GERARD O’KANE: It’s crunch time

MY last column opened with the lines “what a difference four weeks makes!” This was in reference to Derry losing to Donegal after beating Dublin in an exhilarating game four weeks previous to that.

Derry had gone from such a high to a low in the space of four weeks that it led to wall-to-wall coverage. There were two schools of thought. The first one was that Derry had put all their eggs into the one basket, they were starting to creak and that Donegal had exposed them. The other was that it was nearly a good thing for Derry.

This break from the Ulster Championship would give them the chance to work away from the limelight, get bodies rested and make a real assault on the All-Ireland series.

Well, here we are and it’s the Thursday after a defeat in Salthill by a Galway team who seem to be moving through the gears rightly.

I was at the league game in Salthill where five points separated the teams, but in truth it was a five-point hammering. There were 11 points in it after an hour. The game on Saturday past was completely different on a number of levels. Derry fielded without Conor Doherty, Padraig McGrogan and Eoin McEvoy, basically their whole half-back line. Whereas from the league game, Galway had Shane Walsh, Damien Comer, Rob Finnerty, Paul Conroy and Cillian McDaid back. That’s nearly a whole forward line in itself and a damn good one at that.

Add into the fact that Derry lost Gareth McKinless to a red card midway in the first half and what was always likely to be a tough assignment just ramped up a notch.

Performance wise, Derry didn’t play too badly. At the time that Galway hit their second goal, Derry had the chance for a point at the far end. They chose to go for goal and it was saved and that old story of a ‘four-point swing’ kicked in. Instead of the margin being down to two points it was out to six.

Also consider the fact that the first Galway goal came from a shanked kick-out and that Derry dropped five-plus chances short. The game was still within Derry’s reach, but, in truth, anything other than a Galway win would have been a surprise given the way the game was developing.

Phrases like ‘flat’ and ‘lack of energy’ have been used to describe Derry’s last two performances and I can see where that is coming from.

Things like that are not easy changed either and with Armagh coming down the tracks, unless Derry get their personnel back out on the pitch, Derry could be facing into a potential winner-takes-all game with Westmeath on the last day (providing Galway and Armagh beat Westmeath as predicted).

As an ex-player I find it hard to be too critical of the players given what they have brought to Derry football over the last four years. However, expectations rise with success and they will know themselves they have not performed to the levels required or expected so hopefully they get a chance to go away and remedy this.

All it takes is one big result versus Armagh to get the momentum going again. From a supporters’ perspective, we have to give them every chance to do so.

Outside of my own county, things went as predicted for the Ulster contingent last weekend. Cavan had a tough assignment away to Mayo in the first round. Mayo would have been chomping at the bit to get back at it after the Connacht final defeat, especially the last 10 minutes. Cavan travelled across to the west after producing a very good display against Tyrone but in the weeks following this, they lost their star forward Paddy Lynch to the dreaded cruciate injury.

This will have all added up to a tough few weeks for Cavan which won’t get any easier with Dublin coming to town next weekend.

Monaghan went down to Killarney and as Vinny Corey put it himself, the first half performance was the worst half of football under his tenure.

After that it was damage limitation as it would have taken something extraordinary to close the gap on Kerry, who will now go on and most likely top the group at a canter. For Monaghan, the season has the ability to peter out so they will need to get a kick or a boost from somewhere or the obituaries, which have been written year after year and are never printed, might just come to fruition this time.

In the Tailteann Cup, Down, Antrim and Fermanagh had victories and at this stage, this is all that will matter. All three are sitting with two victories each so it looks quite likely that all three will progress.

Then there’s a massive weekend ahead for Tyrone, Donegal and Armagh.

Who would be surprised if Tyrone went to Ballybofey and got a result? The two teams drew only a matter of five weeks ago and the game went deep to extra-time before it was decided. Granted, Donegal seem to have an aura about them at the minute but nonetheless, Tyrone showed enough in the Ulster semi-final that they are not to be discounted.

Like my own county Derry, Armagh now have a massively important game versus Westmeath this weekend.

The outcome can set up how the rest of their season unfolds. Realistically, a victory is all that matters for them.

They were bound to be on the floor after the Ulster final defeat so a strong response is crucial. It will also be very interesting from a Derry point of view as we have them in nine days’ time. With that in mind, it will be a massive two weeks for the Ulster challengers in the race for a quarter-final place never mind Sam Maguire.

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