National Football League Division three
Derry v Leitrim
Saturday, Celtic Park, 5pm
Cast your mind back to two years ago.
Derry were bidding to regain their place in division two, having suffered relegation.
They were joint favourites to win Division three along with Armagh.
Things didn’t pan out as they expected, and two months after the ball was thrown in, Derry were heading for Division four.
Beware of over-expectation when it comes to the league.
Division three and four are dog fights. And if you are a team that can’t break down blanket defences, or outfox double sweepers then you need a rethink.
Rory Gallagher told the local press recently that he is taking no interest in their opponents, and that they want to get their own house in order.
Gallagher is starting from scratch with Derry, but the Oak leafers have been transitioning for a few years now. Both Brian McIver and Damian McErlain ended their tenures somewhat prematurely. A change of voice can be a good thing, but one wonders had Derry had some sort of continuity at the top, would they be doing better.
Getting Gallagher in would seem to be a positive move, if you are the sort of person who is impressed by how Fermanagh fared last year.
They were fancied to get relegated out of division two but ended up getting agonisingly close to promotion to the top flight.
Such an achievement would have been incredible for a small county like theirs.
Gallagher’s success seems to come down to his relationship with players. By all accounts he was a popular character in the Erne county, and that kudos has been replicated in Owenbeg. Gareth McKinless was part of the UU panel this year, but he has been up with Derry in recent weeks as he nurses his way back to full health. He told Gaelic Life that the set up in Derry seems as professional as it has ever been.
The same was said about Damian McErlain’s approach though. The Newbridge man had a large back room team, and took a forensic approach to his preparations.
One wonders what more advancements that Gallagher can take, though the same man coached Donegal and so he has dealt with a lot of high intensity situations.
Ciaran Meenagh is retained, and that will mean that Derry will maintain their rigid defensive structure. Meenagh came in last year, and the county’s performance against Tyrone could be attributed to him, as they were much tighter at the back than they had been in previous years.
A further year under his guidance will only improve the defence. However, the blow is that Niall Keenan, one of the onfield generals is currently rehabbing a groin injury.
Last year, Derry also benefited from having the Sleacht Néill players available for the National League. They were there from t he start and made up the spine of their squad. The McKaigues, Karl and Chrissy, Brendan Rogers and Shane McGuigan are important players for Derry.
The first game against Leitrim pits Derry against their fellow division four opponents from last year. Leitrim and Derry were the two favourites to get promoted last year and so that came to pass.
Derry are heavy favourites to win their opener. However, their McKenna Cup performances were far from inspiring. Two games and two defeats, to Monaghan and Donegal. Both of those counties were playing experimental teams. Rory Gallagher said that he was happy with his team’s performances for long stretches.
They should win Sunday’s clash, but this game will probably be their easiest of all. They have got Down the following week, and Tipperary (who were division two in 2019) in round three. Those games will be hard fought.
It’s interesting times for Derry fans, but they are expecting big things from Gallagher.