Rory Gallagher's 'different' Derry evolving at speed

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“Far too casual! Far too casual!”

Rory Gallagher’s voice was unmistakable, booming around the empty Owenbeg stands; his body language gesticulating real annoyance at a rare passage of sloppy play from Derry

No shock in a manager venting frustration until a quick check on the stopwatch reveals we’re in the 70th minute and Derry currently lead Fermanagh by 18 points. That was a bit different.

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Or maybe it was it was Shane McGuigan’s first half defensive intervention, Derry’s main marksman diving in among the flying boots to win possession metres from his own posts and celebrating like he’d scored a last minute winning goal. That was different.

Rory Gallagher's Derry have two wins from two in Division Three North. (Photo: George Sweeney)Rory Gallagher's Derry have two wins from two in Division Three North. (Photo: George Sweeney)
Rory Gallagher's Derry have two wins from two in Division Three North. (Photo: George Sweeney)

Maybe it was Derry’s reaction to two Fermanagh points in the first 90 seconds. No panic, no loss of shape, no change of plan. Only the patient self assurance of a team that finally seems to believe in its own ability and the plan they are working to. That was different.

Maybe it’s the 5-34 Derry have hit in two tough opening league games. Or the meagre 0-14 conceded. That was definitely different.

Whatever the reason, most of those lucky enough to be inside Owenbeg on Saturday will have sensed it. This Derry feels different.

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Now, false dawns have become something of a speciality in the Oak Leaf county so no one is in any danger of getting ahead of themselves after two league games, no matter how impressive they’ve been. It remains to be seen how this squad reacts to its first setback but maybe it is time to start handing out some credit.

Praise is notoriously hard won for Derry county teams, especially modern teams, who all carry the burden of ‘93 despite more than 20 years without a provincial championship. That can be a heavy load.

Rory Gallagher began with realism. History, reputations, expectations......they don’t count, only hard work application, belief and commitment matters. In that sense the Covid enforced break was a blessing. It has allowed Gallagher to strip things right back and remind players of unquestionable talent what else above and beyond that talent it would take to be successful. It also provided time in which the work could be done if the advice landed as it should.

On the early evidence of 2021 it has but success is about steps. Gallagher has made no secret of the target. Derry HAVE to be playing Division Two football next season and to that end, it’s simply two down, two to go. What is interesting though is the Derry manager isn’t interested in the usual modern pretence, the ‘each game as it comes’ safety blanket thrown out to hide a true goal. Gallagher is on record about what he wants and wants his players to know they are good enough to achieve it. His confidence has been transmitted to his players in a county that too often has sold itself short.

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Fermanagh on Saturday was the second example of a squad starting to see its own worth, a squad with young players with no hang-ups, used to winning titles at underage level. Players like Ethan Doherty. The young Glen forward was superb. His knack for goals is invaluable but more important was his pace. Like the returning Gareth McKinless, Derry now possess a serious change of pace and they are learning how to control games.

Fermanagh came with a game-plan to lay possession traps for Derry. Ryan McMenamin’s side were set up to exploit any Derry player unwise enough to get himself isolated on the ball before springing forward. Except Derry didn’t fall for it. Just as they hadn’t seven days earlier against Longford.

Instead Derry patiently probed, pulling the deep Erne defence one way, then the other, always ready for the opening to appear and when it did, the runner was off with McKinless, Conor Doherty and Paudie Tad launched from deep or Benny Heron, Shane McGuigan and Ethan Doherty utilising the space inside.

Saturday’s game was remarkably similar to the opener against Longford, Derry passing up chances before motoring away in the third quarter against a shell shocked opponent. The choice of Owenbeg as a venue isn’t accidental either. Gallagher wants those extra few yards for a Derry game-plan that uses every inch of width available.

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Continuity and consistency are key. Before this season, Derry naming an unchanged team was right up there with the Yeti in terms of sightings but Gallagher has been building the bond within this squad since before last season’s championship defeat to Armagh and they are reaping early rewards.

For the second week in succession Derry had an impressive spread of scorers. After seven against Longford, ELEVEN different players found the mark against the Erne county with Shane McGuigan’s superb 2-05 only a footnote such was Derry forward momentum.

Ethan Doherty’s fierce fifth minute opener was brilliant and owed much to good work by Heron but the second blitz highlighted Derry’s attacking potential as Doherty teed up McKinless for a richly deserved and composed side-footed finish before Shane McGuigan helped himself to a brace, one a penalty which brought Fermanagh’s Josh Largo Ellis a black card, and substitute Niall Toner capped the rout.

Two from two and the almost surreal experience of Derry being comfortable winners long before a crucial game reached its climax. That was a bit different but different is good.