All-Ireland SFC Round 1
Derry v Monaghan
Saturday, Celtic Park, 7pm (Live – GAAGO)
By Michael McMullan
THE more things change, the more they stay the same. For the third time in 377 days, Derry and Monaghan will lock antlers in championship football when Vinny Corey’s men arrive in Celtic Park on Saturday evening.
There is a new chief in town with Ciaran Meenagh taking over from outgoing manager Rory Gallagher in the Ulster champions’ corner.
But it’s the same tight-knit squad of 29 players who take their next step onto a path they hope will take them one step further than an All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Galway last season.
Amidst the post-Ulster final joy of the Clones tunnel, Meenagh revealed how Derry’s first thoughts of back-to-back titles only came earlier that morning.
He stated how the Derry camp are not “emotive” and their 2023 ambitions weren’t rooted on a quirky ‘let’s win it again’ motivational goal inch. Fermanagh had to be respected. Whoever it was after that were the same.
On Ulster final morning, the Anglo Celt Cup and the kudos of retaining it became tangible. So too was avoiding Galway and Tyrone in the All-Ireland group stages.
“Though it’s not ideal to be meeting Monaghan again in two weeks’ time, but it is what it is,” Meenagh added with half an eye on the next step. “We will just take things in our stride and prepare accordingly.”
That half an eye will become a full stare this week, looking into what challenges the Farney men can muster. It’s only weeks since Derry decommissioned all but Karl O’Connell in a comfortable win.
Meenagh is no slow dozer in the football stakes. He is a thinker. And he has a level head. As well as his input under Rory Gallagher and previous manager Damian McErlain, he knows the players. A safe pair of hands in every sense of the term.
You don’t need to be talking to him long before you realise why no Derry player or pupil of St Colm’s Draperstown – where he teaches with Benny Heron – would ever have a bad word said about him.
The plan Derry hatched for the Farney men last month will be recalibrated to account for the possibility of Ryan McAnespie who has returned to the fold. It’s another footballing wing back needing put on the back foot.
For Monaghan, the layoff offered time to regroup. From the high of Ryan O’Toole’s goal to chin Tyrone to being hustled by Derry, it was a different set of emotions. Vinny Corey will hope his charges are somewhere in the middle.
Picking through the rubble of a championship exit, there will be learning. Monaghan will have to find a way of getting Conor McManus purring. But it’s easier said than done.
Ideally, Monaghan would love to have him hanging off the front of inside duo of Gary Mohan and Jack McCarron. Coming off the loop and kicking points without even needing to look at the posts. That sounds good, but they’ve always got choked up with Derry’s individual and collective defending. The Oaks are masters by this stage.
Also, Derry attack with McEvoy, McGrogan, McCluskey and play with energy. They pull forwards into defensive areas they don’t want to go. It drains the energy needed to function full at the cutting edge up top. Take McCluskey’s goal last month. He saw McManus faltering in the defensive mode and hit the afterburners with purpose.
That’s where Monaghan miss Niall Kearns in the engine room. Darren Hughes hasn’t lasted the duration in their Ulster championship games to date. Also, his brother Kieran hasn’t had a regular run of games.
The extra weeks of training won’t have done Dessie Ward any harm and Monaghan will need him at full pelt.
Their advantage, something Ciaran Meenagh also mentioned, is how Vinny Corey and his management will have been able to get another decent look under the Derry bonnet.
Television wouldn’t have done justice to how well Armagh closed down Derry’s backdoor cut. It has been Paul Cassidy and Ethan Doherty especially who had been hanging back before cutting inside. A combination of Conor O’Neill and Jarlath Burns silenced Doherty’s runs. That’s said, Doherty was involved in four of Derry’s 16 scores over the game with limited grass to stride into.
What will have pleased Derry will be how their three driving forces caught the game by the throat – Glass, Rogers and McGuigan. The Sleacht Néill man is playing like someone with an inner desire to climb to another level.
On the back of 10 different scorers against Monaghan in their last meeting, it was back to the leadership of Glass, McGuigan and Rogers to drive it on. Add in Chrissy McKaigue and his protegee Eoin McEvoy in the last line of defence.
The Oakleaf debate will be about Ciaran McFaul. Does he start? Or will he spend time like Emmett Bradley did last year, as an impact substitute capable of pushing Derry on when the management need another portion of oomph.
For Monaghan’s side of the build-up, they also have questions.
How can they maximise the imprint of McManus? Is it a day for starting Sean Jones?
Monaghan will again have to accept the underdogs’ tag. Then again, it fits well. They’ve been tipped for relegation from Division One over the past number of years and we’ve saw how that panned out.
The stabilisers in Ciaran Meenagh’s inter-county management career have how been screwed off.
Derry’s performances are now on him. He doesn’t get too excited or despondent.
A consistent and calm Oakleaf camp to advance.