Joint Derry hurling manager Dominc McKinley.
For the last two seasons, Derry have been able to reach out and touch Division 2A, but have not been able to climb over the fence to greener pastures.
Collie McGurk took them from the Nicky Rackard Cup to the cusp of a Christy Ring Cup Final. An inspired goalkeeping performance from Kildare goalkeeper Paddy McKenna thwarted their return to Croke Park.
Two years ago, John McEvoy came in as boss and an impressive season took them back to the league decider, where Derry lost to Wicklow in a low scoring afternoon at a blustery Inniskeen. A day when Brian Óg McGilligan hobbled off after 25 minutes and the appearance of Brendan Rogers wasn't able to spark the goal they needed to take them over the line.
Last year, after ticking along nicely, Covid kicked in and when the league final was played, Derry weren't at the races. It wasn't even a contest.
Dominic 'Woody' McKinley came in as joint manager this season, alongside Cormac Donnelly. McKinley, who managed both Derry senior hurlers and camogs in the past, knows what he wants from this season.
“My personal opinion is that the National League is more important than the championship to us,” McKinley outlined.
He has been around the block. An All-Ireland winner with Loughgiel in 1983, an All-Ireland Final appearance with Antrim in 1989, he coached Antrim at all levels and was a major cog in Slaughtneil's rise to the pinnacle of camogie.
Sitting at Derry hurlers' press evening last week, there is enthusiasm as he talks hurling. The words flow with a passion. The facial expressions don't tell any lies.
It's about getting Derry up a level. There is a hurt that hurlers below the elite, top level counties don't get the recognition. Counties like Derry.
'Seven or eight' of their squad are capable of playing at any level. When the Champion 15 - the 'All-Star' team from the Christy Ring, Nicky Rackard and Lory Meagher Cups – was announced, Derry weren't represented.
“I suppose you have to earn that,” Woody admits. “The only way is to keep your head down, work hard and then people will recognise you as a group.
“I want Derry to get up a league, you get more of a profile for the players and get to play against better teams.
“If you are playing at a higher standard, it is more attractive for the media and hurling people. If I had a choice, I'd love to get moved up a league.”
As our conversation continues, Liaison Officer Terry Gray issues a list of the Derry squad. Of the 33 names, Alan Grant is in rehab from a knee injury last year.
The panel is open, but McKinley is happy with the squad. Brian Cassidy, Niall Ferris and Gerald Bradley are back on board to give them extra attacking options. There is a return for Slaughtneil goalkeeper Oisin O'Doherty, who last donned the Derry goalkeeper jersey in 2012 having played outfield the previous year.
“That was the first thing we looked at before we got the job, could me and Cormac draw all these players all back in again,” he points out.
Dual players aren't on the table. Chrissy McKaigue and Brendan Rogers have played under the last two management teams. But it was a balancing act. The fixture calendar doesn't permit it.
Mark Craig is managing his long-term back injury. Brian Cassidy and Conor McAllister are doubts for the Mayo game, but everyone should be available for selection.
Challenge games aren't on the menu. It frustrates McKinley, so an in-house game last weekend will have to do as they sharpen the focus for the season ahead.
“A lot of wee niggly injuries are there now that club training has started as well,” adds McKinley, as frustration creeps into his voice, from the increased workload on the players.
“We want to manage it so they are there for the full season for club and county.”
There is a plea to clubs, who won't have their 'serious business' until the heel of the year.
“These matches are very important for Derry hurling as well,” he adds, while hailing the support of Chairman Stephen Barker.
“He is very fair,” Woody states. “He is wanting progress. It is a serious business and we need to be serious about getting them (Derry) up a level and that's what the players want.”
The closest Derry came to promotion was their 2019 decider, a day when Wicklow's goal was the difference. It's Derry's failure to find the net that has left them on the wrong side of tight games.
During the off-season, selector Conor Murray has been looking into the scoring statistics and Derry's know where the gains are to be made.
“He came back to us and it is interesting reading,” McKinley said. “If you were looking at it from another team's point of view, you could think they'll capitalise on our team by blocking a couple of players off in our forward line and we'd be in serious bother.
“So we are looking for a greater spread of scores, if you look at the players we have, there is no doubt we can.”
McKinley questions Derry's team play, shot selection...all the pieces of the puzzle of their scoring conundrum.
“That's what we've been going over this last few weeks and hopefully we can get more out of it,” he continues.
“We are even recording what we are scoring in our training games, what we do in each sector, to see if our scoring averages are up.”
Now the challenge is taking it to Castlebar on Sunday.
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