The Derry boss expecting Monaghan to offer a different proposition in a fourth meeting of the teams.
By Michael McMullan
AS Derry manager Damian McErlain journeyed towards Tullamore, he knew it was going to be a fourth showdown with Monaghan if his Derry side negotiated Dublin 24 hours later in their half of the semi-final bargain.
When the teams emerge from the BOX-IT Athletic Grounds’ tunnel on Sunday, it will be 134 days since they got their season up and running against each other. It was a league game with Derry running out 1-14 to 2-9 on Emyvale. Half a dozen points from John Boyle and 1-3 from Lee O’Neill elevated Derry to victory, with Matthew Finn and Canice Murphy rattling the Oaks’ net.
Now, with the Tom Markham Cup above their heads as they run out, it’s the same two teams left standing and McErlain expects a different game.
Derry are taking it as it comes and the teams will know each other inside out. That’s an understatement.
After a facile Oakleafers’ win in the championship group stages, their third meeting with Monaghan on Ulster final day was the ultimate rollercoaster.
“This game will be different, every game is different,” McErlain offers. “None of the games we have played (against each other) have taken on any sort of life of the previous one.
“That’s how I see it. You see minor football, the ebb and the flow of it. One small thing can change a game in five minutes. It can give you five-point swings in five minutes. All that type of thing. Refereeing decisions can give a team a lift.”
McErlain, an Ulster winner and beaten All-Ireland finalist as a player in 1995, is in his second stint as minor boss having overseen the Oakleaf revolution that began with Ulster titles in 2015 and 2017.
“It is a different feel to this coming in,” he said, seated calmly in Owenbeg just eight days from the crescendo of the latest minor season.
“All the other games were at different stages in their own right and the Ulster final is the Ulster final, but I see this as a totally different piece now.”
Derry’s win over Dublin was another rocky road and took a character-laced second half performance with 14-men to turn a crawl into a waltz into Sunday’s final.
In the days tha followed, an evening away bowling helped them come down from the high before getting their teeth into another championship challenge. And the biggest of all.
“There was fair bit of exertion for the boys from the (Dublin) game and even ourselves,” McErlain said before their last Saturday session of the season.
“The Saturday before a big game is always a big day in terms of everybody coming fresh, not from a day of work or school. We always put a good emphasis on this session.”
McErlain and selector Gavin McGeehan – a beaten finalist as a player in 2007 – were on the other side of the line in 2017. Any wee bit of experience will be passed down to the players.
Goalkeeper coach Johnny Kelly has final experience with coach Antoin Moran having been involved in Sleacht Néill’s championship adventures under his father Mickey.
“That helps us process everything and understand what is important,” McErlain said.
“We are very focussed on…it’s a match to play, it’s a team we have to go out and perform (against) and play it like any other day.”
There is reference to still striving for improvement despite having 14 championship games under their watch.
Their latest two-week preparation window had a focus of rectifying areas needing a layer of polish.
Conceding three goals in the Ulster final left them looking back at a performance with as many questions as joyful memories of their penalty shoot-out win.
Derry backed up their Ulster title with a comprehensive win over reigning champions Galway, but McErlain felt their second-half performance against the Dubs was the best example of his side’s character.
“It was backs to the wall,” he said. After playing “rightly” and leading 0-7 to 0-4 at half-time, Derry brought a resolve the Dubs couldn’t match.
It was a performance fuelled by a feeling their goalkeeper Jack McCloy was targeted in the tunnel before his retaliation led to the red card that rules him out of Sunday.
“If any of the big teams in the All-Ireland (senior) series gets a ‘keeper sent off, it is a real game-changer in the sense of importance that is placed on a ‘keeper,” McErlain said.
“The workrate looked unbelievable in the sense that it looked like we had a spare man at times and that’s a testament to the work that went in beforehand.”
“It is an opportunity now for Karl to step up and take his place in an All-Ireland final and slot in there in an understated way and get on with it. We are all around Jack and supporting him big time around the whole scenario.”
Another factor when ranking Derry’s win over Dublin was the absence of Conall Higgins with an ankle injury. Higgins kicked the winning penalty in the Ulster final shoot-out, a sh0oot-out brought about by a last-gasp free in the last kick of extra-time in a Man of the Match performance.
When Dublin levelled the semi-final in the 36th minute, there was a call for Higgins to warmup before Derry’s dominance saw him seated back on the bench. His impact wasn’t needed.
“He is still working through it there at the minute so we’re hopeful he might make an appearance,” McErlain said of Higgins being an option for Sunday’s showpiece.
The Derry boss feels that Monaghan’s run to the final will have aided their progression.
“They are going to develop throughout their games,” he said. “Definitely, we’d expect something different to come in the final, given how well they know us.
“That’s up to us as well, on the other side, to prove something different at our end.”
McErlain uses strong, competitive, sticky to summarise the team standing in the way of a six All-Ireland title before concluding with the Farney having no shortage of quality across the board.
“To beat Kerry in any All-Ireland semi-final at minor level, particularly over the last ten years – and I know they are different groups – is no mean feat and shows the belief they have in themselves,” he added.
“They will be coming in thinking it is a massive opportunity, which it is, for them.
“It is up to Monaghan to cope with all the hype on their side. We have the utmost respect for what they bring to the game and we have to plan for that.”