All Ireland Qualifying Series, Round 1
New era or false dawn - the road to discovering which starts on Saturday in Innovate Wexford Park.
Derry’s Ulster Championship display against Tyrone left as many questions as it answered with long suffering Oak Leaf fans reluctant to believe in brighter times despite a more than encouraging performance.
In a sense, Derry’s season will be defined by the Qualifiers.
Damian McErlain and his players knew before a ball was kicked that there was no credit to be had in Division Four. A flawless campaign and league final victory brought unwarranted shrugs and the inevitable, ‘sure it’s only...’ comments.
Similarly, it was always going to be difficult to bridge the three division gap to Tyrone in their own backyard, even if Derry did manage to come within nine minutes of an unlikely upset.
Unfair as it is, the qualifiers are where people will judge Derry’s season, something the Derry manager is only too aware of.
“The qualifiers are about momentum so you need to win the first match to get moving,” said McErlain, “All we can concentrate on is Wexford and how we want to perform.
“Our training has been very good in the last couple of weeks. We’ve reset and gone again. There’s loads of learning from the Tyrone match. It was a decent performance, but there’s a massive amount to take from it – both positives and things we have to work on – so we want to improve our performance and hopefully that has whet the appetite for another good performance.”
There was also good news on the team front for Derry with Benny Heron expected to be fit while Shea Downey was a notable face at the recent open training session at Sean Dolan’s though any game-time for the young Lavey player would likely be off the bench.
Saturday’s game will be the third meeting between the two counties in the Qualifiers and Derry have won all three previous meetings, 3-10 to 0-09 in Wexford in 2003, 2-16 to 2-05 in Parnell Park 12 months later and 1-16 to 0-10 in Owenbeg back in 2015.
Indeed the sides met as recently as the end of March in a high scoring but dead rubber league encounter which gave McErlain plenty of food for thought after the round one draw was made.
Indeed the decision to pitch the match as a curtain raiser to Wexford senior hurlers’ Leinster Championship clash with Carlow means a bumper crowd is expected.
“I think there was 13 of the Wexford team who played against Louth (in the Leinster Championship) that played against us in Bellaghy in the league. We saw a lot that day, but equally they saw plenty of us as well.
“This game is about us getting ourselves right, preparing well, getting down close to the venue the night before and going from there.
“It’s going to be a tough task. It’s a double header with the hurlers so they’re going to have 20,000 Wexford supporters there. That’s obviously going to be a big thing for them but that’s the environment that we want to be playing in. We have to have the ambition to go in and perform with that sort of buzz.”
Derry will be firm favourites to progress, familiar territory for McErlain after their short stay in Division Four this season, but that experience only served to reinforce his belief that there are no easy games in the modern game.
“Unfortunately, we’re well used to the long trips, and that’s a factor with this draw. It’s what the qualifiers bring – the freshness of getting away to counties that you’re not there in all that often.
“Wexford are an experienced side. They’re always a tough, physical side to break down. We’ve played them the last couple of years, so there’s a fair bit of familiarity there but we’ve got to get ourselves right and we’ve got to improve on where we were the last day.
“We have to show ambition to perform again and to lift our performance going forward – that’s what we’re looking to do.”