All-Ireland SFC Round THREE
Clare v Derry
Saturday, Glennon Brothers Pearse Park, 6pm
By Michael McMullan
THE moment Karl O’Connell hit his 74th-minute equaliser at Celtic Park, Derry’s desire to top their group was out of their own hands.
But it could’ve been worse. Three points in arrears, on two separate occasions, Derry were chasing a game that was running away from them. Paul Cassidy and Ethan Doherty defensive opening backdoor cuts were closed.
Monaghan righted the wrongs of Omagh, but Derry hit four points on the bounce to get themselves into a winning position. But a draw would have to do them.
When they found their running game in the second half against Donegal, Paudi McGrogan’s goal shot Derry into a commanding lead. Given Monaghan’s five-point win over Clare in Clones, an eight-point win would be a decent return.
In a disjointed ending, the inexperience of Declan Cassidy saw him take a pot shot rather than using his fresh legs to take on the Donegal defence. Patton punched his up and under clear. When Donegal cut through Derry’s middle, Rory O’Donnell’s goal left a cloud over the visitors’ five-point win.
The Oakleafers’ in Pearse Park on Saturday will be tuned into social media to check the pulse of Donegal’s clash with top of the table Monaghan.
On the pitch, Derry have one job in hand. They have to find the form that blitzed Clare in Croke Park last year. They had 10 points on Colm Collins’ side in their promotion-clinching game earlier this season.
The Banner have nothing to play for but pride. And that can be a dangerous situation. They turned over Cork in Munster and their level of questioning was decent against the Kingdom. And they put 1-18 on Monaghan in Clones.
Derry had the bare 26 in Ballybofey last time out. An operation on a hand injury looks like keeping goalkeeper Ryan Scullion out for six weeks. Oisin McWilliams was the main impact player, but his combined 275 minutes hasn’t extended beyond the ninth game of the season, the win over Dublin.
A shin injury has kept the Swatragh man on the sidelines since. A quad injury on u-20 duty has sidelined Matthew Downey, with the league final his last action and has yet to make his championship debut.
The free weekend is not a must, but it’s not far off. The week-on-week grid can take its toll.
That’s why Derry need to cocoon themselves inside the need for performance this weekend. It may tempt Ciaran Meenagh into handing Lachlan Murray his first championship start.
Last weekend in Ballybofey will have highlighted the value of Benny Heron. His link play is important to the overall Derry puzzle. You know what you are going to get.
There will be an edge to Chrissy McKaigue. Being taken for seven points from the lively Oisin Gallen will have festered. The look on his face told it all. The All-Star defender doesn’t do or accept mediocrity.
There was also the flashpoint in Owenbeg when McKaigue took exception to Keelan Sexton leaving too much in a late tackle on Conor Glass. It fuelled his aggression and it was McKaigue who made the last-ditch block after Paudi McGrogan’s wayward pass put Sexton in on an open goal with Lynch out of position.
The directness of Shaun Patton’s kick-outs asked questions of Derry. It kept them on edge. Only for Conor Doherty clipping Conor O’Donnell’s heels and a punch by Glass, they were in for goal. There was another arrow over the top to Daire Ó Baoill that opened up the chance for Jason McGee to pull a double save from Odhrán Lynch and Brendan Rogers.
Eoin Cleary, joint scorer with Emmett McMahon on 0-39, missed the Monaghan game with injury and Podge Collins was forced off with a back injury. Should they miss out this weekend, it significantly weakens Clare’s hand.
Derry’s focus will be unlocking a defence with sweeper Jamie Malone at its core. A natural forward with the ability to kick a score, he has tucked back to be the first line of the attack.
Clare coach Mark Doran was along the line last Monday night as Sleacht Néill manager in their defeat to Glen. After Saturday, he’ll have his club hat on for the rest of the summer.
He’ll sit back with fingers crossed that McGuigan, McKaigue, Rogers, Paul McNeill and Padraig Cassidy all make it back from Derry duty in one piece.
For now, it all about how deep Derry can go into the summer. Blocking out any noise seeping in from Omagh on Saturday is the only controllable on the table for now.
With two weeks to get their house in order, Derry must hit the round running and keep top spot within their own hands.