Derry manager Damian McErlain believes Sunday’s unexpected Dr. McKenna Cup semi-final meeting with Tyrone will prove a positive as the Oak Leafers prepare for their League opener against Antrim on January 27th.
Derry’s emphatic 16-point victory over the Ulster University on Wednesday night, coupled with Armagh’s victory over Monaghan and Donegal’s defeat of Cavan, sent McErlain’s men into the last four as the best runners-up, something few were predicting prior to throw-in.
It means a second chance for Derry to test themselves against Mickey Harte’s team in less than a month following the side’s December 20th meeting in Celtic Park.
McErlain has been critical of the McKenna Cup’s condensed schedule and Sunday will be his side’s third game in seven days but he still believes playing teams of Tyrone’s calibre can prove beneficial
“With the McKenna Cup you tend to just go out and play the games and whatever way it works out, that’s where we end up,” said the Derry manager.
“It will be another game for us and we will get our university players back so it could be good preparation heading into the league.”
Ben McKinless, Niall Keenan, Michael McEvoy, Karl McKaigue and Terence O’Brien should all return for this weekend’s clash in the Athletic Grounds and McErlain is anxious to finally have his full complement of players available.
“The game has to be approached the way we would approach any game - positively,” adds McErlain, “We should have seven or eight men coming back, players we haven’t seen yet. We have ideas about how we want to shape the team. We have lads who have played very well in the three games we’ve played.
“The game gives us a chance to integrate the university players back into the squad again because that could have been difficult had we had just a challenge match.
“It gives us a bit of momentum. It is the McKenna Cup but it is still a semi-final so there will be a sense of occasion about it, even in January.
“You have to play what is in front of you. It is the McKenna Cup, it is preparation for the league. No doubt Tyrone will be trying to get their own game together because Division One is a very tough place and they will want to win the McKenna Cup.”
Despite having the university players available this weekend, McErlain will again offer the opportunity to some of the county’s U20 players who have impressed in the competition to date.
“The U20s have been loyal to us through this competition and will travel again with us on Sunday.
“The boys who are getting opportunities are playing very well. There are a number of new players in the defence and they are putting their hand up.
“They are working hard, playing for the team, playing for each other and that’s very positive, you cannot look at it any other way.
“We aren’t interested in headlines, we just want the boys improving week on week, night on night and that is what those young players are doing.
They’re keeping their heads down and working hard. We know they are good players. They have come through the underage system and are developing well.”
Derry can be certain of a stiffer examination on Sunday than they experienced on Wednesday against the Ulster University but McErlain had sympathy for the Jordanstown based team who were meeting the Oak Leafers three days after taking on Tyrone in Healy Park.
“Jordanstown obviously took the decision not to play their strongest side and again, that is understandable because, as I said on Sunday past, two games of that magnitude in three days is just not on.
“Long story short - we tried to concentrate on improving our own game and how we are setting up etc. Defensively we were very sound. We were probably not pushed to the limit or anything like it but you can only do what you can do.”