PREVIEW: All-Ireland title is up for grabs

Electric Ireland Minor Football Championship Final
Derry v Armagh
Sunday, O’Neill’s Healy Park, 2pm

By Michael McMullan

IT’S like last year only it’s different in the race for the Tom Markham Cup.

Derry and Armagh lock horns for the third time this season in Sunday’s All-Ireland Minor final.

When the Oakleafers won their sixth title last season, they did so after a third win of the year over Monaghan. The year before that, Galway prevailed over Mayo in a repeat of the Connacht final.

Six of Derry’s team have All-Ireland medals from last year. Caomhan McNally’s input when coming in off the bench in their semi-final win over Kerry turns up the heat when they select their team for Sunday.

Those kind of numbers bring a favourites’ tag manager Damian McErlain has had to both accept and manage.

If he is looking for a way of grounding his charges this week, he doesn’t need to look any further than footage from this year’s Ulster final.

After a 17-point win over Armagh in the group stages, Derry were left hanging on by a thread in the dying embers of the decider. Since then, Armagh’s stock has risen with the ease at which they choked a fancied Mayo since in the semi-final.

If McErlain will be preaching caution, Armagh manager Aidan O’Rourke will be using the same two cards to apply another layer of belief to his side.

But if you scratch the surface on the group game, the 17-point margin – while looking bleak – doesn’t tell the full story.

Armagh frustrated Derry that day in Owenbeg before the home side ran away with the game late on.

With the both sets of players and the Derry management back in the dressing rooms, O’Rourke and his management team stood along in the middle of the pitch.

It was a debrief that didn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Were they deciding on a change of plan for the knock-out stages?

No. They just became better at their system that has had five further games to embed before Sunday.

The defensive shield looks like their senior team. Banks of players close out any pathway through the middle.

Kobe McDonald and Mayo’s swashbuckling group had no playground up the middle of Pearse Park.

It was the same for Derry in the Ulster final and Eoin Duffy’s goal gave Armagh further belief. Outside of that, they have Diarmaid O’Rourke as the glue the brings everything together.

His number seven jersey is a false reading. He pops up absolutely everywhere, comfortable on the ball off other side and has been one of the form players of the season.

When Longford backed off in the All-Ireland quarter-final, O’Rourke and Conall Wilson pulled them apart with their use of the ball.

Daithi O’Callaghan was the star man Mayo had no answer for when Armagh translated their defensive spine into scores. Had it not been for the crossbar, Armagh would’ve gave them an even bigger hammering.

While the middle of the Armagh defence will again be a sea of orange on Sunday, you’ll see a ring of Derry jerseys around the outside. Three players, on either wing, all looking to cut in and be the late runner to engineer scores.

Derry haven’t exactly been kicking up their heels since lifting the Fr Murray Cup. They’ve accounted for Dublin and Kerry in games that went all the way to the final moments.

They’ve had the setback of injury to Ger Dillon but it gave Turlough McHugh a chance to get back into the side. He has been Cathair McBride’s midfield partner with James Sargent pushed further forward.

With more defensive concentration, Derry could’ve closed out the oxygen that gave Dublin a pathway back into the quarter-final. They totally switched off on a free that led to a second goal when Derry were cranking up the heat.

Derry created enough goal chances to close out two games in their win over Kerry. With more composure, they’d have walked a smoother path in Mullingar.

But, both days revealed an underbelly Derry can believe in. Like their second half against Tyrone in the Ulster semi-final and those closing stages in the Ulster final, they didn’t reach for the panic button.

Sunday is something Derry have sampled already. For the eight players returning and their management team, they’ll be able to taste the tension in last year’s final in front of a packed house.

Armagh are in new ground. It’s a first final since 2009 when they saw off Mayo at Croke Park.

With their senior team still in the race for Sam Maguire, there is a fanatical level of interest in the county.

In Derry, the minor group is a reminder that the inner workings of their underage is purring along nicely. And it needs to be with more senior depth needed around the corner.

As for Sunday, Derry know they’ll face a full-on challenge for their title.

Armagh will fully believe the 17-point hammering was a false reading.

The race to lift the Tom Markham Cup is going all the way on Sunday. Who will blink first?

Also, check out this week’s Gaelic Lives podcast as Monaghan minor manager Dermot Malone looks ahead to Sunday’s Electric Ireland All-Ireland minor final.

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