Surprise League final is only warm up for the next stage of Derry evolution
Forget about Saturday’s surprise trip to Croke Park, Derry have taken everything they wanted from their 2021 league campaign.
The right noises will be made in the build up to the final but Derry’s serious interest in Division Three ended in Páirc Seán Mac Diarmada at the weekend following four wins, three clean sheets, six goals, 67 points and plenty of optimism from their four games.
Derry’s promotion has looked inevitable since a little after 6.20pm on May 22nd. That’s when Jerome Henry’s full-time whistle informed the rest of the division that the Oak Leafers had dismantled Longford by 0-21 to 0-05. It was a result which confirmed Rory Gallagher’s message, and that of his management team, was getting through to players whose talent and potential has never been in doubt.
There had been signs following last year’s initial lockdown which Gallagher used like an football audit, assessing his resources, re-organising ‘assets’ and instilling the new normal in terms of performance level.
But like any new recipe, you’re never quite sure how the ingredients have blended until you savour that first batch fresh from the oven. The Pearse Park taste test confirmed exactly what Rory Gallagher hoped. More importantly, it confirmed in the minds of the players everything they had heard from their manager.
Four wins later and the victory over Limerick was almost an anti-climax after the thrilling high scoring performances of the northern group. It was probably Derry’s least impressive display of the quartet but even without ever finding top gear, the Oak Leafers comfortably had too much for a gallant but limited Limerick side who lacked the firepower to ever trouble them.
Not that Derry are the finished article, they’re not. Another important hurdle has been cleared but that’s all. There remains plenty of work to do though Gallagher’s admission that he has been preparing for the championship for a couple of weeks illustrates the growing belief in the camp and there is now clear foundation to that belief.
For the first time in years, Derry have a settled squad with a strong spine of experienced players. Across the four league games, the starting 15 showed only two changes, one enforced by Brendan Rogers’ injury. Places have to be earned, they’re no longer awarded with a starting berth now a prize to be guarded once you’ve worked your way into it with an array of young talent waiting to snap it off anyone whose takes their eye off the ball.
The immediate question for Derry concerns appetite. There’s little doubt the league was the number one priority this season. It was refreshing to see Rory Gallagher say it so openly and challenge his players by refusing to offer any sort of safety net. The players responded in fine style but with their main objective already won, will they be satisfied by that?
With Division Two football in the bag, the 2021 season is already a success. An important goal has been achieved. The Championship draw hasn’t been kind and few outside Derry will be expecting too much. That’s a new safety net and the Championship tightrope hasn’t been kind over recent years. So what can we expect from this emerging Derry?
The clue was in Rory Gallagher’s response to defeating Limerick and gaining promotion:
“Part of me and the management team had already started to think about the championship because we just felt we were at a really good level.”
Satisfied? Not a chance. Saturday’s final is just the first warm-up game for next stage.