By Michael McMullan
DAYS like Sunday are what’s it all about for Derry manager Ciaran Meenagh and the Oakleafers’ camp.
Their quarter-final will be followed up by a Dublin and Mayo clash that tops the billing.
In a footballing sense, this is “real living” as the championship cranks up another notch with the group stages.
“We would talk about that amongst ourselves, that is something that we would say,” Meenagh told Gaelic Life after digesting Monday’s draw.
“It’s real living, this is what we put in the work from November and December, this is what all the commitment is for.”
Meenagh breathes football. Chatting about it, he’s alive. The words are carefully chosen, but you always get a sense of thrill. When Derry’s ship docks for the year, his shoulder will be planted against whatever wheel his native Loughmacrory needs the greatest push.
For now, it’s full on. It’s pre-championship Monday. Cork footage needs watched. Sessions need planned. A super Sunday in Croke Park is the only show in town.
“It brings a lot of pressure and all the rest, but that’s why these players and the rest of the management are operating at that level…for days like this,” Meenagh continues.
Sunday is a big game. The biggest for now. The Ulster final was seismic. A crucial win over Dublin in the league is up there.
“I don’t think about it in terms of big games or finalities,” Meenagh said, asked if Cork is Derry’s biggest 70 minutes of the season.
“I just think about it as another game of football and you prepare like you always prepare.
“The higher the stakes, then the greater the opportunity that presents itself as well, and I am sure all eight teams will be feeling the exact same way.”
Speaking after Monday’s draw, Meenagh is no different to Kieran McGeeney, Dessie Farrell or Jack O’Connor, the four managers who avoided the choppy waters of the preliminary quarter-finals.
Derry had the slight advantage of being the first name in the hat for the last 12 with an extra day to watch the rest of Ireland slug it out, safe in the knowledge they’d pulled up one of the eight seats at the top table.
“The reaction to Cork is the same as if it was Mayo or Tyrone, it’s something myself or the management can’t control,” he said.
“All we can control now is getting a feel for Cork and getting some work done on them but not too much.
“We haven’t too much time to dwell on them because the game is only coming around in a few days. We have to think mostly about the work we do on them in terms of how we prepare ourselves.”
“We probably have a better feel for Cork or if it had been Tyrone than if it had been Mayo (in the draw) having played both the teams quite a bit over the last two years.
“We watched all of the games attentively and it is a matter of polishing up on that knowledge at this stage.”
Meenagh wasn’t present in Páirc Uí Chaoimh for Cork’s win over Roscommon but Derry did have eyes in the stands on his behalf.
“Then we watched it ourselves. We tried to cover as many of the games as we could but that’s something that everybody would be doing, it’s nothing new that,” Meenagh said of a typical week of preparation at inter-county level.
He’s a fan of the group stages and the new format. One of the tweaks is the “wider issue” of ticket bundles for a more affordable option for families and kids. But, in a footballing sense, the new format has plenty to give.
Back-to-back Ulster titles signals progress. A return to the last eight is another mark of consistency. But, from the inside, what does Derry’s formbook look like?
Meenagh ponders. The latter stages of the promotion race paints a picture that everything was “brilliant”. But there were blips thrown into the league too.
“Coming out of that Ulster final and into that Monaghan (All-Ireland group) game was a challenging scenario for us, for a whole variety of ways.
“For us to beat Cork, we probably need to raise it again and we are conscious of that.
“That’s the intention, but that’s the intention of everybody. It’s a matter of getting out own house in order and hoping the work and the preparation we have done delivers that”