You can be sure people won’t be chatting about this game in 20-years but that won’t bother Brian McIver.
Every time these counties meet in the city, that fabled 1994 encounter gets wheeled out as the benchmark for what is to follow.
What tends to get lost to most outside the Oak Leaf county is Derry lost that day. Offer any Derry supporter within the 10,541 crowd another 70 minutes witnessing the exhilaration, but ultimate heartbreak of 21 years ago or Sunday’s laboured injury time win and you know the answer.
No-one within the Derry camp will be fooled. At times in the first half McIver’s men produced some decent passages of play but so rigid was the plan that Conall McGovern’s harsh red card at the start of the second half seemed to spread confusion among the Derry players.
Meticulous tactical planning is one thing but Derry’s adherence to the pre-match defensive plan in the wake of that sending off almost cost them the game. Instead of forcing home an advantage, Derry’s caution surrendered the initiative to a Down side who have been finishing well in games this season.
The balance between following instruction and player intuition is weighted too heavily on the former in modern football. Still, Brian McIver will have enjoyed taking about a poor performance and a championship win rather than the empty plaudits of a glorious defeat.
“We’re just delighted to get out with a win,” admitted McIver, “I thought we had a good first half performance and we were going well but when the red card came, we just didn’t continue with the same energy and intensity. It sometimes happens when the opposition goes down to 14. It’s not just us. I’d love someone to be able to explain it to me and how to correct it. We seemed to go into our shell.
“The other side of it was that we showed great composure in those last 10 minutes, when the pressure was really on us. The breakaway score at the end, if Kevin Johnston had got the pass off, it was maybe a goal chance, but we’ll take a one-point win.”
The relief that greeted Darren O’Hagan’s injury time foul on the excellent Johnston told everything about Derry’s second half display. Eoin Bradley deserved the winner. His movement brought an extra dimension to Derry’s attack but too often second half he cut a frustrated figure, bereft of both possession and support.
“We lost our shape, we lost our composure,” agreed McIver, “We lost that drive and momentum that we had (first half). A couple of chances we didn’t take could have provided a bit of light between us and them. Whenever Down equalised, you know it’s in the melting pot but fair play to the lads. They’ve had a hard year and they’ve really prepared well for this match.
“For whatever reason, we weren’t breaking as we had in the first half. When it was 15 against 15, we were breaking and working scores and creating good chances. We almost got too conservative, thinking, ‘we’re a man up here, I’ll leave it to somebody else.’ That’s something I’d like to see corrected from our perspective.”
The flip side to minutes 35 to 70 was a hugely encouraging first half. With the league almost written off, this was essentially a first outing for this Derry team employing a new defensive system. In Mark Lynch, Brendan Rogers, Fergal Doherty and Bradley, Derry had man of the match candidates but probably the most influential player was keeper Thomas Mallon.
Given the defensive systems used by both sides, Mallon’s unerring ability to pick out a man with superb kick-outs was the platform for almost every Derry score. It won the game when he was able to hit Eoin Bradley just outside the ‘45 with half a pitch in front of him to run into and find Johnston for the crucial free.
In total, Mallon hit the target 20 times from 21 kicks despite Down working harder after the break to limit his influence.
Rogers was a most impressive debutante. The Slaughtneil man slotted in perfectly and provided energy in attack and tenacity in defence. Derry managed to limit Down to just four points from play although the number of scoreable frees conceded will be a worry as will the number of Down wides (11), many of which they could have scored.
Fergal Doherty clearly wasn’t fit but it says everything about his influence on the team that he was vying for man of the match honours. Limited in his mobility, his job was simple. Win ball around midfield and he did it superbly. A fully fit Doherty for the semi-final would be huge.
“Talking this time last week I wouldn’t have imagined that Fergal Doherty would get through 70 minutes but he’s that big an influence on the team, we had to decide whether to stay with him,” explained the Derry manager, “Again, he finished strong for us, which is so typical of Fergal.”
In an era where we talk more of collective performance than individual match-ups, Derry captain Mark Lynch took time to get going but his contribution was as crucial as ever. His five points included one outrageous effort from wide on the right touchline but, like Derry, he will want to sustain the level for longer than he did on Sunday.
McIver will not want Sunday’s nervous second half to over shadow some of the excellent first half work but the manner in which his team responded to the extra man suggests a team not yet fully at ease with their new system. That could come with confidence and if it does Derry will be a force.
The problem with playing a system that has been all but perfected by others is you’re always playing catch-up, to one degree or another. The first half against Down suggested Derry could match the likes of Donegal and score against massed defences but the second half contradicted it again. Brian McIver’s challenge for the semi-final will be to prove Sunday’s opening 35 minutes was the real Derry.
Derry: Thomas Mallon; Oisin Duffy, Brendan Rogers, Dermot McBride; Kevin Johnston, Chrissy McKaigue, Ciaran McFaul; Niall Holly, Fergal Doherty; Sean Leo McGoldrick, Mark Lynch (0-5, 2f), Enda Lynn (0-1); Benny Heron, Eoin Bradley (0-5, 3f), Danny Heavron. (Subs) Caolan O’Boyle (0-1) for B Heron, 52mins Terence O’Brien for E Lynn, 61mins;
Down: Stephen Kane; Darren O’Hagan, Luke Howard, Ryan Boyle; Damian Turley, Brendan McArdle, Conaill McGovern; Peter Fitzpatrick, Paul Devlin (0-6, 6f); Caolan Moonney, Conor Maginn, Kevin McKernan (0-2); Mark Poland, Conor Laverty (0-2), Donal O’Hare (0-1, 1f). (Subs) Packie Downey for C Maginn, 47mins; Jerome Johnston for P Fitzpatrick, 57mins; Arthur McConville for C Mooeney, 65mins; Niall Madine for P Devlin 67mins; D O’Hagan (Black Card), 71mins - No replacement;
Referee: Eddie Kinsella (Laois)