After four winters preparing to take on the cream of Ireland's clubs, Cormac O'Doherty is now firmly focused on Derry's hurling fortunes. He sat down with Michael McMullan ahead of this weekend's trip to Newbridge...
It’s a different winter for Cormac O’Doherty. The hurl is still in hand, but the colour of the jersey has changed.
It’s a blustery Sunday and the Oakleafers’ attacking ace is seated in Owenbeg’s canteen.
Derry hurlers have just completed an in house game ahead of this weekend’s top of the table battle with Kildare.
For the last four winters, his colour was maroon. Preparing himself for the defences of Na Piarsaigh and Nemo Rangers, of St Vincent’s and Cuala.
Seated at a table behind him are Gerald Bradley and Sean Cassidy. Like the rest of the Derry hurling squad, they are refreshing their phones for updates on the county’s football fortunes in Waterford.
It’s getting tense. An unthinkable upset is on the cards.
Karl McKaigue’s point gets a reaction. But not as much as the news of Paul McNeill’s 68th minute goal. Just when it was needed to seal two more points in Derry’s rescue mission.
All players who O’Doherty battled in the trenches with under the watch of Mickey Moran and Michael McShane.
After four years, the colour is now red.
A first chance to spend the off-season on the county scene.
The previous day Cushendall were cruelly knocked out of the All-Ireland series and this weekend Gaoth Dobhair are carrying Ulster’s hopes on the football front.
After a drubbing by Ballycran in Ulster, Cormac O’Doherty and his Slaughtneil squad mates took a well-deserved break.
“The last three or four years, it has been a constant 12 month season for us.” O’Doherty began.
“It has been different (the previous Christmas) and it could be a nice change. I know a few boys enjoyed the rest and they were keen to get back into the pre-season, to get back out on the grass again.”
While the players took time away from the game, Derry were finding a replacement for outgoing manager Collie McGurk, who annexed two titles during his two-year tenure.
O’Doherty played on both teams. He was full-forward as the U21s beat Down and came off the bench against Armagh in Croke Park as Derry clinched a second Nicky Rackard Cup.
Last season it was the Slaughtneil man’s late free, that dumped Down out, on score difference, in the Christy Ring Cup at Glen, before they were knocked out by this weekend’s opponent’s Kildare, on their way to the title.
In the first two games this season, O’Doherty has scored 0-10 and 0-8 against Down and Donegal, but like Sean Cassidy alluded to after beat the Tir Chonaill men, the squad has been the big factor.
Derry will travel south this weekend with a panel of ‘around 35’ John McEvoy pointed out. There is an extended group of ‘around 40’.
“That was one of Collie’s (McGurk) big things,” Cormac commented. “Getting your best players out and work from there.
“John has come in with the same mantra and so far everybody has bought into what they are trying to do. It is a brilliant setup so far.
“Everybody is here for the betterment of Derry hurling and you can see that the capability is there when everybody puts the work in.
“John (McEvoy), Brian (Delargy) and Johnny (McGuirk) really emphasise that we had a good squad there at the minute.”
The level of detail is there in the Derry setup.
Former Derry goalkeeper Eoin McNicholl has joined up to oversee the strength and conditioning. The Glenullin man, a Hogan Cup and All-Ireland minor winner, has worked with the Northern Ireland netball team.
When Dunloy won the U21 and senior hurling double in 2017, McNicholl was the man responsible for their training load.
During the recent win over Donegal, McNicholl was putting any players who didn’t see any action through a session after the game. And conducted warmups throughout.
Part of John McEvoy’s policy is about workload. Giving until there is nothing left to give. Cian Waldron, John Mullan, Sé and Mark McGuigan all scored when they came off the bench.
In the Down game, Mullan and Cian’s brother Naoise played a vital role when introduced.
The benefits of playing hurling at training.
“We are getting 30 men at training and getting a good game like today, it definitely helps,” O’Doherty states.
“Especially, as John has alluded to, when we are probably six to eight weeks behind other teams.”
Kildare will pose their toughest examination to date.
O’Doherty feels there is more to come. The first game against Down, they were ‘rusty’ and against Donegal he wasn’t happy with his own performance.
“Both individually and collectively we weren’t up to scratch. It is a game against our rivals. Derry and Down games are never won that easy as we have seen over the last couple of years.
“I was poor against Donegal, thankfully it (the result) didn’t come down to it,” he said.
As a freetaker, O’Doherty handed the plaudits to the rest of the team.
“A lot of boys put in a lot of work, a lot of time the free-takers get a lot of credit. The boys had come in four or five weeks before that, the work has been good. It is always good to start the new season with a victory and get the bit of momentum and build from there.”
After winning the Nicky Rackard Cup, would the Christy Ring Cup be a target?
If so, it will be for another day.
O’Doherty is only concentrating on the now. Like his manager, the word competitive figures prominently in the vocabulary.
“I think the big thing for us, with the management only in place up about six weeks, they are getting to know everybody that they have.
“We are using the league to find our best team. We have been very competitive so far, with two (wins) from two.
“You want to win every game, there are a lot of competitors in the squad. Everyone on the changing room is fighting for a jersey and fighting for wins.
“Momentum is a big thing in sport and the more wins we can get in the league the better chance we have.”
Derry’s team are benefiting from having a strong base.
A glance around the room at Owenbeg and players from the recent Slaughtneil and Kevin Lynch’s successful minor teams are dotted around every table. The recent Derry U21 teams are well represented.
O’Doherty’s hurling career began in Slaughtneil’s Féile team, well before this time.
At the just nine years of age, the late Thomas Cassidy handed him the goalkeeper jersey, before eventually graduating to the attacking fulcrum.
His brother Oisin was between the posts when the Emmet’s won back to back Ulster senior titles.
Banagher duo Kieran Stevenson and Daryll McDermott were long term Derry number ones.
This year, there is a new face with Kevin Lynch’s Sean Kelly stepping into the breach.
“He is very cool and he has experience beyond his years,” O’Doherty endorses of his young team mate.
“You might say he is inexperienced, but he has done a lot more hurling than a lot of boys. It is showing at the minute.
“It is a big help when you know you have someone so composed and calm in there. It gives that bit of confidence to your defence and the whole team.
“There is no point in scoring a lot, if you are going to concede a lot and your ‘keeper has to be a good player and Sean has proved that.”
As well as the current squad, there is more to follow. Last season, Kevin Kelly, Martin Birt and Ryan O’Neill helped secure the U17 Celtic Challenge title.
“The hurling ability is there in Derry,” O’Doherty points out. “It’s getting to the stage where everybody is willing to buy into it – especially at senior level when the commitment is so high.”
In the short term, it is about Kildare and a trip to Newbridge. With both teams having won their first two games, something has to give.
“Every win is important for different reasons,” Cormac concludes.
“Down and Donegal are gone now and the focus has to be on the next game. Obviously Kildare are the Christy Ring champions last year but we’ll focus in house this week and get ourselves right for the game, we’ll put in our best performance and we’ll see where that takes us.”
Later in the summer, O’Doherty will be back in the maroon and white hoops. He will be up against his Derry teammates as they aim to halt the Slaughtneil juggernaut.
For now it is about the red and the white.
A win this weekend would be a significant peak on the Derry hurling landscape.
Pic: Mary K Burke
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