Saturday, 21 May 2016

Beating Tyrone the height of Derry's ambitions

It's hard to figure out where it’s all gone wrong for Derry: Once among the real heavyweights of Ulster football; these days their year would be deemed a success - no doubt about it - if they beat Tyrone in Celtic Park tomorrow. Derry people might even concede, privately, that avoiding humiliation would be the height of their ambitions.

Yes, the narrow confines of Celtic Park might Tyrone’s style of play, but even allowing for Derry raising their game and all the usual vagaries of the Ulster Championship, it's hard to see anything but yet another win for Mickey Harte's men.

It's literally a lifetime since Derry were a force. It’s decades now since Derry and Tyrone was the mother of all derbies, an extension of that visceral loughshore rivalry between south Derry and east Tyrone. But while Tyrone have kicked on and consolidated their position as a serious contender at national level Derry football has closed in on itself.
The bookies have Derry as fifth favourite to win Ulster, and that's about right. Odds to win the All-Ireland are about 60-1 and that too is fair enough. 

How can this be in a county with, arguably, one of the most competitive, keenly fought club championships in Ireland? And how is it that every year Derry struggles to get its best players to field for the county? While Armagh might bemoan the loss of Jamie Clarke and Donegal might have to make do without Mark McHugh, Derry are missing the usual quota for a variety of reasons -  Ryan Bell, and Caolain O'Boyle and the McGoldricks, even Eoin Bradley and Gerard O'Kane would still have plenty to offer if they were playing football in any other county. And year in year out that seems to be the story.

The maxim that club will always prevail over county has never been truer, but that’s no excuse for the state of Derry at county level. From an outside perspective you would have to wonder why it is that so many of Derry’s best footballers don’t want to play for their county. Have they simply failed to keep the faith? Has the onwards and upwards trajectory of their deadly rivals left them so mortally demoralised? Whatever the answer, Derry football people need to take a cold, hard look at themselves. The warning signs are there: at underage level  Derry is falling away badly while at senior level they haven’t been in the mix in Ulster  for well over a decade

If Derry need a kick up the arse about where this might be going, they should take a good look at the inexorable decline of Down football. They might even take a look at their neighbours in lowly Antrim – a county with a clutch of strong club sides but with a county team that has  propped up the bottom of Ulster football for as long as anyone can remember.

Nobody’s saying that Derry are quite at that level just yet, but right now they seem to have a lot more in common with fellow qualifiers fodder than they have with a Tyrone side with realistic ambitions of days out in Clones and Croke Park.

- Maurice Kennedy is former founding editor of Gaelic Life

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