Promotion has eluded the Oak Leafers with league final defeats in each of the past two seasons and McKinley believes reaching Division 2A, which Derry will be favourites to do in Ederney, is critical for the development of hurling in the county.
“This week is as big, if not bigger than the Christy Ring for us,” explained the former Antrim boss, “I would see this as a stepping stone for our players to get up a league and get the profile raised because at the end of the day, the higher the leagues you go the higher the profile you have.
“These players who have been playing four or five years, they deserve that profile. This weekend is very, very important for us all and for Derry hurling. Derry have been knocking on the door for a few years now. I don’t like looking back but sometimes you do look back at the history of things and what has happened so we are hopeful that the heads are in the right space for this week and we can get it over the line but it’s going to be a difficult one.”
With the Fermanagh venue only confirmed on Tuesday, the final comes too soon for Derry trio Richie Mullan, Eamon McGill and Tiarnan McHugh though both Mullan and McHugh are expected to be fit for the Christy Ring throw-in against Wicklow on April 9th.
The Yeats County secured their place in the decider courtesy of last week’s 1-20 to 1-19 victory over Donegal in O’Donnell Park, Letterkenny and if the result may have shocked some, it’s no surprise to McKinley that Sligo will be lining up against Derry on Sunday.
“I wasn’t one bit surprised it was Sligo who came through,” he added, “I said to the boys after we had played a few games that I saw Sligo coming back into it and they are the team that I thought would be there. Did I want it? No, I’d rather they weren’t there (laughing) but, no, they are there and they are a good team.
“They work very hard and have had two promotions in two years which tells you a lot, everything is on a roll with them but Saturday is a big match. We have played them two or three times and we’ve won a couple at home so if our heads are right and we are at it, I still feel we should be able to deliver.”
Until last year Sligo hurlers were playing in the lower divisions but they have made a dramatic upsurge with a number of Galway based players now in their team but Gerard O’Kelly-Lynch remains the main source of scores for the Yeats county men. Indeed, when Derry beat them in horrible conditions at Celtic Park in the opening round on February 5th, O’Kelly Lynch scored 1-12 of their 1-14 total. His goal came from an injury time penalty leaving the final score 2-14 to 1-14 in Derry’s favour.
Apart from O’Kelly-Lynch the Sligo team has other fine hurlers in full forward Andy Kilcullen, midfielder Patrick Foley, centre half Rory McHugh and Galway man Mark Hannify at full back.
“It was a difficult day the last time we played them in Celtic Park but, no, they will look at our team and they will know us,” adds McKinley, “The players know each other. I’m only here a year and a bit and we have already played them three times in that time so both teams know each other and there will be two or three match-ups to get sorted but we have to concentrate on our game-plan to play the way we want because we want to stick to our process.
“We can’t get caught up too much in what they are good at but you still have to be aware of one or two of their players. O’Kelly-Lynch and the two Hannifys for example are very good players who we have the utmost respect for but we have good players too so we focus on them and getting them right”
Derry manager McKinley had only just got his full panel back together for the first meeting in February due to the Slaughtneil and Banagher players contesting All Ireland club semi-finals and since then Derry have improved dramatically, easing past Wicklow, Mayo, London and Donegal who made them work hard in the first half.
For the London game Derry rested over half their regulars including captain and top scorer, Cormac O’Doherty. They still managed to score a commendable 0-25. The big boost has been the return to fitness of Gerald Bradley who hit six points from play against London having picked up an ankle injury in that opening game against Sligo but had still scored 1-02 before having to retire before half time.
A win would put Derry into Division 2A along with teams like Carlow, Kerry and Westmeath and while the scoring ability of players like Bradley, O’Doherty, Odhran McKeever, John Mullan and Deaghlan Foley points to a Derry victory, McKinley is taking nothing for granted.
“This is going to be a very tough game, we have the utmost respect for Sligo,” he explained, “They have earned their place in this final so we have to make sure we have our heads in the right place and concentrate on doing the things we do well.”