Derry need to find a regular supporting act for Shane McGuigan. (Pic: Mary K Burke)
Sunday, April 2, 2017 was a hectic final Sunday in NFL Division 2, the last time Derry were in football's second tier. It was a day when injury time was a game all of its own.
Derry's plight was outside their own hands. News of Down trailing in Cork filtered through to Brewster Park where Carlus McWilliams' stoppage time point grabbed victory. But it wasn't enough.
Jerome Johnston saved Down with a 74th minute equaliser. Derry's inferior score difference saw them drop below Clare and Down, to the drop zone, and out of the top half of Ireland's football rankings.
Of the six teams in Division 1 that weekend, Dublin, Kerry, Donegal, Tyrone and Monaghan remain there. Since then, Derry have dropped to Division 4, bounced back and fell victim to a horrendous start last season that keeps them in Ireland's bottom half.
If eight team leagues aren't competitive enough, Derry are stepping into the fire this weekend, in the Covid-19 induced four-team leagues. In the distance, Fermanagh and Ulster champions Cavan come down the tracks, but Saturday's trip to Longford will tell a lot in a 14-day period that will define Derry's season.
Mention Longford to any Derry fan, and it will generate that sickening feeling in the pit of their stomach.
Digging deeper, since the turn of the millennium, the sides have played eight times in league and championship, with Derry winning three of them. Of the five Derry played on their travels, you have to go back to a 2002 All-Ireland series for their only win. It was a day when current Longford manager Padraic Davis kicked six points, as Derry hammered them in just the second year of the qualifiers, thanks to two Anthony Tohill goals.
More recently Derry tanked them at Celtic Park last year, but they were without experienced trio Michael Quinn, Barry McKeon and David McGivney.
Speaking to the County Derry Post last week, Rory Gallagher reported an almost clean bill of health. An impact knee injury, sustained in a clash at training, leaves Conor McCluskey the only one of this 32-strong squad doubtful.
Karl McKaigue, Ruairi Mooney and Jack Doherty, bar the latter's McKenna Cup appearance in Gallagher's first game in Inniskeen, missed all of 2021. The trio are in contention for a start this weekend.
Gareth McKinless, who starred for Ballinderry in the last two championships, withdrew from the county scene at the start of 2020 with plans to go travelling. After expressing a desire to return, he is back in the fold.
In the off-season, Chrissy McKaigue and Brendan Rogers had knee operations, after years of wear and tear, with Padraig Cassidy going through a rehabilitation programme on a troublesome hip injury.
There is a greater consistency to the panel. Of the 11 players Rory Gallagher gave inter-county debuts to last year, only Eoghan Duffy and Alex Doherty are no longer on the panel. Of the current squad, only newcomers Conleth McShane and his Bellaghy teammate Ronan McFaul have yet to make their debut.
The championship will take care of itself when it comes around. Before that, it's hard to imagine it even being discussed in the group. Getting off to a winning start is the only show in town. Momentum is sport's most useful tool. With it, so much of everything else follows.
Derry are well-placed. Having almost everyone fit for selection is one plus. The squad are in tip top shape and there has to be positives from elements of the Armagh performance in last year's championship.
Defensively, there are vast improvements to be made. With McKinless in the mix and with Karl McKaigue returning, it will create more competition and with it, the standards will rise. That's the first improvement. Those early exchanges left Armagh playing the game on their own terms. Any shot Longford get away this weekend, will need to be under more than token pressure. Longford have only failed to hit the net in six of the 18 games under Padraic Davis in the last two seasons.
Secondly, getting a medium to long-range kick-out option is another thing Derry need to find. Working the ball out short is okay to an extent, but it is energy sapping and doesn't ask enough questions of the opposition.
Half the Derry squad come from Glen (7), Slaughtneil (6) and Magherafelt (3), teams with their goalkeepers going short more often than not.
A more varied Derry at midfield, will give them so many more options up front. This is where many of the gains are to be had, but it plonks responsibility on Emmett Bradley and the untested Conor Glass. Yes, the former minor captain was a professional athlete, but he has been away from the game for the last five years.
Thirdly, in attack, Shane McGuigan is the star of the show and getting him a regular wing-man up front is a must.
If Derry can improve in these three areas, they can go one better than last season and gain promotion. But it will be far from easy.
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