This time last year, Derry minors were going into an Ulster semi-final they couldn’t win.
Twelve months on, and with a hugely impressive quarter-final victory under their belts, the landscape has changed dramatically for Damian McErlain and his players ahead of this weekend’s semi-final against Armagh in Clones.
It’s all very well winning your first round and getting the plaudits but the question the players have to ask is ‘How ambitious are we?’Derry Minor manager, Damian McErlain
What hasn’t changed, though, is the attitude.
“The trick is creating that level of hunger again but things will not go as smoothly as they did against Tyrone,” said the Magherafelt man, “Armagh are a big, physical team who are well organised, as you would expect when you come into a championship semi-final. This will be a step up in terms of quality.
“Armagh will have taken a boost out of their victory over Cavan, just as we did from ours against Tyrone, so it is an interesting tussle but it’s one we are looking forward to.
“It’s all very well winning your first round and getting the plaudits but the question the players have to ask is: ‘How ambitious are we?’
“Hopefully, once they get to Clones on Sunday and sample the atmosphere, that will lift them again and they produce another performance on a day that matters.”
In many ways, this season’s poor League campaign worked in Derry’s favour. The high of last summer’s Ulster Championship win was forgotten with most critics seeming happy to recast the reigning champions as underdogs once more.
However, the emphatic nature of the 1-15 to 0-10 quarter-final victory over Tyrone in Celtic Park changed those perceptions - not that the Derry manager is paying much heed to what the GAA scribes are saying.
Has the psychology changed this season?
“Pundits were not really talking about anyone last year because Donegal were perceived to be so much superior to everybody. In terms of this year, our league form would not have had anyone talking about us and one good championship performance is not enough to change the mentality around the squad. We still have a serious amount to work at.
“We know we have lots to work on and lots to improve. There are two teams in the other semi-final who have already defeated us heavily in the league this year so there is no danger of complacency whatsoever.
“We believe Armagh will present a totally different challenge to us from Tyrone and it is one we are going to have to take it to the wire to get over the line.”
That challenge was illustrated by the Orchard County’s impressive 1-12 to 2-14 victory over Cavan in their Breffni Park quarter-final. A big, physically imposing team, Armagh will present Derry with a different set of problems from those posed by Tyrone.
Central to that threat is Crossmaglen’s Rian O’Neill who accounted for 1-5 of their tally against Cavan and who forms a potent front line alongside St. Patrick’s, Cullyhanna duo, Jason Duffy and Ross McQuillan. All three thrive on the early ball.
“We have had a good look at them,” said McErlain. “They have a good, strong physical defence with plenty of pace and a forward line with big men, adept off two feet. They are very direct and are a good honest side.
“I have said it before but at minor level you never know how your team is going to perform until they are in the next game and Sunday is just the same
“Armagh like to put the ball in early and rely quite a lot on the foot pass like we do. They have forwards who suit the ball going in quickly. They are not fussy about how they put it in, they just make sure it goes in.
“The forwards they have are well capable of winning those long balls in. We were very impressed with them in Breffni Park against Cavan.”
On the team front, McErlain will have a fully fit squad to choose from for the first time this season after Steelstown defender Eoghan Concannon was passed fit. Concannon was an important part of the team that triumphed last July in Clones and McErlain is looking forward to taking his player back to the Co. Monaghan venue.
“It is absolutely great. Clones is first class. We trained on it last week just to get this group used to it - the size of the pitch. It is a pleasure to be on that pitch and it is exactly where you want to be playing. The boys are looking forward to it.
“We have done things quite similar to last year in terms of preparation. Lots of players were juggling county commitments with colleges earlier in the season. St. Pat’s Maghera went the whole way to the Hogan final which did present some problems but, at the same time, the players benefited from those high profile games. That is experience you can’t buy.
“The group have been very focused. The effort is incredible. We have had a few long term injuries throughout the season but, if things don’t work out on Sunday, it will not be for the lack of effort or attitude from these players.”