Minors make history
their semi-final. Derry went in as underdogs and battled their way to a famous victory.
They’ve done it once, they can do it again and there’s nothing pejorative about saying they battled to that win. Derry are an extremely well-drilled, well-prepared side who work really hard for everything they get, every ball, every break. Kerry will know they’ve been in a real game.
Damian McErlain has done a really fine job with the Oak Leaf county. They’re all the things we’ve already said and more. Derry, no more than Kerry, have a lot of seriously talented footballers at their disposal.
Most importantly of all they’ve got a seriously strong spine to their side. Full-back Conor McCluskey, centre-back Pádraig McGrogan, midfielder Oisín McWilliams and full-forward Lorcan McWilliams (Oisín’s twin brother) are all brilliant footballers.
McCluskey will probably be given the task of marking Clifford (with a sweeper likely to drop in front of both) in what could prove to be one of the game’s defining battles, while down the other end McWilliams has the ability to cause all sorts of bother for Kerry’s full-back line.
Derry will provide Barry Mahony and Diarmuid O’Connor with by far their sternest test to date and as their semi-final with Dublin proved, Derry are willing to break it if necessary in the knowledge that with ground hogs like Conleth McShane in the vicinity they’ll win more than their fair share.
The thing is though one shouldn’t underestimate the grit of this Kerry minor squad. They’ve been described to us as ‘hard as nails’ and given that Peter Keane is the man over them it should come as no surprise.
Both teams have players to call off the bench – Callum Brown, Declan Cassidy and John Paul Devlin are all potential impact players for Derry – but when it comes down to it, it For the first time since 2007, Derry will have a team in the September show-piece when the minor footballers take on Kerry this Sunday.
In 2014 Kerry won their first Tom Markham Cup in 20 years, replacing the barren spell with a 23 game unbeaten run. The production line wasn’t finished. On the back of Hogan Cup success, minor dominance under Jack O’Connor and now Peter Keane – Kerry are the envy of the land.
Derry’s last triumph was fifteen years ago under the leadership of Chris Brown. Ten years ago Niall Conway’s side came through the back door after being beaten by Tyrone in the Ulster Final, a game shadowed by the Red Hands’ controversial first-half point. Cormac Arkinson’s shot sailed wide, but was given as a point.
The Oak Leaf youngsters regrouped to beat Cork in the All- Ireland quarterfinal and Laois ( after a replay) to reach the final. Perched by Gavin McGeehan’s early goal Derry led the decider until the ultimate sucker punch – a goal from Tribesmen corner-forward Damian Reddington.
McGeehan is back on the title trail as a member of Damian McErlain’s management team. Killian Conlan, number two to Conway ten years ago, is again helping direct operations.
The other link is Ballinascreen’s Martin Bradley – his brother John Francis was centre-back on the team.
In the interim, Derry minors entered a footballing wilderness – winning only two championship games until McErlain arrived on the scene in 2014.
In 2008, Derry beat Donegal in the first round before a Kieran Hughes inspired Monaghan dumped Derry out. In 2012 Derry, under the management of Paul McIver, beat Donegal before a tame exit at the hands of Tyrone.
How times have changed. After three years of dominance in UIster and two knock backs by Kerry, Derry needed to lift could be that if Kerry can live with Derry, their extra little bit of class will see them over the line.
And it’s not just David Clifford who the Kingdom can call upon. There’s Donal O’Sullivan, Brian Friel, Donnchadh O’Sullivan and Fiachra Clifford. We’ve seen them all do special things at various times this year.
Clifford could be the winning of the game for Kerry even if he doesn’t shoot the lights. By tying up a couple of Derry defenders he might well create the space for either or both O’Sullivan to cut loose. What’s more it wouldn’t bother Clifford in the slightest if that’s what he had to do. He’s shown himself more than once to be a more than able team player.
That said it wouldn’t surprise any of us if the Fossa man was to kick the winning score would it?
Derry went in as underdogs and battled their way to a famous victory. They’ve done it once, they can do it again
themselves to the next level. All through the season McErlain hailed the class of 2017 as a special group. The boss reiterated their maturity and an ambition – almost coming from within.
September was in the thoughts from the outset, but only tucked at the back of the memory bank.
Filed away for the time when the Oakleafers would deem themselves worthy of mixing with the cartel of Dublin, Galway and Kerry.
The first steps of the championship crusade would build the momentum, but the meeting with Dublin was the crossroads. It was time to make the next step.
With Lorcan McWilliams back at fullforward, Derry’s team was transformed. The Swatragh man scored 0-6, but his contribution was so much more. The ability to make space, the unpredictability of turning onto either foot, topped off with a desire to hunt down the Dublin defence. The rest followed.
Conleth McShane’s ability under the breaking ball flummoxed Dublin’s kick-outs, allowing Derry to hit the ground running. Paddy Quigg and McWilliams tied the Dubs in knots early on.
The hallmark of Derry’s run has been different stars on different days. In the Croke Park cauldron it was Sean McKeever, Conor McCluskey and Oran McGill putting in a display of defending in the mould of the Derry teams of the 1990s, when McKeever’s uncles Emmett and Kieran played on, alongside McGill’s father Gary.
Gerard O’Kane, in 2002, was the last Derry man to lift the Tom Markham Cup. Gavin McGeehan’s 2007 crop came agonisingly close but the recent trend has lifted the Oak Leaf county out of the wilderness.
A chink of light as Damian McErlain takes the reigns of the senior team.