Derry’s new Ulster U20 champions relishing Leinster test after defeating Antrim

Derry Under 20 players and management celebrate their Ulster Under 20 Championship success in Corrigan Park on Sauday. (Photo: Derry GAA)Derry Under 20 players and management celebrate their Ulster Under 20 Championship success in Corrigan Park on Sauday. (Photo: Derry GAA)
Derry Under 20 players and management celebrate their Ulster Under 20 Championship success in Corrigan Park on Sauday. (Photo: Derry GAA)
Ulster Under 20 Hurling Championship Final

Derry 2-15, Antrim 2-12

Derry U20 hurling manager Ryan O'Neill says his newly crowned Ulster champions can't wait experience the cut and thrust of the Leinster Championship after dethroning Antrim in Corrigan Park, Belfast.

Saturday's provincial success follows on from last season's historic All Ireland U20 'B' victory over Roscommon in Croke Park and provides further evidence that a long term project headed by the likes of Kevin Kelly, Marty Burke and O'Neill himself is bearing fruit for the county.

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Derry captain Andy McBride receives the Ulster U20 Hurling Cup from Ulster GAA Vice-Chairperson Michael Geoghegan in Corrigan park on Saturday. (Photo: Derry GAA)Derry captain Andy McBride receives the Ulster U20 Hurling Cup from Ulster GAA Vice-Chairperson Michael Geoghegan in Corrigan park on Saturday. (Photo: Derry GAA)
Derry captain Andy McBride receives the Ulster U20 Hurling Cup from Ulster GAA Vice-Chairperson Michael Geoghegan in Corrigan park on Saturday. (Photo: Derry GAA)

"We are into a sixth year of this project and now the conveyor belt is starting to feed boys into Johnny (McGarvey) and the senior team," explained the delighted Derry manager, "We’re now going into the Leinster Championship and that's where you want to be hurling.

"We have games against Meath and Westmeath and those are two we'll be targeting. If we win those then we’re in the mix with the big boys - Galway, Kilkenny, Dublin. It's a long time since Derry have been at that level. Look, we know that it's a massive task, we know what lies ahead but it's something we're relishing.

"Just going away and playing in Leinster, when the boys come back they’re making their own clubs stronger and making Derry seniors stronger so we're in a good place at the minute."

Goals from Ruairi O Mianain and Eamonn Cassidy put the seal on an impressive three point victory over a Saffron side who went into the final as strong favourites. However, having lost out in the decider at Owenbeg 12 months ago, O'Neill's team were not about to let lightning strike twice.

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"To this day I still believe we were the best team in Ulster last year. We didn't turn up that day in Owenbeg last year and, listen, you can blame conditions, weather and all that but we just didn't take our shots, didn't get our scores away and got beat. If you do that against Antrim they'll punish you ," added the Kevin Lynch's club man.

"So we knew going into the Under 20 ‘B’ last year we had a decent chance. In the first year of this project we went into the Celtic Challenge and won Division Three, the lowest one you could but Derry hadn't won an underage hurling title in I don't know how long. The second year we won Division. The third we went into Division One and we've gathered up more players year on year, especially when they see us winning. We won Division One and that was massive – massive for the boys, massive for us as coaches and massive for Derry.

"Our idea was to get a pool of players - you're talking roughly 60 players - and the idea was to make the club scene in Derry stronger and then get boys hurling for Derry seniors. That Celtic Challenge gave us the basis of a team we could start zoning in on for the next level and that was U20. We got into the All Ireland 'B' Series last year and, listen, we hit the ground running. Next thing we were in Croke Park against Roscommon who were favourites but we won it and it was huge for us.

"We’ve lost four or five from last year's team but we still had a good strong core of the team left. We added in a few extra players this year and Ulster was always the aim. For us to get Derry hurling where it should be you need to be winning Ulster. You can't make any noise on a national level if you are not winning your own province."

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With O Mianain and James Friel outstanding, Derry flew out of the blocks in Corrigan Park as Friel and Odhrán McElhinney forged an early two point lead. Antrim responded with a Cormac McKeown point and Ronan Edgar's ninth minute goal, only to watch as O Mianain hit back with an immediate Derry goal, the Slaughtneil player firing home a superb 20m free. A second Oak Leaf goal followed, this time Cassidy the man to produce a fine finish which ensured Derry led by four at the break.

Derry's control was threatened in the second half when Edgar's second major of the day levelled the game with only seven minutes remaining. However it proved a false dawn for the Saffrons as three Friel frees and a Ben Kealey point sealed victory.

"When you're playing Antrim you need a good start because normally Antrim try to kill you off in the first five or 10 minutes but that wasn't happening," added O'Neill, "I knew they would get their patch two or three times in the game but as long as we maintained what we'd worked on then I was confident we could come out of it as winners.

"The way we set up training, we don't over train them but we play a lot of matches. If anybody rings for a friendly we take it! And with the coaching we're doing, I have to say it, Kevin Kelly is in there and he's the best hurling coach in Ulster, so the boys are getting exposed to some real good coaching. He's working wonders with the lads.

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"Winning trophies is a massive thing for the boys, it creates a great culture. Go into Owenbeg any night of the week and our boys are eating along with the senior hurlers, the senior footballers. Mickey Harte is about, Johnny (McGarvey) is about; all the different managers and coaches there have the pedigree of winners - boys like Damien McErlain - that's the type of clientele that’s in and around Owenbeg, so it's a good buzz. It's a good buzz for players and coaches.

"We now have about three weeks until the Meath game so we’ll be back out on Wednesday to prepare but winning that Ulster title is a big thing."