Derry’s National League preparations will step up a gear this weekend when they meet holders, Tyrone, in a McKenna Cup tie which should all but qualify one of the great rivals.
Both counties had high scoring wins in their opening ties and despite Antrim bouncing back from their Owenbeg mauling to see off Queen’s on Wednesday night, Sunday’s winner will be expected to advance to the semi-finals.
And despite being only the second week in January, the Group A clash is already the second of four scheduled meetings between Damian Barton’s Oak Leafers and Mickey Harte’s Tyrone this season following an O Fiaich Cup semi-final win for the Red Hands in December.
While both camps remain firmly in ‘preparation’ mode at present the respective managers will be looking at the game as a chance to gauge what level their panels are at.
Barton had plenty of positives to take from last week’s 4-16 to 2-12 victory but Antrim’s poor performance will have tempered those somewhat and he knows Tyrone will not be as generous as the Saffrons. In the scoring stakes Emmet McGuckin, Shane Heavron and Ryan Bell had the run of Owenbeg last week every time a simple high ball was dropped in and it will be interesting to see how effective they are against Tyrone who are likely to deploy at least one sweeper to stop that supply route.
The supply chain will have to get more creative than it did last week but Emmet Bradley and Conor McAtamney looked to have potential in midfield and Barton will want to see them against better opposition. Mark Lynch, who came off the bench against Antrim, provides another potential midfield option but there seems more to be gained from affording Bradley and McAtamney the opportunity to make those positions their own.
With Brendan Rogers in superb form for Queen’s during the week, Derry looked well served defensively but the concentration lapses that allowed a tentative Antrim side to hit the net twice will have been noted by Barton. Tyrone in contrast ensured their own clean sheet despite an equally comfortable victory over the students.
As always the temptation to get as many players game-time as possible puts tactics on the back-burner to an extent but there are players like Chris ‘Sammy’ Bradley who Barton will want to have a close look at. Bradley has that ability to unlock the tightest of defences. The criticism most often aimed at the Slaughtneil forward concerns his ability to stand up to the physical demands of the inter-county game but his performances in Slaughtneil’s march to the All Ireland club final contradict that stance and this season could be a big one for the Emmet’s forward.
Mickey Harte handed seven débuts in the 15-point win over Queen’s last weekend but is likely to bring in a bit more experience this weekend.
Forester hails increased City participation levels
Meanwhile, Steelstown’s Neil Forester, who was introduced in the second half last week in Owenbeg, believes growing participation levels within the city can give the Oak Leaf county an added dimension over the next decade.
Forester, who works as Games Promotion Officer for the Brian Ogs, says the increased promotion of Gaelic Games in the city is already starting to reap rewards.
“It is already working,” explained the half-back, “Participation rates are up so naturally there’s going to be a bigger number for selection.
“Look at ourselves at Steelstown where the Under 16s are competing at the ‘A’ grade and we have won the U14 ‘A’ league. There were two boys in last year’s minor squad. The fact you can see so many more players playing minor for the county provides that development is there
“It takes a while to come through and it needs the support but the county board are supporting the city quite well at the minute in terms of having new coaches in each club and going into the primary schools coaching. The investment has been put in and in 10 years, if we keep going in the right direction, we will reap the rewards.”