By Michael McMullan
SATURDAY evening’s McKenna Cup final against neighbours Tyrone will be a “good test” for Derry, but manager Rory Gallagher has his eyes locked on the start of the league seven days later.
It will be the second meeting of Ulster’s great rivals in 10 days and Rory Gallagher has already hinted at a potential third meeting in the championship later in the season.
If the Oakleafers can negotiate the first step of their Ulster title defence against his native Fermanagh, the Red Hands will lie in wait in the semi-finals.
“We both know, there could be a future meeting down the road,” he said after Sunday’s penalty shoot-out win over Down in Newry.
“There is no point hiding from that and while it is an important workout, there won’t be much asked or given by either side next week.
“The important thing is there is still going to be a National League game the following week. It is a good test for us, we will look forward to it and I am sure Tyrone will too.”
Gallagher will be without All-Star defender Chrissy McKaigue after his red card on Sunday and won’t ask for his case to be heard if it’s “not worth appealing”.
Niall Loughlin and Declan Cassidy – both replaced during the draw with Tyrone last Wednesday – will almost certainly be out.
“You don’t want anyone out for the league and there will be nobody risked whatsoever,” Gallagher said of how much Derry will invest in Saturday’s showdown in Armagh.
“I am sure Tyrone will not risk anyone carrying a knock. Niall Loughlin, Shea Downey and Matthew Downey are very close. Can I see myself risking them week? Not a chance.”
Gallagher will be without Glen trio Conor Glass, the new Derry skipper, Ethan Doherty and the recently called up Conleth McGuckian who will be in action at Croke Park in Sunday’s All-Ireland final.
There is uncertainty over Emmett Bradley’s involvement with Derry after Glen’s season with the Derry boss stating that no decision has been made over his county future this season.
It remains to be seen if Ballinascreen goalkeeper Ryan Scullion is handed a senior inter-county debut. When Odhran Lynch was understudy to Oran Hartin in Derry minors’ run to the 2017 All-Ireland final, Scullion was third choice but has impressed at senior club level.
Gareth McKinless sustained a heavy hit on Sunday and if he is not deemed fit to start, Dungiven’s Kevin Johnston – who had a stint working in Australia – could make his first appearance since Derry’s Qualifier defeat to Kildare in 2018.
The only other member of Gallagher’s squad yet to make their debut is the recently called up Steelstown defender Diarmuid Baker who impressed for Queen’s in the Sigerson Cup.
Another newcomer is last year’s winning MacRory Cup captain Eoin McEvoy who has played all three games at full-back. He made two substitute appearances last season in the McKenna Cup.
“We would have played him (more) last year,” Gallagher said. “He picked up a knee injury coming up to the MacRory final. He never really got traction, he came back and played but he is physically there?
“Himself and Lachlan (Murray) that are 19, are still u-20, and it is great to get them exposure and the more exposure they can get playing with our established players, they will fit more naturally into it.”
Derry booked their final place after Shane McGuigan kicked an equaliser in Sunday’s 1-15 to 3-9 draw, with Conor Doherty hitting the winning penalty following Odhran Lynch’s two saves in the shootout.
Gallagher, who admitted not knowing it was to penalties without extra-time, feels “next score wins” is a fairer way to decide a game.
A Padraig Cassidy goal put Derry 1-2 to 0-3 ahead before Niall Donnelly hit the first of two goals to leave two points between the teams at the break. Down added two goals to push four points clear and Derry went down to 14 following McKaigue’s dismissal.
Shane McGuigan (2), Niall Toner and Oisin McWilliams added points to drag Derry back level in the same fashion they dug out a draw with Tyrone.
“I am delighted with our response, I think we were the better team,” Gallagher said of their semi-final win.
“Mistakes in the first half handed them (Down) 1-2 which was cruel, in the sense of instead of being four or five up, we were two up.
“We responded well to the two goals, not happy about giving two goals away but it is early in the season.
“We haven’t done a lot of work on the pitch, defensively or anything like that. But we responded well, missed a lot of chances, but an awful good experience for a lot of lads.
“Nobody is ever going to judge anything on the McKenna Cup, it’s the start of the journey for Lachlan Murray, it’s the start of the journey for Ben McCarron to an extent…Eoin McEvoy, Brendan Rogers playing in the middle of the park,” Gallagher said. “Obviously Lynchy (Odhran Lynch), Clucky (Conor McCluskey) and those boys are still young.
“They have had a successful season last year, but the more games they play, the more tests they get, the more challenges they get, the better they know the game.”
Gallagher said the management took a “deliberate policy” not to do any pitch training before Christmas. It was about conditioning and getting the‘bodies right.
Getting Padraig Cassidy and Gareth McKinless injury free was a priority. It was a chance to build up Lachlan Murray, Oisin McWilliams and Eoin McEvoy.
“You can see the bodies change in Lynchy,” Gallagher added. “He’s got himself in really good nick. He’s focussed on getting his body in good shape, particularly the last two days, he has been really outstanding.”