By Michael McMullan
NEWBRIDGE must “raise their game” if they are going to make a dent in the Derry Senior Championship when the knock-out stages come around, insists manager Niall Conway.
The ‘Bridge stifled Sleacht Néill for long periods on Saturday night after falling behind to Shane McGuigan goal after 16 seconds and Conway was happy with how his side responded in a 2-8 to 0-8 defeat sealed by a 56th-minute goal from Christopher ‘Sammy’ Bradley.
Derry star Paudi McGrogan was their driving force after his return – along with Doherty brothers, Conor and Mark – from county duty.
“They are good lads,” Conway said of their impact. “They took a couple of weeks break and when they came back, they got stuck into Newbridge and adapted to it very well.”
Newbridge promised much in the group section last year before losing to Bellaghy in the knock-out stages and later to Claudy in a relegation final that luckily counted for nothing after Derry CCC’s restructuring.
“They (Newbridge) have been in senior football three or four years and they have not got over the first round proper, when that challenge arises, they are going to have to raise their game,” Conway said.
After conceding the early goal, he was full of praise for his side.
“It took us a while to get our shape,” he said. “I thought it was a good response to be fair. Sleacht Néill are the sort of team that can go on and punish you in that 15-minute spell after giving away a goal.
“I was happy with how the boys responded and put ourselves in a good position going into the second half.
“They created a few chances and missed them before Sleacht Néill went up the field and killed the game with a second goal.”
Conway, a former Derry minor manager and Antrim senior selector under Liam ‘Baker’ Bradley, pointed to Sleacht Néill’s ability to delve into their banks of experience to come through in tight championship games.
“We need to bring that to the table as well. Our decision making was under pressure and we didn’t really handle that in the last 20 minutes with our shooting, something that has been very good over the last month,” he said.
“It’s about the intensity of the team you are playing and Sleacht Néill will bring a lot more of that than other teams would bring.”
Conway insisted the group stages are “all about learning” and how much Newbridge can improve ahead of their final group game against Steelstown with a win needed to secure second spot.
While admitting it’s difficult to prepare and fully focus on a championship that isn’t straight knock-out, Conway can see the advantages.
“You are learning every day,” he said. “It is a good experience for a few boys; there are a couple of lads like young Shea (McAteer) and James (Gribbin) our goalie who haven’t played too much. Aidan Young and Callum (McGrogan) came on, they are u-19 and it does them no harm.”
Now, the full focus is on Steelstown, a game he feels “is not an easy game” with a long early Saturday journey to the city.
“Steelstown will take a lot from their Ballinderry performance as well,” said Conway of their 0-8 to 0-6 lead at Shamrock Park before Gareth McKinless and Glenn McOscar came off the bench and Tommy Donnelly grabbed a vital goal.
“The next three weeks are all about getting yourself prepared to go for a championship run…if you are still in it.”