It’s ironic that less than 24 hours after a disappointing senior season ended in more frustration, the foundations upon which Damian McErlain will hope to build his ‘new Derry’ were providing real reason for Oak Leaf optimism some 80 miles away in Clones.
It’s easy to be critical of a senior season that has brought relegation to Division Four and a Championship exit at the earliest possibility. Derry are better than that but remember, no one will be more critical than Damian McErlain.
For some this year has been a reality check. For others it’s a chance to indulge in a spot of county bashing, an increasingly popular past-time. For McErlain it was neither. He knew the job he was taking on when he accepted the post back at the tail end of August 2017. What he probably didn’t know was just how badly hamstrung he would be by the GAA calendar in his first year.
That’s not an excuse and critics might lament the Derry manager talking about the players the county has been forced to do without this year, or the limited preparation time they have had as a squad trying to develop a style, but McErlain doesn’t talk about it. He gets asked. By the media. At every press conference. And that’s because of how important these factors are in modern football.
Derry have not the track record to expect any manager to be able to compete without the resources of what is currently the best club in Ulster.
Slaughtneil have at least six players who would be first choice starters. That’s 40% of your starting line-up team and includes 66% of their defence so there are no prizes for guessing which end of the field Derry have struggled at this season.
Derry scored well in the league. They scored well in the Championship as well, racking up a combined 2-30 in two Championship encounters against Division One sides. Defensively they were poor all year but to develop a defence - in any sport - you need continuity and understanding which is only developed through matches Derry haven’t had and perhaps Donegal’s destruction of Down with 14 men on Sunday provides a little perspective through which to look again at Derry’s Ulster performance.
County teams, even in the lower divisions, now prepare with a professionalism the game has never seen before. Stats teams monitor every training session and double the size of management teams in every county. That’s the modern sporting world.
Some counties cope by by-passing the club scene or paying only lip service to it. That’s not healthy for the game and Derry does things properly but you can’t on one hand complain about county players missing club games whilst on the other ruing the fact that Derry don’t have as much work done as the top counties. The calendar simply doesn’t let both possibilities exist side by side.
Saturday was a frustrating end to a frustrating season. The same defensive deficiencies were all on display even if Kildare’s cynicism was appalling at times and deserving of at least two more black cards.
The irony is Derry probably could do with a bit of that cynicism themselves but those ready to take aim at Damian McErlain, his management team or the whole county structure need to scratch beneath the surface to see some of the work going on under the radar, away from the headlines.
The Derry manager was in Clones 24 hours after the Kildare game watching the Under 20 side made up of players he guided through the minors, stage a remarkable second half display to overturn a 10-point deficit and secure a fourth Ulster final in four years, after three at minor level. The under 17s are in their Ulster semi-final as well.
McErlain was in the dressing room after the game congratulating players he hopes could form the base of a regeneration project that was always going to take three or four years. Things might be hard to stomach at the moment but one qualifying defeat does not change that objective.