Dare say it, but one kick of a ball and 2013 could’ve been near perfect for Derry.

The Oak Leafers led Cavan up in a scorching Celtic Park just one week after revenge was bestowed upon Down.  It was a downright thriller of a contest that just about had everything.  Everything but the killer blow which Enda Lynn’s left boot failed to deliver in injury time as he held both Derry and Cavan’s fate in his hands 25 metres from goals.

Had he kicked it like he had been doing all year, had he put two points in it and spoiled Cavan’s chance of an equaliser, Derry would’ve went through, beaten London in the next round and found themselves in an All-Ireland quarter final, the furthest the county have progressed in nine years.

Add that to the bonus of a bit of league silverware and promotion to the top tier for 2014 as well as a crack at Kerry in the last eight, the preferred quarters draw, that season couldn’t have been faulted.

But it was cut short in the quagmire of extra time up on the Lone Moor Road and it was Cavan who made it all the way to Croke Park and it was the home fans who streamed out cursing another ‘failed’ year.

In the bigger picture, it was actually a fantastic campaign.

Still though, you can only ride on the young team, five-year plan bandwagon for so long and Brian McIver and his Derry squad – like almost everything in sport – will be more critically judged by their second term.

And that starts on Sunday in Clones with the beginning of the McKenna Cup in the home of the Ulster champions.

POSITIVES OF 2013

Mark Lynch

The new captain started to deliver on the potential he has been threatening for a decade.  Playing with number six on his back, the Banagher man looked at home breaking from defence and surging up field, always facing the goals and an inspirational score from play became customary.  Took a bit of criticism from the terraces in the championship after he had fought blood and thunder to get back from injury and sank very deep around the full back line but completely turned the game in the second half against Cavan.  He’s now the real leader of this new age for Derry.

Brian McIver

More often than not, the Ballinderry man made the right call from the sidelines.  Ever since the Laois battle in Celtic Park which sparked a four-month unbeaten run, McIver was shrewd with his second half introductions and, along with the influential influence of Paddy Tally, he had the Oak Leafers at a fitness level far removed from what we have seen in years.  Derry finished strongly in all of their clashes and the ability to transform the team into using an effective running game protected the defence and made Derry one of the top scorers in the country.

Celtic Park

Most thought – or at least they hoped – that Celtic Park would become redundant with the new Owenbeg development but the crowds which streamed in for the Ulster championship match against Down, and the crowds which came back for the second instalment with the Mourne men and then the Cavan clash brought a real buzz back to the county that nowhere else would’ve been able to hold.  It brought a greater identity back with the county team, one which people could’ve taken or left in years gone by, and the atmosphere could well be electric once again come the league when Tyrone and Dublin come to the Lone Moor Road.

NEGATIVES OF 2013

Midfield

It’s strange that with one monumental display, Patsy Bradley and PJ McCloskey completely turned the second Down game on its head.  And when they’re at it, by God no one will cope with them.  But that was the only time we were treated to the pairing as Ryan Bell was forced to play there the first day alongside an injured Patsy Bradley and, against Cavan, we finished the game with Mark Lynch and championship debutant Emmett Bradley in the middle of the park such was the lack of depth.  Fergal Doherty has returned to the fold and that will be a massive boost but to have McCloskey and Bradley firing again come the summer will literally turn odds on their head.

Full backs

Not only was Chrissy McKaigue yet again forced to play another season out of position at full back, but outside of Dermot McBride, we had no other cover in the last line of defence.  Herds of players were thrown in as trials for corner back positions but no one made it their own and there was always the worry that, no matter how much Derry were dominating, their back line was there for the taking.  It turned too many games into a good old-fashioned shootout, a we’ll score more than you.  Entertaining, sure.  But not nice if you’re the manager and McIver will want to tighten up there.

Fixtures

The club versus county debate is everpresent in Derry and it’s largely down to the fact that the county board do nothing to ease contempt for the intercounty side.  Instead, it’s a series of rescheduled matches and a chorus of ifs and buts as clubs have to wait and see how Derry do to determine the outcome of a game they have pencilled in for three days’ time.  The fact that Derry’s advance to July caused disarray to the club schedule was embarrassing and a bit more respect and catering for every scenario on the county side of things would keep clubs consistent and happy and maybe, just maybe, start to take away the divide that’s prevalent right now.  You should be able to enjoy both to the full.

A LOOK AT 2014

O Fiaich Cup

So Chrissy McKaigue lifted the first piece of silverware of the season and the last bit of honours in 2013 when Derry beat Armagh in the O Fiaich Cup final with largely a trial squad.  Mark Craig made his return to county action after a season on the sidelines and the Dungiven man, one of the first names in the team sheet under John Brennan, will give McIver some selection headaches.  Mickey McShane, who had a sterling year at full back with Ballinascreen, was played at number four for the whole competition and he is the sort of boy we need to be looking at.  Aaron Kerrigan lit up the earlier rounds with his pace and eye for goal and will probably get more of a look in the McKenna Cup whereas Loup’s Anthony O’Neill made the inevitable step to the county senior squad and the jinky full forward could be one to watch in the year ahead.  Meanwhile, Declan Mullan made his return to action after another stop-start year and his goal once again reignited a bit of interest around the exciting Coleraine forward.

Midfield

With PJ McCloskey’s cruciate injury keeping him out until at least April, more emphasis falls in finding more depth for the middle of the park.  Mark Lynch played there alongside Fergal Doherty in the O Fiaich final and rattled the net to boast.  He could certainly do a job there like he did with Banagher last year in his finest campaign to date but would suit better dropping deeper, maybe just shy of the midfield like Paul Cartin did for his club wearing number nine.  Doherty’s return is huge and, alongside Patsy Bradley, the same two which guided Derry to the last four of the All-Ireland in 2004, Derry will be steady.  It’s what happens when one is gone or tired is the problem.  James Kearney hit the winner in that O’Fiaich Cup and the Swatragh man can catch, run, and kick with that sweet left foot of his as well as the rest of them but he is still young and he is still lightweight.  Getting McCloskey back though would solve everything and it would make for a very interesting battle of places but Doherty plays second fiddle to no one.

The Ballinderry contingent

How many players from the one club can you fit into a team because, right now, this lot is ready: Gareth McKinless, Ryan Scott, Conor Nevin, Ryan Bell, Michael McIver, Raymond Wilkinson, Coilin Devlin, Aaron Devlin.  McKinless, Scott, and Nevin could all start in the Derry backline and Michael McIver could too like he did at the tail end of last decade but he could also play one of those wing forward roles like a dream if his father sees fit to call him up.  Sources suggest that the Shamrocks skipper and dominant centre half back, Nevin, is now keen to take up the mantle and if McIver doesn’t get him out, no one will.  Gareth McKinless will start at number two and that’s that.  He’s young, he’s light, but he’s ready and could tackle the best of them.  Just ask Michael Murphy.  Ryan Bell was simply colossal in the Down replay when he kicked six from play and, funny you should mention Murphy, because that’s exactly where Bell is headed.  The towering Ballinderry forward is going to be one of the best in Ireland and, having just turned 20 yesterday, he is only going to get better and better than his league final man of the match suggests, than his dismantling of the Mourne men, and than his mouthwatering leadership of the Ulster club champions.  Give that man a football and let him do whatever the hell he likes.  Bell should start at centre forward but given the licence to roam like Martin McKinless gives him at Shamrock Park and the rest of them, people like James Kielt, Emmett McGuckin, even the midfielders, they can just get out of the way and make way because this team needs to be built around Ryan Bell.

Eoin Bradley

This has gone on too long now for my liking.  Eoin Bradley, right now, is perhaps the greatest full forward in the country.  In the first half in the league final, Westmeath couldn’t cope with him.  In the Down defeat, two Mourne full backs were torn a new one and his club championship form was probably the best thing about the entire year.  He beat Slaughtneil on his own as three maroon jerseys hung off him every time a piece of leather came anywhere near him and a decimated Glenullin side took Lavey the whole way simply because Skinner was unmarkable.  His role with Coleraine is growing increasingly worrying though.  He’s getting paid with the Irish League club and, at the minute, there seems to be a bit of a stand off and Bradley won’t form part of the McKenna Cup squad.  It should be irrelevant what people think of the Bradleys or their effect on their squad or his involvement with soccer.  Right now, we have a number 14 who any side in Ireland would cry out for and he’s right under our nose.  We should be camping outside his house to bring him back.  He’s worth it.

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