It wasn’t the players, Shane McGuigan’s absence or even the predictable Roscommon victory that leaves Derry’s promotion hopes hanging by a Galway thread. No, the biggest disappointment came within seconds of the final whistle.
“Well, that was a real reality check.”
“Aye, it’s probably been coming......”
The conversation was between a couple of Derry fans heading for the Owenbeg exit. And they weren’t alone. The words were slightly different but the same sentiments had already been expressed within the press box although there’s a world weary cynicism among journos which means it’s almost expected. Expect the glass to be half empty and if it’s half full then it’s a bonus type stuff. Hearing it from fans though was different. And uncalled for.
If anything disappointment isn’t the right term, it was more annoyance. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, especially if they’ve paid their money and gone through the gate - something nowhere near enough Oak Leaf fans (or critics) have actually done in recent years - but some seemed to almost revel in the defeat.
And as far as reality check goes, maybe we could all do with one.
For the record, Sunday was Derry’s first National League defeat in 13 games with 11 of those being straight victories stretching back to Division Three. That’s remarkable consistency for a team which is pulling out all the stops to try and put Derry back among the best counties in Ireland. They’re not there yet but neither Rory Gallagher nor any of the players have suggested they are. There remains a way to go before Derry are back challenging the Dublins, Tyrones and Kerrys of this world but the fact that prior to Sunday people were thinking it a possibility is an indication of the monumental work the players and management have put in over the past 18 to 24 months.
If anything they have been victims of their success by raising expectations but so expectations should be raised. It’s the right of every sports fan to dream. Indeed, this team had fans dreaming of a first Ulster title since 1998 but that gap alone tells you where Derry are coming from. Gallagher and his squad are not building from a position of strength. For all the extenuating circumstances about how they got there, Derry were in Division Four for a reason and maybe part of the reason is the strange apathy toward the county side.
It’s almost as if some Oak Leaf fans feel guilty for not following their county and see a humbling like Sunday as welcomed justification for their absence, a sort of, ‘You see, that’s why I don’t bother attitude.’
There’s no hiding from the fact Sunday was one to forget. Derry were passengers for most of it, content to let the game pass them by at times, but as anyone who has followed the team over the past couple of years will testify, that’s not the norm under Gallagher. Intensity has been the key word with this squad whose dedication should not be called into question because of one bad day. Remember many of those same players trudging off Owenbeg devastated to have lost were the same players who returned to serve their county within days of finishing gruelling and extended club seasons.
And before the ‘They were caught out by the step up in class’ line gets wheeled out, it’s funny that the step up didn’t catch the players out in recent Ulster Championship games against Armagh and Donegal. Neither match went Derry’s way but both went right to the wire and only a fool would say Derry had been out of their depth.
The main worry for me from Sunday was the reluctance to deviate from a set pattern of play in conditions which obviously didn’t suit. The merits of playing with or against the wind can be argued but once they had opted to go against it, Derry stuck fast to a short kick-out routine which was killing them, almost as if waiting for permission from the sideline to change things up. Gallagher has shown himself to be a master tactician but sometimes that decision has to be made on-field, by individuals willing to take charge.
That decision making process will improve with experience and it was a costly lesson to learn but rather than pointing fingers and shaking heads, let’s get behind a squad who have already done so much to restore the county’s fortunes and look to have have a great future ahead of them.
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