Derry minor manager Damian McErlain expecting tough Monaghan test

Derry minor manager Damian McErlainDerry minor manager Damian McErlain
Derry minor manager Damian McErlain
​​Derry minor football manager Damian McErlain believes Saturday's Ulster Championship Group A clash with Monaghan in Owenbeg (1pm) will be a real test of the Oak Leafers’ credentials.

McErlain returned to a role he first took on eight years ago having led Derry to three successive Ulster finals in his previous stint as minor boss, winning the 2015 and 2017 provincial titles as well as reaching the 2017 All Ireland minor final where Derry lost to a David Clifford inspired Kerry.

This season sees a new group format for the minor championship and Derry got off to the best possible start with a 1-21 to 0-03 victory over a poor Down side last weekend. Derry restricted Benny Coulter's men side to just five shots during the one sided encounter in Pairc Esler but McErlain is expecting a much sterner test from a Monaghan team Derry edged out 1-14 to 2-09 in the league at Emyvale.

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"This week is a big one," admitted McErlain, "We played Monaghan in the league and were lucky enough to win. They are a big, physical side and they'll definitely present a serious challenge. They are up with the top teams in the competition.

"Monaghan is a big game in the context of the group.The teams that finish top, they will be top seeds as such when you go into the knock-out so there’s a incentive there to gather up as many points as you can."

Despite an envious record over the traditional knock-out format, McErlain is an ardent fan of the new structure which he believes allows every county the space to develop players.

"That Mac Rory style format is the best format for any competition if you ask me," he explained, "It's just a pity that the age grade is not Under 18 and I suppose the boys do lose out on 'big days' out playing before a senior game, unless you're lucky enough that a fixture falls that way like a couple of them have.

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"But in terms of matches and development, it doesn't matter which county you are, you are going to get five good matches at least and that's much better than training for six months, getting beat in the first round of the championship and then being gone completely.

"The condensed nature of the new structure also means it’s busy and there are less gaps between matches and training sessions. In the old format you could have been training away and waiting almost three weeks for the next round. That's a big advantage now in that everything is week on week. From the start of the league, you could be out something like 10, 12, 13 weeks in a row depending on how well you do."

Derry's five team section, which includes league winners, Donegal, will see one county exit the championship after the group stages with the knock-out seeding then meaning Group A’s top team will meet the fourth placed county in Group B while the Group A runner up meets Group B's third placed county and vice versa.

With developments on and off the pitch at Owenbeg since McErlain stepped down from the Oak Leaf senior post in 2019, the Magherafelt native said it was good to 'get back in the old championship routine'.

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"Yeah, that's pretty much what it is, back in the groove again. I have a really strong management team in the background I feel and that quality, and the quality of their contribution, is just huge. You are facilitating lads who are at a very high level.

"Hopefully we can develop another few players to get through to the seniors again. Generally it has been about slipping back into the old routine, but the opening of the two new pitches at Owenbeg has been an absolute revelation this year. There's never any issues about pitch availability, even on the worst of nights.

"You cannot underestimate that. I've been chatting to managers from other counties and maybe they don't have those facilities and they were saying what a big advantage it must be to know where you are training. You're not expending energy chasing venues or going to different places; wondering where al the equipment is at. To have it all sitting in one place is such a help but Owenbeg has to be among the best facilities in Ireland now."