and it’s crucial to get off to a good start. We haven’t set ourselves any targets other than to try to get two wins before the break because the results in those first games will decide what you can do in the league.”