Oak manager Dominic McKinley hoping to raise the profile of Derry hurling as new campaign begins with Mayo
More than 30 years of management and coaching will introduce you to most things hurling has to offer, but even for someone of Dominic ‘Woody’ McKinley’s considerable experience, 2021 is unchartered territory.
McKinley is part of the new Derry management set up as joint manager alongside former Antrim full-back, Cormac Donnelly, but since their appointment in December, it’s been a world of individual training plans and Zoom sessions. Throw in a shortened pre-season without challenge games and Loughgiel native McKinley admits it’s not what’s he’s used to though he’s relishing being back on the county scene.
“It’s been strange alright (with the ongoing pandemic) and we’ve been playing catch up, trying to get to know all the boys as quickly as we can,” admits the former Antrim boss. “We have been doing the best we can in what are very strange circumstances.
“I have been about a long time, maybe too long people would say (laughs), but, no, it’s another challenge for us. We could all say it’s not perfect and, yeah, if it was an ideal world we’d want to be in and know the players better, play matches and see what they are prepared to do to win matches but we are not able to do that so we have to come up with answers.
“There is no magic solution, I wish there was but as a new management team it’s been quite difficult to try and get settled in. One particular area which is difficult is not being able to play friendlies to get a look at all the players because you have to give every player a fair crack at it.
"We have been training, much like everyone else, the boys have trained individually, they were on their training programmes but this last couple of week you can see the energy picking up and everybody seems to be enjoying it now. I think every body is just glad to be back out on the field.”
This will be McKinley’s second stint as Oak Leaf boss after a spell in 2002 and despite an almost encyclopedic knowledge of hurling, he admits the new management team which includes former captains Kevin Hinphey and Conor Murray as selectors, Terry Gray (logistics manager), Eoin McNicholl (strength and conditioning coach) and Ben McGuckin (video analyst) from John McEvoy’s previous regime, will be learning as they go in what is an unique season.
“There is only so much you can do with Zoom calls, you need a personal contact with players. More important than training, we didn’t have that opportunity to meet and interact with the players. We know a lot of them as players and would have seen them play but what was missing was getting to know them as people which is very, very important. Basically we have to learn what they are prepared to do and what they are not prepared to do.”
McKinley and Donnelly have being trying to cram as much pre-season as possible into the sessions since the return as they prepare for a truncated Allianz National League Division 2B which gets underway with Sunday’s difficult trip to Mayo and is followed by another away game, this time in Kildare. It is the toughest start possible and Derry’s promotion chances will be revealed within those two games against their two biggest rivals, especially given the absence of a league final this season with the top team automatically promoted.
The new managers also have injury doubts over Brian Cassidy and Conor McAllister, while Derry’s dual stars was a conversation McKinley didn’t even enter into. He’s not interested in excuses or players who aren’t available
“There is not a lot of room for error,” he added, “We have our first two matches away and they are probably our most difficult matches so it’s not ideal but that’s not a worry. I always talk about finding solutions. We need to make sure we are right for those two games and there are no excuses.
“With such a short season, and the fact the top team goes straight up, I think that is what the GAA had to do. We did vote and we went for the five games. London was in our group originally but they are obviously not playing now, so we voted for this and it’s what the players wanted.
“I think it’s the best solution but we know how important every game is. If you lose one then you are into a relegation battle so we want to make sure we get off to the best possible start
“It won’t be easy, Mayo were playing up a division last year. Everybody talks about championships but to me the county leagues are just as important because of the profile of them, they allow counties to get up and play better teams. The higher you go and the better teams you meet, do that and the championship will take care of itself.”
After losing out in the last two league finals under John McEvoy, promotion remains a primary goal for a Derry team with the talent to be playing at a higher level but McKinley is reluctant to say the county has under achieved over recent seasons.
“Has Derry underachieved? You always have the dual players and it’s like the Dublin scenario, the best players are always going to opt for football because of the prestige and the higher profile. What you have to try and do is build a prestige and profile into hurling. Trying to get people like Cormac (O’Doherty)- and Cormac is only one of many - but get these players talked about.
“You can’t do it any other way. You need to go out and perform and then people will say, ‘You need to take notice of what’s going on’. That’s the line we will be taking with the players. We want them to go out and express themselves and show people how good they are.
“People would say they have under-performed but I’m not sure, I don’t know enough about the majority of the players. Yes, I know some of the Slaughtneil and some of the Dungiven players but there are more clubs involved in this. There are good hurlers coming from all the clubs involved and hopefully they can benefit from the coaching here and become even better players.
“Hopefully we can get our hands on something, a bit of silverware, and then raise the profile for Derry hurling. This is not about me, Cormac or any mentor, this is about these players.”