The Oak Leafers begin their Championship campaign at home to Wicklow on Sunday having secured a long awaited promotion thanks to Saturday’s 1-23 to 2-17 victory in Ederney, with McKinley admitting his delight to have finally secured a return to 2A for the first time since 2016.
“I’m delighted, delighted for the group of players that have committed over this past couple of years to us,” said the former Antrim boss, “I’m delighted for the players individually and the whole group, our management team and everybody.
“It’s a special day for everyone, the players and us as well. We came here and wanted to see if we could make things better and I think it’s gradually getting there. We have a long way to go yet but, no, we are very happy to have got there.
Odhran’s McKeever’s goal had got the Oak Leafers off to the perfect start at the Fermanagh venue but nine first half wides meant Derry turned around only one point to the good at 1-08 to 10-7 in a game they were dominating. Sligo were sticking doggedly to Derry coat-tails but a strong third quarter scoring surge with six points in as many minutes from captain Cormac O’Doherty, Fintan Bradley, Gerard Bradley and McKeever catapulted Derry into a commanding 1-17 to 1-10 lead by the 50th minute.
Even then Sligo refused to yield as a goal from Joe McHugh put the Yeats County back in contention with 12 minutes to go. Derry replied with a John Mullan points and two from centre back Conor Kelly as they eventually pulled away to a victory that could have become much more nervous had Sligo substitute Gerard O’Kelly hit the net with his injury time penalty instead of blazing over the bar.
That said, Derry were worthy winners and finished their league campaign with a 100 per cent record as McKinley and Cormac Donnelly’s blue-print for Derry hurling begins to take shape.
“We know the players a lot better and we know what we want,” added McKinley, “We want to play a certain way and put our trademark on it. Maybe at times today it wasn’t like that but at the end of the day it is about getting over the line.
“We didn’t talk about the finals they had lost but I think that played a major part in it because you heard he players saying, ‘We are not going to lose another one’ and so on and they were, particularly in the first half, I thought we were a bit snatchy.
“The great thing about half-time is we could have gone in and just went roaring mad. We had too many wides. We were in total control of the game yet there was only one point in it so we picked the positive thing out of it.
“We said we were in control of this game. We need to settle. We need the ball through our hands and take it into the right places to do our shooting. It was a bit like the Donegal game, we were taking shots from out on the right hand side, the wind was tailing in front of the goals and Sligo maybe did the same, but no, I’m delighted for all the players. What a great boost going into the Christy Ring. That’s going to help the energy levels as well massively.”
Derry: O O’Doherty; C Hendry, M Craig, D McCloskey; M McGrath, C Kelly (0-2), P Kelly; C O’Doherty (0-8, 7f, 1 ‘65’), D McGilligan; F Bradley (0-2), J Mullan (0-2), B Óg McGilligan (0-2); D Foley (0-1), O McKeever (1-4), G Bradley (0-2). Subs: G Farren for M McGrath (Blood sub 56, reversed 57 ), P Nelis for D Foley (60), S Kelly for O McKeever (69)
Yellow card: O McKeever (34)
Sligo: J Gordon; N Kilcullen, M Hannify, K O’Kennedy; G Connolly, R McHugh (0-1), N Feehily (1-0); F Cawley (0-1), F Connolly; C Hannify (0-3), J McHugh (1-3), K Gilmartin; R Brennan, A Kilcullen (0-5, 2f), T Cawley (0-1). Subs: T O’Kelly-Lynch for K Gilmartin (23), M Munnelly for R Brennan (HT), P Foley for F Connolly (43), G O’Kelly-Lynch (0-1 pen) for T Cawley (51), E Comerford for T O’Kelly-Lynch (69)
Yellow cards: M Hannify (44), F Cawley (60), K O’Kennedy (68)
Referee: C Cunning (Antrim)