Derry survive scare to set up Christy Ring semi-final with Meath
Christy Ring Cup, Group One
Derry 0-16, Wicklow 1-16
Derry will meet Meath in the Christy Ring Cup semi-final next weekend after surviving a scare in the final Group One game against Wicklow at Owenbeg on Saturday.
John McEvoy's men went into the game top of the group after two wins from two games while Wicklow needed a victory to bring themselves level with Derry and Down who defeated Donegal by 23 points in Letterkenny.
Wicklow got the win they needed but with the three counties finishing on four points, score difference dictated the Ards men topped the group with Derry claiming the runners-up sport as league champions WIcklow bowed out.
The last four clash has initially been pencilled in for next Saturday but with both the Derry senior and under 20 footballers also in action that day, it is believed the County Board may seek to have it rearranged for the Sunday.
Mixed emotions then for McEvoy, who had to watch the match from the stands after being handed a suspension for his dismissal in the Donegal game. His assistant Johnny McGuirk wore the Bainisteoir bib on Saturday but both men know there is plenty to do ahead of the Meath clash, especially with the Oak Leafers hitting 21 wides over the course of the 70-odd minutes.
In the end, a superb last quarter cameo from Tiarnan McHugh who finally gave the Derry forward line a presence and two breathtaking first half saves from Sean Kelly proved the difference between qualification and elimination.
Going into the game, both teams could qualify and the opening exchanges were typically frantic with little shape to either side.
Derry started with Richie Mullan inside but rotated that lone full forward role with both Se McGuigan and Mark Craig, returning after missing the Donegal victory, taking their turns. Yet, as it was in the opening half against Donegal two weeks previously, the Derry forwards were finding themselves out-numbered and unable to make the ball stick when it did come their way.
Seven first half wides told a tale of missed opportunity against a Wicklow team for whom route one ball to full forward Andy O'Brien was paying dividends.
Indeed Derry were indebted to keeper Kelly for two unbelievable saves to prevent goals, the second from a Christy Moorehouse penalty after O'Brien had been wrestled to the floor by Sean Cassidy on 15 minutes.
Moorehouse's penalty was well struck but Kelly dived brilliantly to his right, reaching the sliotair with his extended hurl to deflect the effort away for a '65.
And that wasn't even his best save of the half. Seven minutes earlier John Henderson's long ball in again found O'Brien who won possession. The full forward wriggled clear but from point blank range, Kelly somehow got his hurl up to block the forwards effort.
And Derry needed those saves because for all neat and tidy hurling in the middle third, they weren't stretching Wicklow enough defensively.
Se McGuigan and Cormac O'Doherty (free) got the home side off to the ideal start with points inside the opening 90 seconds and even when Gary Hughes opened the visitors account, Derry looked comfortable as Mark McGuigan extended the early advantage back to two points.
Daniel Staunton and Enda Donohue (65) levelled matters before Se McGuigan edged Derry back in front only for two Donohue frees to put Wicklow into the lead for the first time at 0-5 to 0-4 on 21 minutes.
Liam Hinphey's lovely score from an O'Doherty pass again restored parity but Wicklow had the momentum as scores from Hughes, Eamon Kearns (free), Donohue and O'Brien suddenly opened up a gap for the visitors.
When John Mullan's shot was blocked down, Richie Mullan reduced the deficit to three at 0-9 to 0-6 but at half-time Derry had it all to do.
The Oak Leafers improved considerably after the short whistle but again, too many wides meant they were never quite able to close a gap that teetered between one point and four with Derry a six point deficit could have eliminated them.
When Derry needed settling, Richie Mullan stepped forward. The Dungiven man hit seven second half scores at crucial stages to ensure Derry always stayed within touching distance and meant they always had their destiny in their own hands.
Both sides had a man harshly red carded for an off the ball tussle, Conor Kelly for the home side and Michael Boland, who scored a goal in the league final, for Wicklow.
Wicklow's big opportunity came with Eamon Donohue's 55th minute goal, the forward seizing on O'Brien's deflected shot to tap home and send the visitors into a four point lead.
Two Mullan frees within minutes settled Derry once more and while there was a scare or two during seven added minutes, Derry held on to put themselves 70 minutes from a Croke Park final.
Derry scorers: Se McGuigan (0-3), Cormac O'Doherty (0-1, 1f), Mark McGuigan (0-1), Liam Hinphey (0-1), Gerard Bradley (0-2), Richie Mullan (0-7, 5f), Tiarnan McHugh (0-1)
Wicklow scorers: Enda Donohue (1-7, 5f, 1 sixty-five), Gary Hughes (0-2), Daniel Staunton (0-1), Eamon Kearns (0-1), Andy O'Brien (0-4), Michael Boland (0-1)
Derry: Sean Kelly; Paddy Kelly, Sean Cassidy, Darragh McCloskey; Liam Og Hinphey, Meehaul McGrath, Conor Kelly; Mark McGuigan, Brian Og Giulligan; Paul Cleary, Richie Mullan, Gerard Bradley; Mark Craig, Se McGuigan, Cormac O'Doherty.
(Subs) John Mullan for P Cleary (inj), 9mins; Tiarnan McHugh for M Craig, 45mins; alan Grant for C O'Doherty, 62mins; Thomas Brady for B Og McGilligan, 65mins; Dara Cartin for G Bradley, 68mins;
Yellow cards: Paddy Kelly, 42mins;
Red cards: Conor Kelly 43mins;
Wicklow: Conor McNally; Peter Keane, Billy Cuddihy, Martin O'Brien; Gary Byrne, Stephen Kelly, Eamon Kearns; John Henderson, Jack Doyle; Enda Donohue, Daniel Staunton, Michael Boland; Christopher Moorehouse, Andy O'Brien, Gary Hughes.
(Subs) Jonathan O'Neill for C Moorehouse, 43mins; Eoin McCormack for J Doyle, 52mins; Luke Evans for G Hughes, 64mins; Ronan Keddy for E Donohue, 73mins;
Yellow cards: Christy Moorehouse, 42mins; Gary Byrne, 49mins; Peter Keane, 59mins;
Red cards: Michael Boland, 43mins
Referee: Thomas Gleeson (Dublin)