Stakes start to rise for Derry minors

By Michael McMullan

THE stakes rise for Derry and Armagh minors who meet in Saturday’s top of the table clash in Owenbeg.

Group winners advance straight to the semi-finals where they will be rewarded with home advantage. After that, teams in second and third spots play in two quarter-finals.

Reigning Ulster and All-Ireland champions Derry are unbeaten all season having won the Ulster League. For Armagh, their narrow league defeat at the hands to Down pushed them into the shield competition, which they won.

“It’s a big prize for both teams,” said Damian McErlain of Saturday’s visit of the Orchard County.

“Both teams are unbeaten (in the championship), both teams seem to be going well. The big prize in it is that you get a home semi-final which has to be an advantage for any of the teams.”

McErlain is now in the second season of his second tenure as Oakleaf boss.

He accepts a quarter-final would be an extra knock-out game but feels most players and managers would want the straightforward route, a home semi-final.

Derry have a handful of last year’s winning team back including goalkeeper Jack McCloy, midfielder James Sargent, Eamonn Young, Ger Dillon and Luke Grant with other panellists still underage.

“There’s no doubt about it, having five starters is a decent piece to start off with,” McErlain admitted.

“Even having your ‘keeper, with the kick-outs and things like that, it gives you a core that sort of understood the thing before we started. So, I can’t argue that it’s a help.”

In a change from last season, the week-on-week schedule has been replaced by a two-week window between games.

“It was heavy I suppose but the ratio of games to training was better,” McErlain said of last year’s busy series of games. “It’s still good, it’s a few games less but it just seems a bit more strung out.”

It has given Derry the chance to take in challenge games with Cork and Kerry. McErlain has noticed how teams have upped the ante against his side who are perceived to be the fancied horse.

“All the opposition would appear to be well up for our matches,” he said. “We played challenge matches recently against teams from the Deep South and they were up for it in a big, big way, certainly more so than we probably were.”

Many teams see Derry as the top dogs but it’s something McErlain, now in his fifth year management at this level, isn’t taken in by.

“It’s a totally new group (since winning the All-Ireland) but Derry are seen as a level and they want to play against that, which is fair enough – and it’s a compliment too.

“The point I make is that this (Derry) team is totally unproven and nobody is the top team in Ulster yet this year. It’s a totally new group and there’s no way of sort of knowing that yet.”

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