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Gerard O'Kane

Gerard O’Kane: A happy 21st for Derry

ONE of my favourite films of its era, and one which I could watch again if it comes on the TV, is ‘21’.

It is a 2008 film based on a group of American college students who have an innate mathematic ability whereby they can count cards. Basically they have found out a way to work as a group under pressure and beat the system in some of the big casinos in America.

Granted it is a film, but I have no doubt such practices exist in casinos all over the world. It is not illegal to do so as long as no device is used, but as casinos are private property they have the right to kick anyone out, so attempt it at your own peril.

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The number 21 resonates with me because it is the number of points Derry put up against Longford in their first league game five weeks ago and fast-forward to last Saturday it is also the number of points that they put up against Offaly in the Division Three final.

You often hear that teams need to be hitting the 19- or 20-point mark to be able to beat Dublin as it is often taken for granted this is what they might usually score. Well Offaly are obviously not in the same category as Dublin, but given the scoring Derry have been hitting all year it gives supporters optimism ahead of the championship opener in three weeks’ time.

All the vibes coming from the Derry camp itself are positive. It is also the case that the Derry team seems to be one of the tightest knit camps in a while. While we hear very little on the ground, anything we do hear is reassuring.

They are playing a brand of football that many thought Rory Gallagher would not bring to the table, but in fairness to him he has always said he has both the potential to change and also that he can only play the hand he is dealt with in terms of the players available. There seems to be a balance to the side and if you have had the chance to watch them over the league campaign they can also mix it up.

On a wet day versus Longford many remarked on their strong running game and ability to simply power over the top of their opponents. This continued right though until the Fermanagh game when Derry were at their most clinical. Then against Cavan there was the ability to play a more direct kicking game with a fair bit of first-time ball up to the dangerous full-forward line.

On Saturday it looked as though there was a reversion back to more of a running game. While Croke Park is set up for a kicking game, Offaly played quite deep so this didn’t allow Derry to kick as much. It didn’t really matter as their running game was more than capable of tearing holes in the Offaly rear-guard.

This ability will be vital come three weeks’ time when they line up in the Ulster Championship. Around five weeks ago I had tipped Down to maybe cause a shock but as both Down and Donegal have navigated their league campaigns, I think you will be hard pushed to find anyone tipping Paddy Tally’s side.

This being the case, the ability to mix things up versus Donegal will be vital. Donegal are maybe just behind Dublin in being the most tactically adept team in Ireland over the last seven or eight years. Just because they do not win all their games like Dublin doesn’t mean that they are not totally clued in.

It is hard to say if they underestimated Cavan last year but they did go into the game minus Ciaran Thompson, Odhran McFadden-Ferry, Stephen McMenamin and Paul Brennan. While all four might not have started at the one time, it’s definitely conceivable to think that three of the four would have started.

Given the season that was in it, a November afternoon in Sunday was the scene for a perfect storm for Cavan. So unfortunately for Down and then Derry, expect Donegal to have that memory fresh in their mind.

While it will make the task all the tougher, don’t expect it to be impossible for Derry to beat either Donegal or Down. Derry will work on themselves over the next two weeks and most likely take a night or two and focus on their opponents.

With Rory Gallagher confident of 13 or so of the starting team and not scared to express this, it will give those guys confidence.

The move of Chrissy McKaigue to the full-back line and introduction of Gareth McKinless to the centre-back position has been a great double-sided move.

Chrissy offers so much assurance in the last line of defence. He slots into a natural man-marking role. I know a lot of players like to be out the pitch and showcase their talents but Chrissy is humble enough to know he might have to curtail some of his natural instincts for the betterment of the team. This then lets Gareth McKinless off the leash.

People have remarked over the last few weeks about how his directness and incisiveness has been a revelation but those of us closer to the club scene have seen it all before. Over the last few years he has played at number 11 for Ballinderry and he simply picks the ball up and drives every time. He is comfortable on the ball, wins frees, creates overlaps and can take a score.

Moving up to midfield and the two Glen men of Conor Glass and Emmet Bradley have formed a powerful partnership. They obviously know each other well from club exploits when younger but they have blossomed into a strong unit.

After scoring 21 points on several occasions or hitting five goals in one game versus Fermanagh, Derry have shown enough to prove they can trouble most teams, certainly in Ulster.

While a Division Three title doesn’t guarantee anything further down the line, it does show a team coming with momentum and on an upward trajectory.

While I am not going to use the term ‘from small acorns grow mighty oaks’ or something akin to that, I can attest that Derry have learned to walk again before they run so, fingers crossed, in three weeks this can turn into a sprint.

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