Rory Gallagher takes charge of Derry for a second season. (Pic: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile)
Consistency. That's Rory Gallagher's word of choice as he glances forward into Derry's season that begins on Saturday with what he referred to as a 'cut-throat' league campaign.
Coming out of Páirc Esler last season, after their round two league defeat to Down, one point from two games left Derry chasing a promotion spot that was always a step away from them.
After the first lockdown last year, Gallagher revamped his back-room and medical teams, while streamlining the panel. With the downtime, it was like a natural divide between two separate seasons within one.
Those three dropped points early on came back to haunt them, from two games that should've been won.
When the championship rolled into Celtic Park in November, Derry had regrets. Had they got anything out of the first ten minutes, when Armagh found their scores too easy to come by, Derry could've nicked a first championship win in five seasons.
Missing scoring chances in the spell when Jamie Clarke was in the sin-bin didn't help their case. That said, Gallagher concedes Armagh were the better team.
“They were a far more together unit in every facet,” he said.
Standing outside the Celtic Park dressing rooms, minutes after the Armagh defeat, sifting through his thoughts, Gallagher's narrative pointed to a squad with eight championship debutants and their need to raise the bar. Six months on, it hasn't changed.
“I would be looking at us to push on massively and the Longford game could be a big test for that,” he said.
Having managed his native Fermanagh and Donegal in recent seasons, Gallagher feels the other 'top teams' in Ulster have a greater unity. It's now Derry's challenge to get there.
“It is up to us to bring a more consistent selection, a more consistent collective attitude to winning games for Derry,” he continued.
“They went through a period in the last number of years, where they haven't won enough games, certainly not championship games, or games that matter to get promotion or stay out of relegation.
“We have got to start to do that. The only way to do that is to get consistent selection, the same players committing and committing in the manner we are looking for, and committing to each other and I am pleased that has been the case.”
Starting on Saturday, the 14 days to follow will define Derry's season. A trip to Longford, welcoming Gallagher's native Fermanagh and a visit to Ulster champions Cavan.
“If you go by rankings, Cavan and Fermanagh came down (from Division 2), then ourselves and Longford finished third and fourth (in Division 3)...it is a tough hand,” said Gallagher.
With the presence of Covid-19 and the fixture uncertainty, the Derry boss has braced himself for the geographical nature of the Division 3 split.
“All we can do is focus on our first game, against Longford, and try to get off to a winning start, so we can build from momentum,” he stresses. “It is definitely a very cut-throat nature in comparison to a seven-team league, as regards trying to get promotion.”
Derry and Longford have met eight times in league and championship since the turn of the millennium, with four wins each, but the Oakleafers have only won one from their five visits to Longford, a Qualifier game in 2002.
Gallagher accepts it makes the task that bit harder. While his previous visit to Longford in his as a player or in a management capacity tells him it is a tough place to go, he takes solace from games playing behind closed doors. He refers to professional soccer and how empty stadiums can be a leveller.
“It will not feel like a typical away game, but at the same time, it is a fairly long track on Saturday that we have got to get our head around,” he adds.
Barring a knock to defender Conor McCluskey, Derry should be able to select from a full panel this weekend.
Karl McKaigue missed the entire season last year through injury. After battling back from an ankle injury that kept him out the early county season, a torn Achilles tendon injury added to his woe.
He was Slaughtneil's football captain, he missed the club's championship run in both codes and Derry's championship game with Armagh, but has now fully recovered.
Coleraine's Ruairi Mooney and Glen's Jack Doherty didn't kick leather in league or championship during 2020, but have both returned to the fold.
Conor Glass has three games under his belt since his return from the AFL. He now faces the challenge of being away from the round ball for five years and having to adapt to inter-county GAA action with no competitive club action.
There is also a recall to the panel for Gareth McKinless who pulled out in January, with plans to play football in the US during the summer.
Gone from the panel are Carlus McWilliams, Enda Lynn and Glen youngster Alex Doherty.
On their way into the panel are another couple of young guns, in the form of Bellaghy's Conleth McShane and Ronan McFaul (who is still U20. Both were part of the Tones' Ulster minor winning team.
The league is just around the corner, but Gallagher gave his thoughts on the Ulster championship draw, with the prospect of a clash against Down or Donegal.
“It is another gruesome Ulster championship draw for every team on that side,” Gallagher said, referring to Tyrone or Cavan facing the winners.
“No matter who we got, until you move up the divisions, whoever you draw is a very tough draw.
“Therein lies our immediate priority, trying to beat Longford and move forward. If we can play to our potential in the National League, we'll very much look forward to the championship.”
Subscribe or register today to discover more from DonegalLive.ie
Buy the e-paper of the Donegal Democrat, Donegal People's Press, Donegal Post and Inish Times here for instant access to Donegal's premier news titles.
Keep up with the latest news from Donegal with our daily newsletter featuring the most important stories of the day delivered to your inbox every evening at 5pm.