City of Derry Head Coach Paul O’Kane has praised his side’s mental strength after the ‘Green and Black’ produced a dramatic injury time victory over Midleton in Saturday’s crucial All Ireland League Division 2C clash at the Craig Thompson Stadium.
Defeat to the same opposition in the final round of fixtures before Christmas had left Derry precariously positioned toward the foot of an admittedly tight division. It prompted a New Year team meeting in which everyone had their say and cards, some harsh, were laid on the table. Questions were asked but on Saturday, at least some of those were answered.
Eight minutes into injury time; at least one - possibly two - penalty try decisions denied, and staring down the barrel of a defeat that would have rooted them to the bottom of the table though the psychological effect of a defeat may have been even worse.
But Derry found a way to win thanks to Simon Logue’s 88th minute try and Alex McDonnell’s excellent conversion, with O’Kane lauding the new found resolve which he’s hoping will see the side through the second half of the season.
"It was a huge win. The heart is still racing. Every one knew how important the game was,” explained O’Kane, “Midleton knew how important it was, we certainly knew how important it was. We are now five points ahead of Midleton, which is not irretrievable for Midleton, but it keeps us closer to the pack above us and that is what we have to do.
“It is going to be cut throat from here on and everyone in the league knows it’s going to go to the last game. There is very, very little between most sides. I thought Midleton brought a real intensity today. We lost down there before Christmas but today they were much better. They obviously had their full complement compared to what they had before Christmas but that’s the way this league goes, it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
“There are now eight games to go in this ‘marathon’ and we just have to dust ourselves down and go again. We talked to the boys about standards all week within the club and there has been a notable change in mindset as regards wanting to be here and wanting to play at this level.
“We can get much better than we were today but the character for the boys to pull through at the end, that shows, mentally, we are starting to get there. For example, Alex, after missing that kick in front of the posts late on, to come back and kick the conversion knowing there was still one last play to come, his kick left Midleton needing a try and showed his character, it was really important for him.
“It is a pressurised environment but the boys really stood up to it. We have been telling them we need to find a way to win when not playing well and we weren’t playing well. Our line-out started to tick which brought us into the game, our scrum was excellent all afternoon and the boys found a way.”
O’Kane was particularly delighted at the reaction of his player’s to a number of contentious refereeing calls, the most frustrating of which was the denial of a 61st minute penalty try when Davy Graham’s pass looked to be deliberately knocked on with the two men over and a clear run to the line.
“We talked long and hard this week about not reacting to referee’s decisions, not getting embroiled in things whether the call is right or wrong, and I thought we handled that well because the referee could have tidied the game up significantly.
“Midleton were rolling into rucks, continually slowing ball down and he allowed them to do that at times. Also, there was at least one, if not two, blatant penalty tries that didn’t come our way but the boys reacted positively to the situations, rolled up their sleeves and got on with it.
“It’s a great start to the second half of the season but it is only a start.”