Derry set for final step

Céat McEldowney rejoined the Derry camogie squad at the start of the season and has been an important part of their plans. Michael McMullan spoke to her ahead of Sunday’s National League final

IN the days after losing to Loughgiel in last year’s Ulster semi-final, a message flashed up on Céat McEldowney’s phone that opened the door on another return to Croke Park.

With senior camogie now on the doorstep, PJ O’Mullan was looking to bolster his 2023 All-Ireland intermediate winning squad and floated the prospect of inter-county camogie under the noses of the Sleacht Néill contingent.

Last year’s invite was only taken up by the long-serving Aoife Ní Chaiside. Now, there are seven from the club there and it has given the management an extra layer of options.

McEldowney had been part of the squad at the turn of the millennium before stepping away. Back on board, there is excitement in her voice as conversation turns towards a return to Croke Park with the long-term thoughts touching on getting into Division One next season.

A mention of Derry’s progress excites her. St Patrick’s, Maghera swept up every title in Ulster and Derry underage teams were winning silver.

“Derry camogie is at an unreal stage at the minute and I think it’s just getting better,” McEldowney said. “If we can hopefully win this final, that’ll be Derry into Division One which is where you want to be playing against the top teams.”

Asked where the roots of the progress lie, there is a brief pause before commitment is offered.

“At the minute, it is unreal,” McEldowney adds. “There’s not many nights there are any girls missing. It’s even the push that everyone’s given to get on starting 15.

“We probably still don’t know who’s going to be starting on Sunday because every night I think there’s another girl pushing.”

She’s glad not to be in the management team with some tough selection calls on the table on a weekly basis.

In their final group game, with nothing to gain having already booked a final spot, Derry fielded an experimental line-up in their defeat to Westmeath. It gave other girls a chance to put their hand up.

“You could pick any girl from that team the way everyone’s training at the minute,” McEldowney added.

“It’s really hard work and we’re all in the same mind-set, driving forward, getting Derry to Division One.”

The summer will bring Senior Championship camogie. Playing the top teams every week is the preparation needed for long-term development of the game in the county.

It’s a level they’ve not experienced yet. They did play Down in a pre-season challenge game but they were understrength from the team that has kept them at the top.

It was Down’s consistent team that helped their growth. It’s somewhere Derry want to get to.

“We want to build, collectively, as a team, like the way the (Derry) boys are,” said McEldowney, who watched on as her younger brother Fionn captained Derry to minor glory last season.

“They’re really strong, bond with each other, it’s where we want to be.”

The camogie squad is already making progress. Their togetherness was a vital part of their road to the All-Ireland title. The tight corners brought even more steel to the group.

“It’s really good craic too,” McEldowney said of the buzz in the current camp.

“There’s plenty of laughs still at training. It you take away the seriousness, we’re all really, really close which is really good to see.

“It makes it far easier going into games whenever you’re so close with each other.”

Enjoyment is one thing, but the serious business is what it is all about. Derry have hit the ground running.

After some of their earlier performances brought comfortable wins, they had to hang tough to edge out an Offaly side with a goalkeeper in unstoppable form.

Last season, Derry left the league behind them. In hindsight, it was a kick they needed to focus fully for the championship.

Now, 12 months on, it’s all about finishing off what they started. The mood is positive, yet it’s guarded and alert.

“Everyone wants to get back to playing in Croker,” McEldowney said. “The last time I was in it was when we were beaten by Sarsfields in the 2020 final.

“That was a sad day, but we’re looking forward to hopefully getting up the steps in Croker again.”

Stage fright can always drain away the energy. With last year’s All-Ireland drawn final, the Sleacht Néill finals in Croke Park and PJ O’Mullan’s memories there with Loughgiel, Derry should have no cause for concern in that department.

Derry’s defeat to Westmeath from the last outing will count for nothing. The win in Offaly was the first half of the bargain – getting to the final.

The form book points to an Oakleafers’ win but titles are not won on paper. If Derry can carry the hunger from the training field, they’ll be halfway up the Hogan Stand steps. Will it be enough to get their hands on the cup? Sunday will tell but it’s in their own hands.

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