WHEN DERRY last appeared in the Ulster Senior Hurling Final back in 2003, Ger Rogan was the enemy.
As a selector, the current Derry manager was part of the Saffron set-up that brushed the Oak Leafers aside 3-21 to 1-12 in the sort of final which prompted Antrim to start looking beyond Ulster. Now the tables have turned and this Sunday Rogan brings his rejuvenated Derry squad to Casement Park for the acid test of their 2012 renaissance.
Ten Ulster titles in succession have left the Ulster Championship little more than a formality and this year the critics viewed it as no different. In one sense they may be right. There will be an Antrim winner on Sunday but perhaps not the kind we are used to seeing on Ulster Final day.
“Personally, I am really looking forward to Sunday,” explained Rogan, “It will be the first time I have ever come up against my native county in such a high profile game. Listen, I am still a very proud Antrim man but my focus is solely on Derry, I can deal with the emotional side of things after the game.”
The Derry manager admits it will be strange facing Antrim in Casement Park but along with fellow Derry ‘Saffrons’ Shane Elliott and Tom McClean who form part of his Oak Leaf backroom team, Rogan said he prefers to concentrate on his squad rather than look at the opposition.
“It is quite ironic that the last time Derry were in the final I was in the Antrim set-up and doing everything to ensure an Antrim victory but listen, Shane Elliott and Tom McClean are just bubbling about winning this game on Sunday. In truth, it’s irrelevant to us that we are playing Antrim. Maybe after the game we’ll think about that but every one of us is concentrating on Derry.”
The meeting with Antrim is one which Rogan must have known was coming. Written off before a ball was hit at the start of the season, Derry have defied their critics. Division 2A safety was sewn up relatively comfortably while it could be argued only a crazy 10 minute spell against London in the Christy Ring Cup cost them a potential All Ireland.
The disappointment of that London defeat was set to one side as Rogan’s men bounced back to record Ulster Championship wins against Armagh and Down which sets up Sunday’s decider and a chance at a first title since the back-to back wins in 2000 and 2001, the last time a team other than Antrim lifted the trophy.
“I always thought these Derry players had an Ulster Final appearance in them though there were two big obstacles in our way in the shape of Armagh and Down,” added Rogan, “We were underdogs for each game so Sunday is nothing new. I am a strong believer that if you enter a competition you have to believe you have a decent chance of doing well otherwise why enter? We don’t want the boys to be happy with simply reaching the final but we know Antrim will be a huge test.
“The favourites and underdogs tag really mean nothing, you deal with what you given but if you’re favourites it is because you have earned that title, so it’s not a bad thing. Once the players go over the white line, what people were describing them as means nothing in the context of the game.
“Perhaps the fear factor that has been present in previous seasons is not there now with the Derry team and as long as the boys play the game and not the occasion, they will give a good account of themselves. If you are any sort of hurler at all you should look forward to playing Antrim in Casement Park and the bigger the crowd, the better. This is the sort of game you want to be playing in.”
Antrim come into the game on the back of a 8-26 to 1-15 hammering at the hands of Limerick in last Saturday’s All-Ireland SHC phase one qualifier at the Gaelic Grounds and Rogan admits he was shocked by the nature of the Saffron defeat.
“As I said, I’m a proud Antrim man and I was disappointed for Jim (Nelson) and his players at the result last weekend. No one goes out to get that sort of result but these things can happen. I’m not privy to what goes on behind the scenes in Antrim hurling but you have to understand they are trying to push on and lift themselves to another level and when you are testing yourself against better teams, these results can happen. If you stay at the same level you will never improve and when you are stepping up sometimes it does not go to plan.
“There is no doubt Antrim’s pride will have been hurt by last weekend and there is no question they will want to answer those critics in the final but again, once the final gets going, those factors go out the window and it is only about the 70 minutes.
“How many times you have won things before, how you have played to get there, nothing like that matters. It is about the game and the man in front of you.”
On the playing front Rogan has doubts over Oisin McCloskey (ankle), Sean McBride (hamstring) and Paul Cleary though he’s willing to give the players as long as possible to prove their fitness. Definitely out is Na Magha keeper Barry Robinson who dislocated his shoulder in a recent club game which forced him out of the semi-final victory over Down.
“Oisin is a doubt, I would put him at less than 50/50 but we’ll do everything in our power to get him right for Sunday. Sean McBride and Paul Cleary are also doubtful but we will assess them as close to the game as we can.
“Barry is definitely out and I feel awful for him as he has been absolutely superb for us all year. I mean, this is a guy who came in from a junior club and is just so proud to be wearing his county’s jersey. He was outstanding all year and I feel awful that he won’t play in the final.
“His attitude is typical of the attitude within the whole squad. These are boys who are proud the wear the county jersey and I’m chuffed with how they have played this year but there were no celebrations after we defeated Down last week. There was no back-slapping. We went into that game confident we could win and we managed to after a very tough game but that was only a semi-final. Now it is the final.”
On the plus side, last week saw the return of dual stars Chrissy McKaigue and Mark Craig after the county footballers’ Championship exit in Longford and Rogan is glad to see both back.
“The players have generated the sort of atmosphere within the squad that players want to come back and be part of the county panel again and I had no problem welcoming back Chrissy (McKaigue) and Mark (Craig). Both are quality hurlers. They have been playing county football this term and I have no problem with that but there is a real ‘feel-good’ factor amongst the squad and I think other players see that.”
As for predictions, the Derry manager did not want to be drawn.
“You can never predict accurately what will happen once a game starts but I have always believed in this group of players. Throughout the season they have been asked a lot of questions but each time they always come up with answers. Yes, there is always the chance that players might freeze on the big occasion but that is what the squad is about. We played a training match on Tuesday night and it was a very tasty game indeed. It was very competitive and the boys are looking forward to Sunday,” he added.