Derry are back in the last four of the race for Sam. Manager Ciarán Meenagh is content with what has gone before, but the Ulster champions are looking for more as they pit their wits against the All-Ireland champions. He spoke with Michael McMullan…
CIARÁN Meenagh remembers all about Derry trucking on the backroads of football’s bottom rung.
A selector under Damian McErlain in 2019, a mixed McKenna Cup led into a Division Four campaign that began with an arm-wrestle on a blustery Sunday in Corrigan Park.
With a degree of desperation, the Oaks eventually leant on a 73rd minute winner against the Saffrons, an angled, fisted point from Padraig Cassidy. While Derry have hurtled back to the top flight since, Cassidy’s score was gold that day in West Belfast. It secured the 1-9 to 1-8 victory in a promotion mission Derry negotiated with two games to spare.
When McErlain stepped down at the end of the season, the Derry players were keen for Meenagh to stay on. And he did. Just as he became manager after Rory Gallagher’s resignation.
Eight days before facing All-Ireland champions Kerry, Meenagh is as calm and collected as ever. Seated in Owenbeg, he reflects on their quarter-final win over Cork, his 65th game in the Derry senior bubble.
Now, Derry are chatting up the prettiest girls at the ball. It’s Kerry this weekend. In the league, they were twice pitching themselves against the Dubs. Last year it was Galway.
In the short term, it’s seismic progress. In the big picture, and in the eyes of many, Derry are back where they belong after a decade of decline.
Does Meenagh, a teacher in St Colm’s Draperstown, notice a change in the level of interest in football within the Oakleaf County?
From his home in Loughmacrory, his spin to training takes him through the crossroads in Greencastle and over the county border into Ballinascreen. Approaching Straw, he hangs a left and it’s on through Moneyneena with just barren land and his footballing thoughts for company.
“Over the mountain to Owenbeg this morning and you do see a lot of Derry flags out at houses,” he said.
“In terms of that pride, and we do touch on things like that, on the support and what the players and we all represent, the players are acutely aware of that and they are proud to be role models in that position.”
But for all the climbing up the ladder, he still remembers Division Four. It offers context to weeks like this.
“I will never forget the day we went to Fraher Field. At 67 minutes, we were playing against a very strong breeze,” he said of Derry’s third game of their 2019 league season when Waterford led 1-8 to 1-7.
Worse still, referee Seamus Mulhare had brandished red cards in the direction of Jason Rocks and Conor McAtamney. It was one of those days when a way out simply had to be found.
Derry hit 1-5 without reply, including a Paul McNeill goal, and they could breathe the same collective sigh of relief as that Sunday in Belfast.
“It was a challenging time,” Meenagh said of a campaign where a weekly favourites’ tag had a target on Derry’s back.
It’s not long ago and a summer when Derry gave Tyrone all they wanted in the championship before super sub Darren McCurry bagged a goal with his first touch to pour water on any hopes of an upset in Healy Park.
It was an era when Meenagh can recall Martin Boyle floating the idea of how a favourable qualifier draw could leave the door ajar to the Super Eights.
“That’s a big change now,” Meenagh reflects. “On your day, to give a game to certain teams in the top eight to now being back-to-back Ulster champions and in back-to-back All-Ireland semi-finals.”
When Rory Gallagher took charge, Meenagh can remember the days in the Owenbeg analysis room. Gallagher would paint a picture of Ulster final Sunday in Clones. The bus snaking its way through the hordes of supporters. In the portrait, it was the Derry bus as he began to plant the seed of a level they should be aiming for.
“He’d tell them that’s going to happen for us very soon and he kept talking in those sorts of terms,” Meenagh said.
Did the players believe it? From Derry’s perch on the landscape, Meenagh wasn’t so sure of how passable their path to glory was. Then, with every win, selling the dream gets that bit easier.
“That’s the good thing and it’s good for other teams who are in Division Three and Division Four,” Meenagh offers.
“If you get your house in order and start winning games, then winning is a habit…it breeds confidence.
“You can talk all you want about tactics; you can talk all you want about (anything else) but winning is the key currency and it does keep the group together.
“A number of the things Rory did around that, in terms of keeping a small squad and what is effectively a small management team as well…that all helped to keep the noise on the outside.”
Last Tuesday night, Derry drew a line under their 1-12 to 1-8 victory over the Rebels. Scratch the surface on the satisfaction of being in the last four, of not being broken by Cork’s kick-out press or choked by the momentum that accounted for Roscommon and a sliver of regret remains. The winning margin should’ve been more.
Micheál Aodh Martin’s save from Shane McGuigan’s penalty was just one part. It was the other scores they left behind them. After failing to get a handle on the game for 10 minutes, Derry pushed into a 0-6 to 0-2 lead before finding themselves reeled back to a point by half time.
Conor Glass and Odhran Lynch dropped two efforts short. Add in the wides and the occasions when the final pass didn’t make the breadbasket of a red jersey on the overlap. While their play was decent, it wasn’t championship smooth. Not polished enough for crunch time.
A Brendan Rogers interception cut out a goal chance in the first Rebel attack after half-time. Again, Derry were inches from the danger of Odhrán Lynch’s goal being exposed. When Rory Maguire did find the net, cutting Derry’s lead to the bare minimum, Conor Doherty’s bounce dummy and low drive into the Hill 16 goals 54 seconds later saw the green flag hoisted and the Oaks never looked back.
“As satisfying and brilliant that it is to be in an All-Ireland semi-final, we’ll have to go up several levels if we are to have a similar outcome against the Kingdom,” admitted Meenagh, who spoke of the fine margins games are decided on. Like switching off and allowing Rory Maguire a free stride for Cork’s goal.
“If we switch off like that this week, the occasions in the first half (against Cork) that weren’t punished, they will be punished in our next game and we are acutely aware of that.”
Meenagh’s take on facing the top teams has two slants. Tactically, there’s not a pile of difference, but – using Kerry and Dublin as the example – those at the top of the tree have the ruthless edge.
“(It’s) their capacity to devour you on mistakes if there is a slight hint of an opportunity,” Meenagh said, comparing against the teams Derry’s have encountered on their promotion trail not possessing the same killer instinct.
“With the quality these teams (Kerry and Dublin) have, with their ability and the style of football they can play and the quality of the forwards they have, they can put your lights out very quick,” he added, using the example of his latest viewing of their league final defeat at the hands of Dublin.
“It’s how devastating they are on their ability to punish you when they win long kick-outs or when they turn you over,” he said.
“If we don’t play to win, we won’t win the game but playing to win and to go after opposition creates its own problems. That’s the fine line we are going to have to walk on Sunday.”
Win or learn they always say. In that regard, Derry had a forensic look at last year’s All-Ireland semi-final before they plotted their 2023 path.
At a glance, it fits neatly in the same box as the league final defeat to Dublin and their victory over Cork. A sussing out period following by a controlled second quarter that didn’t yield enough to lure their opponents far enough out to hit them with the sledgehammer that wins the game.
Hawkeye correctly added on Shane Walsh’s disallowed point and, before they knew it, Derry were 0-7 to 0-4 in arrears. Galway used the time taken for two frees to be converted to install an aggressive kick-out press. By the time Emmett Bradley plucked the next two balls after his introduction, a three-point buffer held Derry off even before Damian Comer’s goals slammed the door closed.
With a year to deeply dissect their Galway defeat, Meenagh feels they didn’t have the courage to go and win the game.
“Galway were smart, they set up to mirror us and we weren’t ready for the next stage of our evolution in terms of how we would find the opportunities and what they were doing,” he said.
“We were three nil up and they were really struggling to score,” he added, lamenting how Conor Glass had a point taken away by Hawkeye.
“Conor McCluskey broke a line and gave a ball to Benny Heron that he should’ve scored. Niall Loughlin missed another one, Paul Cassidy missed a goal chance when he should just have stuck it over the bar and kept the scoreboard ticking.
“We were in the changing room at half time and it was four-all and there wasn’t the right feel about it. We felt that Galway were going to come with something different and were going to improve in the second half.
“They came with an exceptionally aggressive press on our kick-out and it was something we weren’t a step ahead on.”
Going three points behind opened the “inevitability” can on the game, with a 20-minute scoreless spell sucking the life out of Derry. It left the empty stare across the sideline at a game bolting away.
“This year, I’d like to think we are built in such a way in terms of how we attack slightly differently, that we have the capacity and we are scoring more heavily as well,” said Meenagh, of their 1-14 average tally per game that is one point shy of the Kingdom.
Sunday is a first championship meeting of the counties since the 2004 All-Ireland semi-final, Jack O’Connor’s first year in charge.
You have to go back to 2008 for Derry’s last win over the Kingdom, a NFL final in Parnell Park.
Since that, Kerry have won all five senior meetings including a night when Paul Geaney bagged 1-5 when the sides met in 2015 at Celtic Park, Derry’s last season in Division One.
At underage level, the 2020 All-Ireland minor final is Derry’s only victory over Kerry.
St Patrick’s Maghera lost Hogan Cup finals to Pobalscoil Chorca Dhuibhne and St Brendan’s Killarney. Chorca Dhuibhne were on the right side of a 2-20 to 4-13 extra-time shoot-out over Maghera in an All-Ireland u-16 final with Brian Ó Beaglaoich’s younger brother Ruaidhrí hitting 10 points to cancel out Alex Doherty’s 3-4 haul.
Now at senior level, on the back of a return to Division One, do the Derry players feel they belong in the arena strutting their stuff against a Kerry, a Dublin or a Galway?
“There is a familiarity to some extent there,” Meenagh said about the Derry players having come across many of Sunday’s opponents before.
“I have said it before about this group of players and I suppose they are a reflection of ourselves in the management, their personality is “no drama” and “get on with it”.
“We don’t have big conversations about who we are playing or their tradition. It is very much about identifying key strengths and opportunities we see and then really honing in on ourselves and how we want to play the game as a result.”
Meenagh feels the Derry self-belief is well justified after the players’ exploits at school, underage club, senior club, Derry underage and now senior inter-county level.
“There is a habit there of winning and they’ve played a fair bit in Croke Park,” he summed up.
“We are under no illusions of who we are playing and what it is, but we are certainly not in the position where we are going down to make up the numbers.
“We are pretty confident in our own ability that if we deliver a performance, we are capable of beating anyone as well. It’ll take the best of the best performance to do that.”
Sunday is a long, long way from Derry’s 2019 Sunday in Fraher Field, but the top of the ladder is a few rungs away yet.
For more All-Ireland SFC build-up, check out Thursday’s Gaelic Life – www.GaelicLife.com