Derry won’t receive many plaudits for the victory but Louth was a dangerous first hurdle navigated.
League status - as deceptive as it is - dictates this was always going to be a ‘no win’ step on the road to redemption for Damian Barton and his players. That’s unfair to Derry (and to Louth, of course) but it’s a fact.
Yet, scratch beneath the surface of those fickle league standings and Derry deserve their due for Saturday. This was a difficult game played out in difficult circumstances against a decent opponent with nothing to lose.
After the game, Louth manager Colin Kelly was scathing in his criticism of the GAA for forcing his team to play six days after their Leinster Championship defeat to a Meath team Derry will likely face in the next round.
He has a cast-iron argument and the ‘Wee County’ visibly wilted in the final 10 minutes of a match they had been competing well in until that point.
Barton’s player welfare issues are closer to home but no less relevant. Derry county players have played eight out of the nine club games so far this season, he reminds us. It is doubtful few, if any, of the counties that played Division One football this season can match that statistic.
Nothing inherently wrong with that, of course. It is reflective of a strong, healthy club scene. The conundrum lies in the aspirations for the Derry team against top class opponents whose sole focus is given to the county scene for the majority of the year. It’s a juggling act which has bemused Barton up to this point.
It means a situation has developed where it is part-time county teams facing full-time county teams.
It’s not the players’ fault. If anything, they are too honest, trying to serve both club and county simultaneously to the best of their ability and very limited time.
Neither is it a new problem and it’s one that can only be sorted at the highest level with a revamp of the calendar, though that remains a far-fetched ideal.
Look at the weekend Ulster semi-finals for an example of the farcical attitude to fixtures. Derry and Armagh minors fought out a thrilling clash in Clones on Sunday, the Orchard County dramatically equalising in the fourth minute of injury time. Straight to extra-time and Derry eventually won through.
Yet, fast forward to a draw in the much more lucrative senior match between Tyrone and Cavan and, suddenly, it’s replay time.
Prior to the Louth match, Damian Barton admitted he had had his eyes opened concerning inter-county management and there were definite signs he was starting to see things much more clearly.
A goalkeeping crisis forced him to turn to 38-year old coach Michael Conlan. With Thomas Mallon out, Eoin McNicholl out of the panel, Callum Mullan-Young suffering a late groin strain and exciting prospect Dylan Doherty held up by paperwork issues, Conlan was a safe pair of hands and let no one down.
The team itself has a fresh, pacy look to it - some of that enforced, some not. Ciaran Mullan carried ball out from the back well while Steelstown’s Neil Forester was excellent, knitting play together and injecting pace into breaks.
Conor McAtamney did well at midfield and Emmet McGuckin and Mark Lynch were a threat every time the ball was played inside to them.
Louth did accommodate their hosts by leaving too much room in front of the Oak Leaf full forward line but the main criticism must be why Derry didn’t go direct more often. Inside 13 seconds of the throw-in, Mark Lynch could have hit the net thanks to a long ball but Derry didn’t look to their big men enough for the following 35 minutes at least.
Louth had legitimate concerns over that turnaround time but to attribute the result entirely to their exertions last week would be to ignore the fact Derry left about 3-03 out on the pitch after the first half, ‘Sammy’ Bradley also seeing good goal chances saved by Louth No. 1 Craig Lynch.
Derry’s goal, when it did arrive, came from James Kielt’s beautiful 65th minute penalty which capped a ‘Man of the Match’ display from the Kilrea man who calmed Derry nerves on more than one occasion, even if he was unlucky to see a second spot-kick go inches wide.
Louth full forward Conor Grimes was a handful all day, setting up both his sides’ goals for Jim McEnaney (penalty) and Declan Byrne who was red carded in stoppage time.
Seven unanswered points inside 10 second half minutes took Derry from two points down to five up and won the game.
Crucially, after the Tyrone debacle, the Derry players kept the faith when Louth asked the questions. Perhaps it’s time the whole Oak Leaf county did likewise in the build up to the next round and really got behind a bunch of players who deserve more credit than they are getting.
Derry: Michael Conlan; Gareth McKinless, Ciaran Mullan, Karl McKaigue; Neil Forester, Brendan Rogers, Liam McGoldrick; Conor McAtamney, Niall Holly; Danny Heavron, Christopher Bradley (0-3), Eoghan Brown; James Kielt (1-9, 6f, 1pen), Emmett McGuckin (0-2), Mark Lynch (0-2, 2). (Subs) Kevin Johnston for L McGoldrick, 41mins; Niall Loughlin for E Brown, 42mins; Niall Toner (0-1) for M Lynch, 49mins; Emmett Bradley (0-1) for N Holly, 51mins; Oisin Duffy for C Mullan, 63mins; Shane Heavron for E McGuckin, 69mins;
Louth: Craig Lynch; Padraig Rath, Patrick Reilly, John Bingham; Derek Maguire, Darren McMahon, Anthony Williams; James Stewart, James Califf (0-4, 4f); Declan Byrne (1-3), Jim McEneaney (1-1, 1pen), Ruairi Moore; Eoghan Lafferty, Conor Grimes (0-1), Ryan Burns (0-1, 1f). (Subs) Gerard McSorley for J McEnaney, 41mins; Adrian Reid for R Moore, 46mins; Bevan Duffy for J Stewart, 50mins; Jim McEnaney for R Burns, 64mins;
Referee: Martin Duffy (Sligo).