Derry minors hit reset button ahead of All-Ireland defence

By Michael McMullan

DAMIAN McErlain has walked the minor path long enough to know how it works. An Ulster winner as a player in 1995, he is now in a fifth season as Derry boss across two stints.

After retaining their Ulster title against Armagh, the Oakleafers take on Leinster runners-up Dublin in Saturday’s Electric Ireland All-Ireland quarter-final.

Back-to-back Ulsters was a box well worth ticking. A first time since the 1989 All-Ireland winners backed up their Ulster success two years later.

Now it moves on. McErlain was in attendance in Tullamore to run his eye over Longford’s extra-time win over Dublin.

“You get a far better read of things,” McErlain said of seeing opponents’ pace in the flesh.

“Dublin have that sort of pace in six or seven positions all over the pitch, boys carrying the ball and overlapping, supporting each other. I can see that as a big threat.”

McErlain refers to the goal chances Dublin passed up that could’ve ended Longford’s title dreams. He mentions the two goals Dublin hit Kildare with late on, properly engineered goals on the overlap.

Minds also cast back to last season’s All-Ireland semi-final with the Dubs in Armagh when Noah Byrne’s pace caused enough trouble for Odhrán Campbell to be moved across to pour water on the fire.

It will be a waiting game to see if Ger Dillon’s knee injury calms down enough to allow him to play. Last year it was Conall Higgins who missed the win over Dublin.

Dillon is one of five starters from last year’s All-Ireland winning team. It got tongues wagging across Ulster and beyond of Derry’s credentials. And with that comes pressure.

Winning the league added to a narrative that can be difficult to manage.

“Fair play to the lads for having the level of maturity to do that,” McErlain said of his side backing up their league with the county’s 17th minor title.

McErlain points to two tough games to get out of Ulster. Tyrone gave them plenty of bother until a 15-minute scoring burst. Armagh brought that organisation in defence with Eoin Duffy’s goal giving them a foothold in a game Derry really needed to dig deep in to get over the line.

“I’m telling you, it’s really good to have tough matches,” McErlain said of the value their Ulster final offered.

“There is nothing as disconcerting as going through matches easily and them toppling against quality sides the next day.”

Now, on the other side, Derry must manage the expectation of being Ulster champions but McErlain feels it won’t be a problem.

He uses the example of last season and facing All-Ireland champions Galway. It’s the same with Dublin, a county at the forefront of the GAA for over a decade.

Going into his fifth All-Ireland series as a manager, McErlain sees it as a new competition. In terms of 2024 championship pathways, the best eight teams in the country remain.

“That’s how I would see it now, as a total reset button,” he said. “The teams that cope best with winning their province and don’t get carried away can go into the next round and deliver.”

“Last year, when it was Galway, it helped our whole mind-set going in.

“We are looking at this one pretty similarly, you know going in against Dublin and there will be no complacency allowed.”

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