In many ways, February’s nine point victory in Cusack Park, Ennis feels like a lifetime ago. Coming off the back of three league wins, an emerging Derry team bursting with potential was desperate to prove they deserved a place among the best eight teams in Ireland. Victory was secured in some style following a Gareth McKinless inspired second half but the league ultimately proved futile hunting ground. Derry would have to take the hard championship road toward a place at football’s top table.
Fast forward three months and the landscape has changed dramatically. Derry are no longer finding their feet. The Ulster champions have proven a point, or at least part of a point.
Since his appointment in September 2019, Rory Gallagher has not been shy about where he believes this Derry team should be competing. The best teams play in Croke Park in the summer and to that end, winning Ulster was always a means to an end. Now Derry must set about proving their point all over again against a Clare side with plenty to prove themselves.
February’s result means favouritism for Derry but Gallagher points out Derry (and Clare) are in a very different places from that uncharacteristically sunny Sunday afternoon.
“It is funny, when we were doing a bit of video analysis on that day in Ennis and looking back on the game, it was one of the few days early in the year when we actually got a bit of good weather,” recalls the Derry boss, “The surface was great, I was just watching it. With Chrissy (McKaigue), Brendan (Rogers) and Shane (McGuigan), it was only four or five weeks since they had been beaten in an All Ireland club semi-final but I think the change in our team is massive from that day.
“There has obviously been a number of personnel changes as well but overall, the connection between the players, having played consistently, having had the room to prepare and train in the championship relatively injury free, I just think both teams will be massively different. I think we are a much better team than we were that day but the real challenge is to show that.
“We are in a different place. Even though that day left us with four wins from four in the league, I was very clear with the players that I did not have a very good level of contentment with the way we were playing. To me it was an extension of our pre-season.
“Thankfully we have been able to knit together and obviously if you look at the teams we’ve played, look at our last six games, it was Roscommon and Galway and then the three Ulster teams, Tyrone, Monaghan and Donegal, teams that have been in Division One and who will be in Division One next year so it is very high quality. We take learnings from all those games because when you play teams of that quality I think you learn an awful lot more.”
Clare will be cast in the ‘fancied underdogs’ role this weekend, similar to Derry’s experience throughout their successful Ulster run but there’s no danger Gallagher will be underestimating a side he feels have got the short end of the provincial championship stick at times over recent years.
“I think both teams can learn from that league meeting. Personally I’m happy to have played them and got to know them again. They are not a team that Derry had played over the previous five or six years,” adds Gallagher, “Obviously we would have watched them and given the high level they have been at in Division Two, you are always aware of them but it’s no harm to have played them recently.
“They are a very experienced outfit with a very consistent management set-up. In fairness they have made a few changes with coaches which can add to it but you have to remember they’ve been very hamstrung in that they’ve drawn Kerry an awful lot in Munster, let’s be honest, none of us would want to draw Kerry in a provincial championship. Coming up against David Clifford and Sean O’Shea in the first round, things like that but, look, they’ve been at a very high level for six or seven years. They have done well in Division Two but while we are aware of them, our focus remains on ourselves.”
The two counties have had contrasting build-ups to Saturday’s encounter, Derry able to rest up, recuperate and train while Clare had to navigate Meath and Roscommon, the latter in dramatic circumstances. The two preparation styles prompt the eternal coaching conundrum of which is the ideal, a regular run of matches or rest and targeted training sessions?
“I certainly would have seen the break as an opportunity for us to train and to become better and we would train as hard as we would play in that sort of environment,” explained Gallagher, “If you’re asking me, I’d rather go straight in. Don’t get me wrong, Clare have good momentum now but we also have the momentum of winning a provincial title so I would take that all day every day.
“We had a procedure planned out in our own heads for after winning Ulster. Naturally there was a bit of down time with regards to the boys’ celebration and spending a bit of time together and that was good because our whole build up to the Tyrone game, it has been quite intense. We weren’t back properly until the Thursday after and then from the Saturday we put in a big 10 days. We didn’t know the opposition but, as I said, we focus on ourselves with our own intensity levels, tactics and fitness levels and we’re delighted with that.”
Off the pitch, Saturday promises to be another massive day for the county with thousands of Oak Leaf supporters descending on the capital for the minors game at 1pm in Parnell Park and then the seniors game almost three hours later. Gallagher’s team has brilliantly captured the imagination of the Derry footballing public and rather than play down the occasion, the Derry boss is keen to see every supporter in red and white make the most of the day.
“It is massive to see the levels of support, I suppose, since beating Tyrone. It was there in Owenbeg that day we were very poor against Galway and you saw that good will towards the team that day. To see the excitement about now is brilliant. People talk about it being over hyped but to me supporters should get carried away by days like Clones, they should live it up and enjoy it the way it is. It won’t in any way impact the players so I don’t mind. They just want to see people happy and getting behind the team so the more the merrier.”