Oakleafers eye first All-Ireland U-20 title

All-Ireland U-20 B HC final
Derry v Roscommon
Saturday, Croke Park, 2.45pm

By Michael McMullan

DERRY are aiming for a first ever All-Ireland U-20 hurling title when they take on Roscommon in Saturday’s showdown in Croke Park.

The Oakleafers lost to Kerry (2018) and Meath (2021) in their previous finals before going under to eventual winners Down in a dramatic penalty shootout last season.

It has been a balancing act for Derry’s management with four players in the senior hurling squad and a further three part of the county’s u-20 football squad.

“We have great lads there and a lot of them we’ve been coaching for four or five years,” said selector Kevin Kelly.

Kelly, manager Ryan O’Neill and Martin Birt have been the forefront of u-17 and u-20 hurling in recent years, delivering two Celtic Challenge titles with John O’Dwyer coming on board this season.

Derry beat Down in a cracking Ulster U-20 semi-final earlier this season before losing the decider to Antrim on a night when goals made the difference.

The Oakleafers were comfortable winners over Mayo and Donegal on the way to this weekend’s All-Ireland finale.

James Friel, Aimon Duffin, Segdae Melaugh and Callum O’Kane have also been involved with the Derry senior squad.

The current group missed out on their minor grade due to the Covid restrictions and the management made the commitment to stay on to help them bridge the gap to senior through the u-20 grade.

“We have a very strong u-19 group with Ruairí, Segdae and James Friel, but they will probably not get hurling next year at u-20 (level),” said Kelly who surmised how the underage structures may revert to u-19 for 2024.

“It would be deadly to win our first (u-20 title) but we don’t have the same history in this as Roscommon, they have won it twice.

“They are no slow dozers; they have a good team. They have nine of the team from last year back again and they’d be expected to drive on.”

It’s first u-17 or u-20 meeting of the counties, but Kelly points to the games at senior level and how there is a similar brand of hurling.

“Michael Fallon has playing very well and well organised. They are very dangerous up front and have Joe Canning’s nephew (Seán) on board.

“They put 12-19 on Tyrone and then gained revenge with 3-17 against Down in the semi-final and battled very hard in that game in Darver.

“I see them going into this final as slight favourites, but hopefully we’ll come out on the right side of it.”

Kelly is full of praise for Derry chairman John Keenan and his efforts to help secure Croke Park as a venue for Saturday’s showdown.

“It was absolutely brilliant but it was on the cards,” he said. “It is a great opportunity for the lads and for hurling in general

“They could have played it in Bally-backandbeyond and play lip service to hurling development, it is handy to do, but when you get on the big dancefloor is sparks a bit of an interest.

“We cannot thank John Keenan and the county board enough for pushing this and giving us the opportunity to get to Croke Park.

“We have been very lucky with officials in our time with the u-17s and u-20s. Brian Smith and Danny Scullion in there when we started,” Kelly concluded, pointing to the input from the current board.

“They have been more than helpful to all county teams. You just have to be up at Owenbeg to see the buzz and how all the teams are looked after.”

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