Derry v Laois
Saturday (5.00) – Owenbeg
Ref: Jerome Henry (Mayo)

Saturday’s game will give an indication of how far Derry have come or where their rehabilitation project is headed.

Up until now, the pages of their 2019 chapter haven’t brought any element of surprise.

With a patched up panel after Slaughtneil’s foray into the All-Ireland series in the early part of 2018, the unthinkable happened with relegation to division four.

Back in came Niall Keenan and Ciaran McFaul after a summer in the states.  Ryan Bell and Thomas Mallon were recalled.

Liam McGoldrick’s late replay winner chinned Slaughtneil in the championship and freed up their chosen seven for a full winter to embed into a county team that is built around them.

There were a few speed wobbles along the way.  A battle to get out of Corrigan Park.  A similar scrap from the Deise clutches in Fraher field and a comprehensive second-half in Limerick to seal promotion.

Despite squandering enough possession to win a game on its own, they navigated safely the buzz of energetic and expectant Leitrim to land the division four crown at Croke Park.

It was a redemption of sorts.

In Healy Park, Shane McGuigan and Enda Lynn spearheaded a series of body blows on All-Ireland finalists Tyrone and when Christopher Bradley’s point put Derry into a slender lead, the word ambush began to take on a new meaning.

With the flick of Richie Donnelly’s hand, Derry’s world came crashing down.  They pushed up on Niall Morgan’s kick-out.  He was forced to go long and when Niall Keenan and Enda Lynn jumped for the same ball, the farm was sold.

The unmarked Frank Burns got his hands on the leather and setup Darren McCurry for a hammer blow.

Derry had given Tyrone a game, but didn’t have the depth to finish it off.

The qualifiers threw up a trip to Wexford, where Benny Heron, Ryan Bell – like they did in the league game – tore them to sheds.  Throw in Shane McGuigan, Ciaran McFaul and Chrissy McKaigue for good measure.

Saturday marks a step-up.  Laois gained promotion to division two by the skin of their teeth.  In a three way tie with Down and Westmeath at the top, they edged the Mournemen by a single point on score difference.

John Sugure takes Laois to Owenbeg for a first meeting of the counties since 2007 qualifier win in Breffni Park, a game that Laois panellists Brendan Quigley, Ross Munnelly and Derry goalkeeper coach Barry Gillis all played in.

It was the same year they met into two high octane games in the All-Ireland minor semi-finals.  Current Carlton AFL player Zach Touhy hammered home a wonder goal to help force a replay that Derry won with current selector Gavin McGeehan, Lee Moore and Aidan Heron leading the attack.

Only Chrissy McKaigue remains from that Derry team, coached by current selector Killian Conlan.

Donie Kingston was the marquee Laois name and is tipped to start in Saturday after being benched for their loss to Meath.

Conor Boyle is another survivor for their minor class of 2007, as are midfielders John O’Loughlin and Kieran Lillis who were both send off in the replay defeat that year.

DEFENSIVE GAPS

A glance at Laois in their defeat to Meath will sound the alarm bells.  Without injured duo Colm Begley and Mark Timmons in their defensive spine, it allowed the Royals to, time and time again, cut through the middle.

On the flip side, Laois failed to take any of their four goal chances.  It could’ve given the game a totally different complexion.

With the score poised at 2-6 to 0-8, Colm Murphy crashed his shot off the bar.  Their shooting has let them down, with just an average of 13 points over the past three games.

In the league final against Westmeath, refereed by Saturday’s man in the middle Jerome Henry, they accumulated a tally of 16 wides in a game they lost by a goal.

With the exception failing to tie down Cathal McShane in the Tyrone game, Derry’s defence has been solid. But outside of Rogers, they lack height.

It might prompt Sugrue to start Donie Kingston from the off.  Rogers is likely to pick him up, with Chrissy McKaigue assigned to Conor Boyle.

Colm Murphy is a strong runner and could have Karl McKaigue for company, with Niall Keenan going across to pick up Paul Kingston.

But if Laois throw a curve ball and start Donie Kingston and Evan O’Carroll together, for the first time since the league final, it could signal a more direct approach.

Liam McGoldrick missed the Wexford game with a hamstring injury sustained in mid-May.  It could be a gamble to start him with the danger of aggravating it and putting him out of the next round, should Derry advance.

All-star nominee Graham Brody has often dictated Laois’ game with his kick-outs, something Derry will need to be aware of.

With Derry’s forward line clicking in Wexford Park, a decent return at midfield could see the Oakleafers take one step into round three.

If Colm Begley’s ankle recovers in time to start in Saturday, Derry need to test him from the first minute.

The likes of Ciaran McFaul, Padraig Cassidy and Chrissy McKaigue, when he breaks free from defence, are a serious trio to ensure the home side dictate the game.

If they can do this and shut out Evan O’Carroll and Donie Kingston, Derry will take another step towards the Super 8s.

VERDICT: Derry

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