In what has been a competition of impressive debuts for Derry, Conor Kearns became the latest Oak Leaf new boy to raise his hand for selection as Damian Barton seeks to find a formula for success.
Following in the footsteps of Shane Heavron’s impressive debut against Antrim, Kearns became the latest Magherafelt player to be given - and to grasp - his chance to impress with both hands.
Midweek McKenna Cup ties rarely capture the imagination and Wednesday night against Queen’s was as far from the classic fare of last Sunday at Owenbeg as you were likely to get - but Kearns was a real bright spark.
Five points from play and a performance that took him to every corner of Celtic Park saw him justifiably named ‘Man of the Match’ after a game which Derry made hard work of.
“It’s still very early and we won’t get carried away with a McKenna Cup game but, as starts go, I probably couldn’t have asked for any better,” said Kearns. “In terms of going forward, it’s a good starting point but, again, it’s only January and it will be a long season. Hopefully, we can keep going until September but we will take it step by step.”
Queen’s started well but Derry, with Claudy’s Shane McGahon giving an assured display at midfield, looked to be taking control at 0-4 to 0-2 until hesitancy by another Derry debutante, Lavey keeper Ciaron O’Boyle, allowed Gerard McGovern to dive in and flick to the net.
It’s still very early and we won’t get carried away with a McKenna Cup game but, as starts go, I probably couldn’t have asked for any better.Derry forward Conor Kearns
Despite the setback, Derry rallied to lead 0-10 to 1-05 at the break with both McGahon and Steelstown’s Neil Forester on target.
Again, Derry seemed to be in charge after the break with Kearns and Ryan Bell at the heart of everything as they built at 0-17 to 1-08 lead. However, a second goalkeeping slip, this time from half-time substitute Michael O’Kane, gave Queen’s a second goal through Dermot McAleese and made the last few minutes more nervous than they needed to be.
Following the earlier dismissal of Queen’s Anthony Doherty, Bell and his marker, Che Cullen, became the second and third players sent off after picking up needless second yellow cards for a tussle they continued after being booked. However, this changed little.
Derry were through to this weekend’s semi-final against Cavan and, even if he sees no action in the Armagh Athletic Grounds, Kearns believes his time with the senior county panel has already made him a better player.
“I enjoy it because you’re playing with the best players in the county and, even though that was my first match, I have already learned more being with the county panel than I have in the last couple of years. You are playing with better players and players who are experienced.
“At Magherafelt, we have a very young team. The likes of Mark Lynch, they help steady the ship, and along with people like Chrissy McKaigue, they are good men to go to. Even if nothing more comes of this, I think I’ll be a better player for the experience.”
Kearns admitted Sunday’s thrilling encounter against old foes Tyrone had whetted his appetite to pull on an Oak Leaf senior jersey.
“I was looking forward to it all day but it helps when you have work because you are not thinking too much about it. It was good to play with the rest of the boys after seeing them against Tyrone. I was just glad to be part of it.
“The performance was a bit stop-start but, again, it is only pre-season. There are a lot of boys gaining fitness and a lot of boys getting their first minutes of the season. As performances go, it was good but at this stage it is not really about results, it is about getting players up to the level they need to be at for the National League.”
If the McKenna Cup is any barometer on prospective club form for 2016, some of Derry’s top teams need to be mindful of the St. Malachy’s forward line this coming year after the displays of Emmett McGuckin, Shane Heavron and, now , Kearns.
“Normally, we would only have a couple but this year we’ve got six which again shows that Magherafelt is, maybe, coming of age as a team. We have been saying for a couple of years we could maybe go and do something but we always flatter to deceive. Perhaps with six men involved at county level now and each player benefiting like I hope to myself, it will benefit the club as a whole.”