The Derry Five-Year Strategic Plan targeted Derry winning the Christy Ring Cup within the next five years but ask any of the management what their plan is and they will tell you that they want to win it this year.
Division 2A league champions Kildare make the long trip to Celtic Park tomorrow afternoon for the competition opener and will provide a stiff test for the Derry men who finished a creditable third in Division 2A as history shows there is never much between Derry and Kildare when they meet.
Kildare won Division 2A with a somewhat flattering seven point win over neighbours Meath on a 3-13 to 1-12 score line. They were trailing by 1-7 to 0-9 after 45 minutes when Tony Murphy hit the first of their three goals. Centre half-back Richie Hoban, with a rather fortunate effort from a free, and corner-forward Martin Fitzgerald got the other two majors.
Derry defeated now relegated Down and Kerry in the league, drew with Wicklow and were well beaten by Westmeath and Carlow, who will be playing in the Leinster Senior Hurling Championship and are therefore ineligible for the Christy Ring Cup.
They go into this game as slight favourites having beaten the Lily Whites at Newbridge last year after coming from 11 points down.
There is no doubt Derry have improved further from last season but they may have to plan without the Hinphey brothers for this one. Liam is struggling with a groin injury while Kevin is gearing up to get married. There is also a slight worry over top scorer Paddy Henry who is carrying a leg injury.
Even though they have not had a game in over a month that will not be a worry for manager Ger Rogan, the club leagues have provided plenty of action and members of the county squad have been in fine tune.
Derry have been boosted by the return of experienced defender Sean McCullagh from Australia. The Banagher club man has played in almost every defensive position and while he may not start due to lack of match practice and training he is likely to see action at some stage.
Paddy Kelly has been a huge plus since he joined the panel, the versatile Kevin Lynch’s player is a phenomenal long distance free taker and an outstanding centre half-back.
Kildare are a particularly big team who prefer to play very direct, they have loads of experience and manager Willie Sunderland has them very fit. They have brought in a number of young players as well including eight of last year’s under 21 panel but the core of the team is built on experience.
Richie Hoban has been on the team for a decade, as has wing-back Kieran Divilly. Right full-back Paudie Reidy plays his hurling with famous Wexford club, Buffers Alley. They are captained by full-back and Celbridge club man, Fiachra O’Muniechain, one of seven players from that club, the strongest in Kildare and county champions for the last two years.
The midfield duo of Danny Butler and Mark Moloney are also Celbridge men, as are full forward Tony Murphy and left corner forward Leo Quinn.
The Christy Ring Cup looks to be wide open with perhaps Kerry and Derry among the fancied teams based on league form.
The Kildare hurlers are a resilient bunch and in a cash strapped county they have been more or less left to fed for themselves. While the footballers get their two pairs of boots as standard requirement for county players the hurlers allegedly got a token for a 20% discount on one pair of boots and there were not enough tokens to go around. Instead of throwing a strop and running to the media, Willie Sunderland’s men are just happy to play hurling for their county. Given there is a qualifying section in the competition this year the loser of Saturday’s game will still be there but no doubt both would be happier to go the straight route.
Derry, provided they are near enough full strength, should have enough pace and power to make it to the semi-final but at this level of hurling anything can happen.
The other games in the first round are Wicklow v Kerry, Meath v London and Mayo v Down. Both Kerry and Down will be expected to win while the Meath v London game could go either way.