Christy Ring Cup final
Derry v Meath
Saturday, Croke Park, 5pm (Live on TG4)
By Michael McMullan
SATURDAY will be John Mullan’s third time to grace the luscious sod of Croke Park.
Along his younger brother Richie, he was on the wrong end of Offalys 0-41 tally in the Christy Ring final two years ago at Headquarters.
The first visit was more enjoyable when their club Kevin Lynch’s won the 2012 All-Ireland Féile title with Richie in a different role between the posts.
Now they’re back looking for more silver.
Derry were promoted to Division 2A at the end of last season before being forced into a rebuilding phase.
First, they lost 18 players from their panel, including eight who played in their promotion final. Then, three weeks before the league, they were on the look out for a new manager when Dominic McKinley and Cormac Donnelly called time on their tenure.
In came Johnny McGarvey and after a baptism of fire in heavy defeats to Offaly and Kerry, they began to stabilise the ship.
Their survival essentially came down to a winner takes all trip to Ulster rivals Down that ended in a draw after a contentious late free drew the game for the home team.
“The changing rooms were like a wake house after. It felt like a defeat,” Mullan said.
Derry were relegated on score difference the following weekend in Carlow.
“At the start of the season, the Christy Ring final was one of the goals,” said a relaxed Mullan, sitting at the back of the canteen in Derry’s Owenbeg Centre of Excellence.
“If you are playing a game in Croke Park, I think you are playing the wrong sport if you can’t look forward to it,” he said, adding how watching the u-20s win their recent All-Ireland final set his thoughts wandering to another Croker return.
“This is our All-Ireland final…this is our main competition,” said Mullan, who made his debut under the late Collie McGurk in 2018.
“It’s our pinnacle for the season. Croke Park is where you dream of playing your All-Ireland finals.
“It is something we are looking forward to, but when we are down there it will be all business. We are not there for the day out or for sightseeing.”
For all the talk of changing faces, Mullan and clubmate Darragh McGilligan are only two players to have featured in every game in the last two seasons. Cormac O’Doherty is a close second, missing just one game.
Mullan is full of praise with how much trust the management put in the newcomers, including James Friel, Callum O’Kane, Aimon Duffin and Segdae Melaugh, who were also part of the winning u-20 team.
“It’s their first year hurling with the county seniors, but Johnny and the boys threw them straight in,” Mullan added, pointing to Friel being assigned the close-range frees immediately.
It has helped Friel (1-18) to third behind Mullan (2-28 – all from play) and O’Doherty (4-84) in Derry’s scoring stakes.
“The trust the boys (management) put in them boys have put in the younger players has drove us on and it is healthy for Derry hurling,” Mullan added.
A core of six players have helped mask the changeover in numbers. Mullan, McGilligan, O’Doherty. Mark Craig and Meehaul McGrath missed a few games with injury, with Oisin O’Doherty returning after honeymoon.
There was also a return this season for Paul Cleary and Corey O’Reilly – who have chipped in with 0-15 each – to the panel.
“There is a core of players that are driving the standards and pushing it on,” Mullan said of the team’s engine.
“The likes of Cormac and Meehaul (McGrath) and boys coming of the back of what they do for Sleacht Néill, anything they mention in training, you take it in.”
From the end of the league, Derry have been working on has been their end product. Hitting 25 points keeps you in the mix. More is needed to mount a serious title charge.
Another aspect is step up in class in Division 2A. The shoots of hope in moments of their Kerry and Offaly defeats offered hope of sneaking a result.
“Those teams are so consistent across the whole game, their level never drops,” Mullan points out. It took until a competitive tussle with Kildare for Derry to reach the right pitch.
“We finally (realised) we needed to play for the full 70 minutes in that league if we wanted to be competing.
“You can’t drop your level of play, your standards or your scoring. We were dropping for maybe 15 minutes in the third or fourth quarter and it is very costly whenever you get to that level.”
“That’s the sort of thing we are learning up there and that’s why we need to be playing more hurling in 2A,” he added.
For now, it’s about Saturday. It’s about Croke Park. It’s about doing something Derry have never done – win the Christy Ring Cup.
“It would be massive for us,” he said, while adding that any long-term improvement for hurling in the county would demand a consistent and growing panel.
“Meath will be thinking the same, they have a couple of them (Christy Ring Cups) in the back pocket and we have none.
“If we can get into that sort of group and start mixing it when them it would be excellent for us.”