McKenna Cup leaves Derry in better place than it found them

Sean Quinn has been in superb form throughout the McKenna Cup.
Sean Quinn has been in superb form throughout the McKenna Cup.

Twenty-four days. Not a long time in the course of a league, even less in the course of a season.

It is however, the length of time that Damian McErlain and his management team had from their season started against Tyrone to the counties’ semi-final meeting.

On the evidence of Sunday, that time wasn’t wasted.

With as strong a panel as he has had to select from since being appointed senior manager in September 2017, McErlain’s competition may have ended as it had started - with defeat to Tyrone - but there was a very different feel to the Athletic Grounds compared with December 20th in Celtic Park.

Celtic Park felt like Division One against Division Four at times. Sunday never did.

Those 24 days have seen Derry strengthen but 10 of the starting line-up in Celtic Park began Sunday’s semi-final too so this is evolution rather than revolution. Indeed, that earlier than expected start and the traditional troubles of the McKenna Cup could have yielded a much richer harvest than the Derry management team had been expecting to work with for the league opener against Antrim.

Absentees - be it injury or university obligation - forced many of the county’s under 20s into action 24 days ago, probably against the better wishes of the Derry manager but he has struggled to find reason to remove them ever since.

The defence has been the shining star of pre-season. Last year the Oak Leafers conceded 11 goals in seven Division Three games. Even with what was a depleted squad, those figures were alarming.

After four games this season, including two against Division One opposition and one against Division Two opposition, Derry have conceded one goal from open play and one from the penalty spot, both in the same game, and registered three clean sheets. Two of those came against last season’s All Ireland finalists.

The same full back line has started all four McKenna Cup games and two of them had never represented Derry before.

Eoghan Concannon, Conor Mulholland and Sean Francis Quinn won’t appear in many headlines but they have been the foundation on which McErlain’s evolution is being built. The young defenders have given Derry a solid base and McErlain a lovely headache considering the likes of Brendan Rogers and Niall Keenan have not even featured yet this season.

The introduction of Chrissy McKaigue as a sweeper in front of that full-back line was a natural decision with Karl McKaigue offering further insurance.
In short, the much maligned competition has ejected Derry to a much better place than it welcomed it from.

Twenty-four days ago cloud hung over the county. Optimism was in short supply after relegation but suddenly Derry look like they have a squad with plenty of depth.

Emmett Bradley’s tight hamstring meant he missed Sunday but a player who had been Derry’s driving force and leader over the previous three games was barely missed. That’s not a criticism of the Glen man just an indication of the competition for places that’s developing.

Shane McGuigan stepped inside for his first start of the year with Christopher ‘Sammy’ Bradley brilliantly taking on the play-making role and linking superbly with Enda Lynn.

The Derry rotational attacking system caused Tyrone plenty of problems, the one worry from Sunday being the Oak Leafers didn’t translate first half superiority to the scoreboard but Owenbeg wasn’t built in a day as they say.

The difference in a word - options.

At times last season the squad was struggling for numbers but suddenly McErlain has options all over the pitch. Options which allow him to change team shape if he needs, impact a game from the bench and, most importantly of all, create that competition within the panel.

There is an argument to say that had Derry had Sunday’s squad available last season they may have been starting this year in Division Two rather than Division Four but such talk is unhelpful and irrelevant. The county is where it is and looking backward is a distraction Derry doesn’t need.

Division Four will be a tough challenge despite what bookmakers odds say, especially as Derry will be the scalp the other teams want most.

It is rare a defeat yields optimism but with the performance rather than the result the important thing from Sunday, there are plenty of reasons for Oak fans to come out and support this panel in numbers.

When all is said and done, though, Tyrone go forward to a seventh successive final but the Red Hands have been good for Derry. Opposition of that standard sets the bar high and gives a target to aim for.

Derry are not there yet but Sunday shows they are moving in the right direction.