Derry notched their third league win from three last week in Waterford, as they continue to strive to overcome the ignominy of life in Division Four. They eventually eased past the Deisé in the second half, but the five-point victory (1-12 to 1-7) was symptomatic of the Oak Leafers campaign so far, that has failed to ignite in terms of stylish performances or particularly heavy scoring. Manager Damian McErlain could care less how the wins come as long as they come, commenting prior to the trip to the south east that “every Division Four win is an absolute must”. Performance levels at this stage of the campaign are secondary to getting points on the board.
With Derry such strong favourites to get promoted from the basement in 2019, there is a strong school of thought across the country that the national league should be a cakewalk for them this year. Even the most pessimistic Derry fan, and believe me, there are more than a few of them at this stage, expected promotion with minimal fuss. A couple of weeks ago I lauded Tipperary’s Division Four run in 2014, when they amassed 164 points across eight games; surely Derry can do likewise? Alas… if only it was so simple!
Football has changed, even in those five years. Recent amendments to the championship structure – that were tantamount to mindless violence and clearly favour elite counties – have had the unintended consequence of a competitive tightening of the NFL. Division Two is especially claustrophobic this season, but Divisions Three and Four are highly competitive also – where most counties now treat the league as their biggest competition of the year.
These sides are more prepared for January and February football than they were a few years ago. They have strength and conditioning work done, they have their best players available – summer football in the US is a while away yet – and tactically they are setup to give themselves the best chance possible of winning football matches, albeit generally using a simplistic approach where defences are more densely packed than that special place in hell where all the Brexiteers are hanging out. This provides a difficult environment for a team like Derry, who are used to travelling to Munster only to face Kerry or Cork. Fraher Field in Dungarvan is a whole different ball of wax, that requires a totally different frame of mind.
That mental battle is particularly relevant in the bottom division, where information is at a premium and squads (and therefore performances) can fluctuate wildly from week to week. Take Wexford for example, who were fancied to win in London last week, given their victory over Antrim the previous weekend. They could be forgiven for not quite having sound knowledge on how London were likely to set themselves up and who the key dangermen were. The Exiles, on the other hand, are managed by Ciaran Deely, a Wexford man – who probably knows the Model squad inside out. London won the game comfortably.
So far Derry – who were reduced to thirteen men with ten minutes remaining and the scores level in Waterford; and fought to a one-point win in Belfast a fortnight earlier – have proved they are ready mentally for the task at hand. A template subscribed to by last year’s Division Four winners.
In 2018, Laois won all six of their games in the bottom tier (the CCCC decided not to bother refixing their match with Antrim). They did so comfortably, if not spectacularly, but it gave them a platform for a promising championship showing, in which they reached a Leinster Final. Mentally, they were ready for extra-time with Wexford in May, or when confronted with Carlow’s defensive system in Croke Park. Laois’ campaign should be the Division Four benchmark now.
With four teams having won at least two games from three in 2019, the dogfight in the basement continues, and Derry – despite their relatively illustrious recent past – are stuck in the middle of it. However, they seem to be well aware of the challenges that await them on a weekly basis, and that is half the battle. Perhaps those double-digit victories will come in time but for now the Oak Leafers will be content with their place in the top two promotion berths, however it comes.
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