By Michael McMullan
DERRY may have won their first Ulster title in 24 years last season and narrowly missed out on promotion to the top flight, but manager Rory Gallagher has generalised what success will look like for the Oakleafers in 2023.
Speaking minutes after Lachlan Murray’s wonder score to grab a draw against Tyrone and a semi-final spot against Down this weekend, the Derry boss wouldn’t be drawn on any defined targets but wants to build on the squad with “eight or nine” of Tuesday’s team “nailed on” to start the season ahead.
Does retaining the Ulster title or a return to the top flight figure high on the wish list?
“That’s too far away…our goal is to be better, to bring more hunger and desire; the awareness and the ability to play for each other,” Gallagher said.
“Anybody who doesn’t have the desire or the hunger… the management don’t want those players around us and the boys have got to prove that every single day.
“If we do all those things, we’ll win a lot of games. If we fall short, we’ll end up like we were in the first half.”
The Derry boss was referring to trailing Tuesday’s game 0-7 to 0-3 at half time before going six down shortly after the break and leaving them a mountain to climb to grab share of the spoils.
“From our point of view, it was a good battling performance in the second half,” Gallagher said of a game played in front of 3,327 fans.
“There were a lot of mistakes, a lot of individual errors and a lack of cohesion with the ball at times. Overall, you want to be in battles like that when you are blooding new players and young players.”
Gallagher’s use of Mark Doherty from the start and Niall O’Donnell from the bench took the number of debuts handed out in his four-year term to 20. He gave 14 league debuts and 13 in the championship.
He highlighted the decision two and half years ago to play young players like Paul Cassidy, Ethan Doherty, Odhran Lynch, Conor Doherty, Conor McCloskey and Paudi McGrogan.
“We want to start more players on the journey. Mark Doherty, Eoin McEvoy, Niall O’Donnell, Lachlan (Murray), Matthew Downey when he gets himself right, Anton (Tohill) is part of it, Ben McCarron and Oisin McWilliams.
“McKenna Cup is not high on the list or priorities, at the same time playing Tyrone whets the appetite and playing Down in Newry will whet the appetite too.
“There are eight or nine, of what we played today, that are nailed on no matter what. We want to build a better squad which will build a better team.
“The reason we wanted a third game is because it is the environment we want to see the players in. We have been very deliberate, we keep a small squad.
“We have done very little football training going into the new year with the idea that we’d get a couple of games in the McKenna Cup and if we got a third it would be a big bonus.”
Gallagher hailed how Lachlan Murray “stood up” to kick the crucial late score after the game “didn’t go his way” early on.
“County football is tough, they are going to have setbacks in games, during games and after games, that’s what we want them to experience,” he said of the process of learning the trade.
Ballinascreen goalkeeper Ryan Scullion replaces the outgoing Connlan Bradley in the squad. Dungiven’s Kevin Johnson – who last played in a Qualifier defeat to Kildare in 2018 – returns with young players Niall O’Donnell (Ballinderry) and Conleth McGuckian (Glen) on board.
Gallagher revealed that Emmett Bradley – due to be wed in February – has yet to make up his mind if he’ll re-join the Derry panel after Glen’s All-Ireland final clash with Kilmacud Crokes next weekend.
“There have been very few changes…we don’t want a situation where the panel is changing,” he said.
“I am happy with the quality we have, we don’t keep a big panel. We feel by keeping a small panel of the right quality and the right mentality that stands to us.
“Definitely players will step up from underage, we believe they are the next layer of players. That’s not to say that anybody like Conleth (McGuckian) at 21, 22 or 23, younger or older, who feels they can play we will look at it.
“Together with the county board, the people involved with the Development Squads, Marty (Boyle) and Darren (McShane) with the u-20s, who are part of our extended group, we feel we have got a decent handle on what it coming.”
Looking back to Tuesday’s draw, the Derry boss – who recently confirmed Conor Glass as the new captain – was happy with the battling qualities and “some bouts” of good football.
He was also happy with how Derry adapted to how Tyrone – who he felt were “quite ruthless” – were stopping his side’s running game through the middle third.
“It is well known that Tyrone have been out doing an awful lot of running early in the year to get themselves right back on the horse, but we matched them,” he said, also giving an indication of what he expects from Down on Sunday.
“It was established that once their teams were knocked out of the club championship they were running up hills,” Gallagher said.
“Down haven’t been happy with where they were. We are looking forward to that challenge, it is going to be daunting in that it’s in Newry.”