GERARD O’KANE: Short on top

IT was Brian Clough who famously said, ‘We had a good team on paper. Unfortunately, the game was played on grass’. Well the same can be said in a roundabout way for Derry on Saturday this week.

Of all the teams Derry could have got in the draw, Mayo were maybe the best team on paper. Luckily for Derry the game is played on grass. Both Tyrone and Louth carried their own baggage for different reasons but for me Mayo were the toughest draw Derry could have got in terms of the set of players they can call upon. These were my thoughts before the weekend and they were further reinforced on Sunday once I watched Mayo on Sunday.

Mayo put Dublin to the pin of their collar and they will rue that last kick-out where they let Dublin back into the game. Mayo’s game thrives on chaos, playing more off the cuff and going at teams where they can sometimes play with abandonment. But from what I saw on television, Kevin McStay was frantically waving in a ‘come back’ motion as the last score went over the bar.

He has tried to bring a bit more structure and control to Mayo and that was evident by his actions on the sideline on Sunday. The players on the pitch have to take responsibility for what ensued. Before the kick was taken and was put over the bar, the players themselves should have made the decision to drop off but they went after the last kick-out man for man.That resulted in a clean catch for Dublin and an offload to Jack McCaffery who was then able to make up 80 yards via a few one-twos and it ended with the winning point. People will look at that and point to Dublin’s ability to claw back a game but for me that was all on Mayo.

Conversely, the above approach might suit Derry at different times of this weekend’s game. It might allow Derry to get at Mayo and get in behind for scores if the ball is moved fast enough. Like Jack McCaffery, Derry’s strength over the last while has been their ability to break from that area, but with key personnel from that sector not consistently available they have struggled. Hopefully they will have some of those men back out on the pitch this weekend.

So what exactly did we learn from Derry v Westmeath on Saturday? Westmeath were able to hold Armagh to five points and Galway to four so for me, the Derry game panned out exactly as I expected it to. If Derry had won by more, it would have been labelled as what was expected when the Division One champions meet the Division Three champions.

Westmeath set up in a manner that they were always going to be difficult to break down so take away the scoreline and look at the performance of Derry.

What worries me is that everyone was hoping for a performance full of energy, evidence that they had turned a corner and unfortunately this wasn’t the case. Westmeath were hard to break down and that meant that Derry had to take every scoring chance available to stretch the game.

Westmeath were happy to keep it to a one-score game down the stretch and this is exactly what happened. Derry had chances to stretch the game. A few missed chances from Shane McGuigan, Lachlan Murray and Paul Cassidy meant the game was always within Westmeath’s reach.

These were the type of scores that Derry were generally nailing during the league. Had they done so, it meant that Westmeath had to come out and attack the game more which would leave gaps at the back. Derry just need to be more clinical.

Mayo will always create their own chances but Derry’s defence on Saturday was good. Conor McCluskey, Diarmuid Baker, Chrissy McKaigue, and Ciaran McFaul were all good on the ball and Eoin McEvoy did a job on John Heslin. Conor Glass provided his usual cover with maximum efficiency. Given all this, I have no worries of Derry’s ability to keep the Mayo forwards under pressure when shooting and be really stingy in defence.

It’s the top end of the pitch where Derry need improvement but as we know they are very capable and have it in them. Whichever way it falls, one of the perceived top six will be gone on Saturday night.

The other three games this weekend are maybe a little more straightforward with a clear favourite in each of the games but whoever comes out of the four games will be on the backfoot immediately as four real quality teams are waiting on them just six or seven days later in a quarter-final.

It might have taken a while but the championship is finally here.

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