It wasn’t the defeat but the nature of the latest defeat to Tyrone that was most worrying.
Saturday night in Healy Park was the Red Hands’ fourth victory (counting the O Fiaich Cup) over the Oak Leafers this season - but this one was different. On each of the other three occasions, Mickey Harte’s team edged a tight, tense match which Derry had just cause to say they should have won. On Saturday, Tyrone were on a different level.
Sean Cavanagh’s 49th minute goal all but finished the game as a contest but Tyrone were playing Division One football and Derry couldn’t match it.
Damian Barton’s team was far from full strength but the ease with which the home side went through gears was worrying, as was Tyrone’s ability to capitalise of the Derry kick-out which is where Cavanagh’s goal originated from.
Whereas Niall Morgan’s kicks were away almost as quickly as the umpire could signal either a wide or a score, Eoin McNicholl laboured due to a lack of options which too often saw him forced to kick long in hope rather than expectation.
It was noticeable that, almost as soon as a Derry player had taken his shot, the Tyrone men were in position to receive from Morgan. There was no waiting on the outcome of the shot and Morgan immediately placed the ball and restarted, often before Derry had reset themselves.
“In the first half, I think Tyrone won three of our kick-outs and scored from all three attacks,” admitted Derry assistant manager Brian McGuckin. “I felt we didn’t have the movement required to win the kick-outs we needed to win in order to set up attacks. Whenever Tyrone are pressing you in there and coming in numbers, they’re going to create opportunities. They did that and punished us.
“There is work done on kick-outs, yes, but there were personnel changes. When we kicked short and Tyrone put the press on, we had to work pretty hard to get the ball out. Eoin has to work with what he sees. On occasion, he kicked long and we struggled with breaking ball out there. That’s going to cause a lot of hurt.”
Derry had made a decent start and led 0-04 to 0-02 but, as soon as Tyrone pushed up, the visitors started to struggle, with Richard Donnelly superb for Harte’s team. But Derry didn’t help themselves with some poor passing.
Chrissy McKaigue, despite a late dismissal, did well in a more advanced role while Ryan Bell was always a handful. But, too often Derry slipped back into the slow, ‘lateral’ passing trap while Tyrone sat and waited to attack.
“I thought that they punished our every mistake,” added McGuckin. “We were making basic mistakes. An experienced team like Tyrone will always do that. Secondly, our inability to win breaking ball. Those are two areas that we’re going to have to look at and try to improve for the next day. That’s where we’re at.”
So, how does four defeats impact ahead of the Championship clash on May 22?
“You can paint it any way you want,” said McGuckin. “We came up here optimistic, with intentions of winning the game. We have to take it on the chin - we didn’t win the game. What’s important to us is that we learn. Last week, there were aspects that we didn’t do well that I felt we did better this week.
“There are a lot of aspects that have crept up tonight that we’re really going to have to address. You’re playing one of the top teams in Ireland out there, and you have to take it on the chin. We are where we are. We’ve improvements to make and, hopefully, we’ll learn from the games to date and put in a more spirited performance when we meet them again and, hopefully, turn them over.
“We had got off to a very good start (in the league) with two wins. This has been a major setback, the two defeats. What we’re trying to put in place, we’re not quite there yet. It would look that we have quite a bit to do but we are a work in progress. Hopefully we’ll learn from the two defeats, learn from it and move forward.
The result drops Derry to fifth in a Division in which only three points separate second placed Galway from Armagh in last spot.