“There is one change in the Derry team. Number 21 Declan Hughes comes in for number 15 Niall Toner….21 for 15 on the Derry team.”
The original Derry team selected for the Wicklow game had only one out and out forward listed on the bench, Ryan Bell who hadn’t saw any action since being stretchered off in the McKenna Cup against Fermanagh.
It was a concern.
When I heard the above listed change to Derry’s line-up I pondered the impact Toner would make when sprung from the bench.
As it materialised the Lavey livewire didn’t appear and it was Bell, who swung over a monster point. And later, when backed into a corner by two Wicklow defenders, he had the vision to recycle the ball into space before the better-placed Padraig Cassidy for a point. Heads up football.
But I still can’t get the fact out of my head that Derry only had one recognised forward listed on the bench.
Shane McGuigan was operating in a play-making link role. Ryan Dougan and Hughes, who had spells alongside Cailean O’Boyle in Lavey’s attack, were the inside line.
Enda Lynn was hamstrung but carries a scoring threat. Benny Heron hadn’t returned after his honeymoon.
For all Derry’s recent underage success organisation, efficiency and industry has outweighed flair.
With the game going the way of match-ups, managers will spend their week coming into a game plotting their defence to suit the attacking unit they will face.
Once the national anthem is finished, defenders will be remain in a huddle. In a stand-off almost, before players will peel off towards their pre-defined opponents.
Chris O’Brien was the Wicklow threat. Karl McKaigue trotted towards him, did a number on him before being replaced by manager John Evans after 48 minutes, scoreless.
For Derry, the only show in town this season was promotion. It was as simple as that. Now an ambush against Tyrone in Healy Park and memories of their 2006 win come flooding across the horizon.
The rate at which goals have been leaked over the past few seasons has left Derry dropping like a stone.
Clean sheets are the number one currency. And so it should. Ask anyone in Donegal about their 2011 season, before Jim McGuiness put the flesh on the bones with a powerful attacking game for their All-Ireland winning season.
It doesn’t start with Thomas Mallon and the defence, it is the overall blueprint. Factor in that four of Sleacht Néill’s much lauded defence are on board from the start.
As well as being a fresh voice, Ciaran Meenagh has added to the defensive plans since his addition to the management. The Loughmacrory man has been very vocal in games.
For me, you have to walk before you can run and over the next number of seasons continuity has to be the priority.
The revolving door at the gates of Owenbeg has to stop. Brian Óg McGilligan is the 16th member of this season’s panel that wasn’t available for the Donegal and Kildare championship games last season.
If Derry are to move up towards division two, this turnover of players needs to stop. How can an Oak grow tall like this?
LACK OF FIREPOWER
The more long term project is a bigger cause for concern. Something that can’t be fixed with a flick of a switch is the Derry lack of scoring power.
Shane McGuigan powered Derry to the 2015 minor title. Lorcan McWilliams – who has yet to play senior club championship football - and Ben McCarron were the only forwards during the recent run that come into the marquee bracket.
Callum Brown came into the mix at U20 level but is now gone and the likes of Fergal Mortimer and Richie Mullan are more suited to a play-making role.
“Their crop the following year was awesome. Real danger on every corner – Sean O’Shea, Dara Moynihan, David Shaw and of course David Clifford.”
In my role with the county minors in 2015 and 2016, scouting and analysing Kerry was an eye opener. Dingle’s Conor Geaney was their 2015 star man. Ace marker Niall Keenan held him to 0-2 from play, only for Michael Foley - a relatively unknown quantity - to win the game with 1-3.
Their crop the following year was awesome. Real danger on every corner – Sean O’Shea, Dara Moynihan, David Shaw and of course David Clifford.
Players that scare.
Galway’s Damien Reddington kicked all his scores in the 2007 campaign with his right foot. But when he fielded Michael Martyn’s high ball in the dying seconds of the minor final that year, he sold Mickey McKinney a dummy before evading Carlus McWilliams and Brendan Henry, to blast past Andy Warnock for the winning goal - with his left foot.
Players with unpredictability.
Enda Muldoon’s defence-splitting pass to win Ballinderry the 2012 county final. Sleacht Néill lost possession high up the pitch and Muldoon spotted Collie Devlin a yard behind Conan Cassidy.
Muldoon threaded the ball through the eye of a needle. Devlin had been struggling for form but his finish and subsequent fist pump ensured John McLaughlin was wearing blue and white ribbons.
Players with vision.
Not since Paddy Bradley, have Derry produced a player that opponents will revolve their defensive plans around. An unerring first touch that bought him space in front of defenders, an accurate left leg, a willingness to develop this right foot and confidence by the bucket.
Kevin O'Connor Foreglen 7-197
Cailean O'Boyle Lavey 18-149
Cormac Quigley Limavady 39-86
Conleith Gilligan Ballinderry 4-188
Aaron Kerrigan Claudy 23-131
James Kielt Kilrea 5-176
Anthony O'Neill Loup 10-159
Shane Heavron Magherafelt 10-157
Mark Foley Steelstown 12-148
Gary Keane Ballerin 9-153
Stephen Devlin Ogra Colmcille 9-153
The top 10 scorers in the Derry club leagues over the last three seasons.
I took a look at the overall club league scoring charts from the past three seasons. Of the top 11 players, there isn’t one player on the county senior panel.
Shane McGuigan (10-141) and Enda Lynn (6-121) are the only county players in the top 20.
Niall Loughlin, probably the most rounded of them all, is currently in Australia and Colm McGoldrick has declined an invitation to join the panel. Damian McErlain would surely have given anything to get them on board.
Granted most are free-takers and some are in the wrong age bracket. Cormac Quigley is unlikely to bag 13 goals against the top defenders in senior and intermediate football.
But there needs to be a development squad structure to make the Cormac Quigleys into county seniors.
There is also the issue of balance.
Under Damian Barton, Derry often had three from Ryan Bell, Mark Lynch, James Kielt, Emmett McGuckin and Cailean O’Boyle all in the same attack.
That is never going to work. They are all potential match-winners, but they will never fit in the one front six.
For all of the development at school, club and underage county level more needs to be done to nurture attacking play. The video that went viral last week of Abbey’s scandalous tactics has to be the last straw.
It only takes you so far but there is a huge problem. The need for total athleticism.
Smarter teams are playing their best players at wing back in a bid to free them up and will target the ‘lazy’ forward on the opposition team, so they can be exploited.
The evolution of team preparation has created a monster that has spiralled way out of control.
Whether we like it or not, the inter-county game has got so fluid beyond recognition. There is no place for the portly, intelligent player, unless he has five, exceptional, finely tuned players to make sure a team is not hung out to dry.
No matter how silky your skills are or if you average ten points a game at club level, unless you have the engine and lean physique to chase wing backs, you won’t figure.
It’s wrong, but it’s real. Players need to dedicate their life to it.
To put family and career development down the pecking order. Jim Gavin, Mickey Harte, James Horan and Peter Keane can dangle the Sam Maguire, an All-Ireland final or a team holiday in front of their players.
Few others can.
That’s what makes Fermanagh and Monaghan’s feat so impressive. Punching way above their weight with the county uniting behind them.
As much as those like myself would like to see the day return when two sessions a week and a game at the weekend is sufficient to play county football return.
It is a pipedream. That ship has sailed.
If Derry, with the finance that has been pumped into coaching, aim to be top dogs in Ulster again marrying the genius with athleticism is a must.
And all done by culling the dropout rate at the end of every season.
Otherwise, the operation will continue to go around in circles.
Pic: Colm O'Reilly
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