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05 Oct 2022

PREVIEW: Derry looking for winning start

The Oakleafers host Down this weekend in Owenbeg.

PREVIEW: Derry looking for winning start

Derry will be looking to players like Conor Doherty to create goal chances to test the experienced Rory Burns between the Down sticks on Saturday evening. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile.

Derry v Down
Allianz NFL Div 2
Saturday, January 29
Owenbeg, 6pm
Ref: Paddy Neilan

Promotion can’t be won in the first league game of the season, but with a spot in Division 1 on the line Derry know that every point is going to count – and the value of a strong start.

There are very different expectations on the shoulders of the Derry men than those of a year ago, with manager Rory Gallagher admitting after the Division 3 title win over Offaly in June that winning all their league games was the expectation.

This season, the Fermanagh native knows that the challenges ahead will be much greater if his side want to achieve back-to-back promotions, and that, when it comes to a top two finish, they will be carrying an underdogs tag in a division where Galway, Meath, Roscommon, Cork, Clare, Offaly and Down all harbour their own ambitions.

That 2021 league campaign and the Ulster championship defeat to Donegal - in which Derry dominated on the scoreboard but were sunk by a 74th minute wonder score from Paddy McBrearty - have shown signs of progress and shoots of hope, and with players like Enda Downey and 2020 All-Ireland minor winners Lachlan Murray and Matthew Downey being blooded into the senior set-up through the McKenna Cup this past month, things continue to move in the right direction.

Lachlan Murray has had a promising start to his Derry senior career. Pic by Tom Heaney/nwpresspics.

To kick off another important league campaign in that development, the Oakleaf welcome Down, under the reign of returning manager James McCartan, to Owenbeg on Saturday.

McCartan replaced Paddy Tally, who departed at the end of a 2021 season that saw the Mourne men avoid relegation to Division 3 with a play-off win over Laois before a championship hammering at the hands of Donegal.

When the teams run out onto the pitch this weekend, it will be almost two years to the day since they last met in a league encounter.

It was Down who had the better of it in Newry with a late burst to win 0-14 to 0-12, a result that effectively went on to seal their promotion to Division 2, alongside Cork, and left Derry waiting another year to join them.

Rory Gallagher will be hoping that his side can enact revenge for that result and start their drive for the top table of Division 1 – a place they haven’t been since 2015 – on a positive note.

Matthew Downey in action against Monaghan in the McKenna Cup. Pic by Tom Heaney/nwpresspics.

Of the team who started against Down two years ago, eight players look in contention for a place in Gallagher’s starting fifteen this Saturday – Odhran Lynch, Conor McCluskey, Padraig McGrogan, Shea Downey, Emmett Bradley, Ciaran McFaul, Padraig Cassidy and Benny Heron.

Niall Toner and Conor Doherty also featured off the bench in that game, and the Newbridge man will certainly be expected to be in from the get-go this weekend after his best season yet in the red and white last year.

Brendan Rogers, captain Chrissy McKaigue, and Shane McGuigan were also in that team two years ago and with Slaughtneil’s defeat to Ballygunner in a full-blooded, physical All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship semi-final this past weekend they could be in contention alongside club mates Paul McNeill and Karl McKaigue, in his first full season back with Derry after his Achilles injury.

MISSING

Down also find themselves affected by All-Ireland action. The contingent from the Ulster football champions, Kilcoo, will not be available to McCartan as they prepare for their semi-final meeting with Munster champions St Finbarrs, who have Liatroim’s Conor McCrickard on their panel as the forward completes a work placement in Cork.

But having used 31 players during McKenna Cup defeats to Antrim and Donegal this month, McCartan has some options at his hand.

In the absence of players like Ceilum Doherty, Paul Devlin and Jerome Johnston - who has opened the door on a return to Down after taking last year out from the county scene - a lot of the scoring burden will be placed on the shoulders of Barry O’Hagan.

Slaughtneil's Karl McKaigue could be in contention for a start this weekend. Pic by Harry Murphy/Sportsfile.

Conor McCluskey limped off in Derry’s McKenna Cup semi-final defeat to Donegal, leaving question marks around the Magherafelt man’s fitness but if he does get the green light, it would be a suitable match for O’Hagan.

Liam Kerr, another scoring threat for the Mourne men, has been back training with the county squad following a shoulder injury and McCartan will be hoping he is fit to play some role on Saturday, as well as Corey Quinn who is also coming back from injury – with neither player featuring in the two McKenna Cup games.

Similarly to Rory Gallagher, McCartan did use the January competition to introduce some youngsters to the senior county scene, and with Odhran Murdrock and Andrew Gilmore both scoring goals against Donegal the Mourne manager may throw them into the attacking mix.

Caolan Mooney is a player who Down will be looking to as a leader in this campaign, and it would certainly be a battle of the titans to see him square off with another former AFL player, Conor Glass – who wasn’t used during the McKenna Cup as he recovered from a hamstring injury – in the middle third, with Liam Middleton and Anthony Doherty also adding some physicality in there for the visitors.

Derry supporters will be looking for Glass’ Glen teammate, Ciaran McFaul, to carry his club form into this season’s county campaign.

McFaul is one of the more experienced members on the Oakleaf panel, having been involved since 2012, and it could be a task for Darren O'Hagan.

Lachlan Murray started all three of Derry’s McKenna Cup games and although Rory Gallagher has been impressed with the young Desertmartin forward it would be a massive show of faith to put the All-Ireland minor winner in alongside Niall Loughlin.

Glen's Ethan Doherty has started the season well in red and white. Pic by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile.

With the pace offered from deep through Ethan Doherty and Conor Doherty, Derry will be hoping to create goal chances to test the experienced Rory Burns between the Down sticks.

Peter Fegan, Pierce Laverty and Gerard Collins will offer protection to Burns, and McCartan may go for further experience with Kevin McKernan to sweep up any danger in front of that defensive unit.

Based on home advantage, players missing and the recent trajectory of the two squads, Derry will go in as favourites against their Ulster counterparts but the men from Mourne will be coming up the road prepared for a tough, physical battle.

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