By Michael McMullan
THE experience of 2022 and dealing with the noise in Clones stood to Derry as Sunday’s Ulster final insists manager Ciaran Meenagh.
Without the use of a Maor Foirne, running on to give instructions, Meenagh expressed how difficult it was to get messages on to the players as Sunday’s Ulster final morphed into its helter-skelter finale.
“We knew that from last year and the experience of last year was brilliant,” he said. “We do a lot of work tactically in terms of matchups and scenarios before the game because the players are the coaches on the field.”
Meenagh was in charge of the team after Rory Gallagher stepped back as manager on Friday night. He was full of praise for how Armagh gave Derry no shortage of problems with the hunger they brought to the game.
“The whole thing is a blur; I can barely remember what happened in the last nine or ten minutes,” Meenagh said.
Last year Derry were the hunted and Meenagh said the show was on the other foot this year with Armagh “ravenous” in search of a first Ulster title in 15 years.
“People will say our performance wasn’t great in the first half and we had problems to address at half-time,” he said.
“To be fair, that was down to Armagh. They were very emotive and they deserve a lot of credit. Even though in the second half we played a lot better, we were two up for a lot of the half and couldn’t bring it out to three and four.”
Meenagh felt Armagh were handed a lifeline when Brendan Rogers’ fisted effort hit the outside of the post in the 66th minute with Derry 1-10 to 0-11 ahead.
“At half-time in extra-time, we felt we had another chance,” Meenagh said of going in just a point down after most of the first period of extra time with 14 men after Brendan Rogers was sent to the sin-bin for dragging down Jarly Óg Burns close to goal.
“We decided we’d go for broke,” Meenagh said of Derry’s message ahead of those final 10 minutes as they trailed by a point.
Players were coming on and off as both managements reshuffled their packs. The game became more disjointed and Derry made the decision to throw everything they had.
“We said we’d push,” Meenagh added. “You saw how we played very aggressive and more aggressive on their kick-outs because that caused us lots of problems.
“A lot of their scores came from his (Ethan Rafferty) kick-outs and that was something we emphasised a lot.
“They do kick a lot of ball down the middle, but they were better today at kicking to the wings. They have the ability to adapt in game and it is about second guessing your opponent in terms of them looking at you.
“They hurt us on kick-outs today, we’d be disappointed on our return but those are the things to brush up on, it’s an ever-evolving cycle
“So much is down to them (Armagh), they are well drilled and they had their homework done. We hope we’ll play better again, but sometimes it is a measure of your opponent as well.”
Meenagh also heaped praise at the Derry players’ door at how they took the momentum out of Armagh in the eight minutes his side were down a man.
“That’s the player IQ that we talk about, they have the ability to make those decisions in the moment,” he said of their game management.”
Then came the leadership of Shane McGuigan and Conor Glass in winning two vital kick-outs as Derry chased the game. Meenagh compared it to Armagh having their spell at the end of normal time.
“The character…that was like us going into the penalties with the momentum behind us like them going in at the end of extra-time,” he said.
Armagh had taken the game “to the wire” and it was Derry’s turn with Lachlan Murray fisting over what looked like the extra-time winner.
There was still time for one last attack, with Paul Cassidy kicking a wide from a near impossible angle. Armagh won the kick-out before Stefan Campbell drew a foul out of a combination of Lachlan Murray and Ciaran McFaul.
“There was almost a sense of inevitability of what was going to happen the way Rian O’Neill was hitting his frees,” Meenagh said about Armagh’s last score “They were good today, Armagh.”