The feel good factor was back at Owenbeg on Saturday.
One of the least attractive by-products of the modern fixation on defensive football has been the copy-cat tactician. We all know one or two. In fact, most of us are guilty ourselves - either directly or indirectly.
You know the drill. Something works well for one team and suddenly every other possibility is abandoned in the pursuit of a system that is either ill suited to a particular team or has already been perfected by another.
The self-defeating cycle of mimicking a hugely successful team’s tried and tested system merely helps maintain the status quo. The copy-cat rarely catches the side, or sides, who have had the head start. They are always one step ahead in the evolution of a system they invented whilst others merely tried to adopt.
And games are not won by tactics; they are won by players.
Derry have tried the blanket defence in recent seasons but it always seems to sit uncomfortably with the Oak Leafers. It seems psychological as much as anything.
The first half against Meath was an example. Against a strong breeze, Derry understandably dropped men behind the ball. They employed - at times - three sweepers sitting in front of their full back line and still looked lost.
Meath had a field day and should have had the game wrapped up by half-time.
They would have had Gareth McKinless not made one of the blocks of the season four minutes before the break to stop goalscoring Mickey Newman putting the Royals 10 points in front.
Men behind the ball does not automatically equal good defence. What transpired for the opening 35 minutes on Saturday was massed ranks of Derry players running alongside Meath attackers who hand-passed the ball around them freely until getting a shot away.
And when Derry were in possession inside their own half, there was nothing ahead of them with Emmet McGuckin isolated and unused. Watch Conor McAtamney being robbed in the fourth minute and Graham Reilly pointing for illustration.
Defending is about pressure and intensity but indecision works against both.
Shorn of that indecision for the second half and with nothing left to lose as they went man for man, those same Oak Leaf players who were running alongside Meath attackers minutes earlier unsure whether to commit to a tackle or not were suddenly winning ball and forcing their team forward.
Man-for-man marking is not the done thing any more and carries inherent dangers according to the modern tactician but for right or wrong, Derry look a lot more comfortable with it.
The argument for it working against better teams is valid but every game is different and has to be approached as such. And surely there is something to be said for playing to your own strengths rather than any opposition’s. For Derry, that increasingly looks like identifying the opposition’s danger men and backing their own players to better them one-on-one. It’s hardly revolutionary thinking but sometimes simplicity can seem outlandish when surrounded by complexity.
The scars left by Tyrone have not fully healed yet but there was real pride in Saturday’s second half and the fans responded with Damian Barton paying tribute to his players after the game.
“Players win matches,” explained the Derry manager, “It’s down to them. We can go as far as they want to go. It doesn’t matter what I want really; they have to go out and perform.
“We try and put them in that position. It doesn’t matter if we put them in the right position, they’ve got to want it. They’re there by choice and they have to want to win. I thought in the second half we showed we wanted to win. I thought Loughlin put the goal away sublimely, when you think he had to check back and took two players out of it.
It’s good to see him coming in, and Niall Toner showed his pace on a couple of occasions. It’s a steep learning curve for those younger players as well. That’s good for us.”
Consistency is the black cloud hanging over Saturday’s positivity and confidence could be the missing ingredient in that regard.
Back in February, Derry produced a heroic backs to the wall display to leave Breffni Park with a one point league victory. Thereafter their confidence deserted them but watching some of the Oak Leaf fans roar approval toward the players as they left the Owenbeg pitch on Saturday showed belief is returning and it wasn’t down to any great tactical revolution; it was pride.
Mark Lynch was superb. Gareth McKinless as well but more impressive was the fact that all 21 players used had a part to play. Emmet McGuckin was understandably frustrated at his early substitution because it was essentially down to the team’s lack of performance not his own. He was under used - criminally so - but no one could argue with the impact of anyone who came off the bench.
“I’m just happy for the boys,” added Barton, “The replacements that came on made a difference, obviously Niall Loughlin scored the goal. That bit of momentum at the start of the second half was what we really kicked on from. It put us in the position where we could go and win the game. Then we stuttered, we dropped off our men again. That’s something we have to look at in terms of our system. Our system mitigated against us in the first half but we pushed up a bit and it worked for us.”
Breffni Park will be another huge challenge but whatever system Derry employ, it will be secondary to the application and efforts of the players.
Derry: Thomas Mallon; Gareth McKinless, Christopher McKaigue (0-1), Karl McKaigue; Ciaran McFaul, Brendan Rogers, Ciaran Mullan; Conor McAtamney, Niall Holly; Danny Heavron, Christopher Bradley (0-1), Eoghan Brown (0-1); James Kielt (0-4, 3f), Emmett McGuckin; Mark Lynch (0-6, 2f). (Subs) Niall Toner for E McGuckin, 27mins; Niall Loughlin (1-0) for E Brown, 48mins; Emmett Bradley for N Holly, 48mins; Enda Lynn (0-1) for C Bradley, 53mins; Neil Forester for B Rogers (Black Card) 61mins; Liam McGoldrick for C Mullan, 62mins.
Black Cards: Brendan Rogers 61mins; Conor McAtamney, 70mins.
Meath: Paddy O’Rourke; Donnacha Tobin, Donal Keogan, Mickey Burke; Darragh Smyth, Padraic Harnan (0-1), Alan Douglas; Harry Rooney, Cian O’Brien; Graham Reilly (0-2), Cillian O’Sullivan (0-1, 1f), Bryan McMahon; Donal Lenihan, Seamus Lavin, Mickey Newman (1-4, 3f). (Subs) Eamon Wallace for B McMahon, 42mins; Dalton McDonagh for M Newman, 51mins; Andrew Tormey (0-1, 1f) for D Lenihan, 60mins; Sean Tobin for D Keogh, 64mins.
Referee: Paddy Neilan (Roscommon)