Derry not even thinking about promotion at this stage says Rory Gallagher
Division Two is the aim but Derry manager Rory Gallagher says he won’t even be thinking about promotion until his squad has earned the right to be considered contenders.
The Oak Leafers begin their 2020 National League campaign in Celtic Park today (Saturday, 5pm) against a Leitrim side they defeated twice last season, including in the Division Four final in Croke Park. And despite being one of the two promoted sides in a division that looks extremely tight, pundits are tipping Derry to be among the challengers, especially with the panel boosted by the return of its Slaughtneil and Coleraine players.
Gallagher, though, is too experienced to pay much heed to predictions, insisting his sole pre-season focus has been creating a team prepared to fight for every minute of every game, starting this weekend against Leitrim.
“We’ve just prepared from the start of the year to be ready to scrap for our lives on the 25th of January,” explained Gallagher, “Whoever I have been involved with it has always been the same. We don’t talk about promotion, we don’t talk about relegation but there is no doubt about it, we want to be playing at a higher level.
“For now, we need to make sure we prepare well, give absolutely everything and play to a good level against Leitrim on Saturday. There’s no point even thinking about promotion without delivering that.”
With the prospect of the new two tier All Ireland championship being decided by league positions at the end of the current campaign, Gallagher has an added complication, not that he will be letting it distract from the job in hand in a division which, he believes, could go right to the wire.
“To be honest, that’s just something that’s going to happen further down the line and we can’t focus on that,” he adds, “Over the past seven, eight or nine years the emphasis on the league has been huge anyway.
“There are a number of teams in our league, just like there is in Division Two, who definitely want to be in tier one but you cannot worry about that at this stage. You just have to focus on winning as many games as possible and, for us, that begins with Leitrim.
“Division Three has a lot of quality teams. Cork and Down would have been in the all Ireland final 10 years ago and playing in Division One probably seven years ago. You have Tipperary who were in the All Ireland semi-final only a few years back. I came up against them last season in Division Two.
“You have a lot of quality teams and I know from experience with Fermanagh, playing the Longfords and the Offalys, these games will all go down to the wire but we won’t worry too much about all the other teams. We will worry about ourselves and prepare to a really high level and concentrate on trying to put a Derry team out that’s going to fight and scrap for every minute of every game.”
Derry go into tomorrow night’s game with Eoghan Rua duo Niall Holly and Ruairi Mooney still nursing knocks and Enda Lynn out long term and the absence of his Slaughtneil and Coleraine players during a tough McKenna Cup group did afford Gallagher the opportunity to give game-time to a number of the county’s promising young players.
“We have a number of knocks but there’s no point moaning. It’s the same for every team at this time of the year, it’s just the nature of it with pre-season training and players still recovering from the end of last season. There has been a step up in intensity with the boys coming back. They are big leaders within the group so it was a big plus.
“But no matter what people say about the McKenna Cup as a competition, for the likes of Conor McCluskey, Paudie McGrogan, Eoghan Duffy, Conor Doherty, Ben McCarron, Declan Cassidy and Alex Doherty - for them to play games at that level, that can only be a good thing. Odhran Lynch was another who did well. You have to start your journey toward becoming an inter-county footballer somewhere. That’s the benefit of the McKenna Cup.
”We obviously want a very strong team but to move forward to where Derry need to build this year, next year and the year after. We want to build a very strong squad, a squad who are durable enough for county level and a squad who are in it for the long haul so it was good to get that started in the McKenna Cup.
“We know we have a lot of players in the squad that are very young and very inexperienced but that is married with an awful lot of experience too.”
Derry will be favourites tomorrow, especially given a difficult start to the season for Leitrim in the Connacht FBD league which included a 7-16 to 0-07 defeat to a Roscommon team fielding only three of the side that won last year’s Connacht final.
However, given Leitrim were far from full strength themselves, Gallagher will not be underestimating Terry Hyland’s side who have been able to avail of their new Centre of Excellence at Annaduff for the first time in preparation for the new season.
And given last season’s two meetings between the counties, Gallagher revealed it will be Ciaran Meenagh, who was part of Damian McErlain’s backroom team, preparing the players for the opposition.
“I have been getting to know Leitrim but thankfully Ciaran would have an in depth knowledge and we’re happy to leave the preparation in terms of Leitrim to him,” explained Gallagher.
“There’s no point me trying to get to know them as well as Ciaran already does having studied them twice last year. He has been able to guide me very well and will guide the players through this week.
“We know the Connacht FBD league didn’t go well for Leitrim but I don’t think they’ll be that worried about that. They will be looking at this game as a chance to get their season up and running, no different from ourselves.
“At the end of the first three games the tables always take a bit of shape and no matter what division you are in, you want to be going into the break with a minimum four points. “At this point in time though - and I know it sounds boring - but we are just looking forward to Saturday night and fighting together to have two points at the end of that game.”