Derry minor boss McErlain delighted to secure another shot at All-Ireland glory

Oak Leafers look to successfully defend their Ulster title in final meeting with Armagh

Derry minor manager Damien McErlain
Derry minor manager Damien McErlain (Margaret McLaughlin)

The Derry minors are in bonus territory after clearing the first major obstacle in the defence of their All-Ireland title.

The Ulster semi-final is the key stage, as winning it guarantees an All-Ireland quarter-final spot for the winners, and now the pressure is off ahead of this weekend’s provincial decider against Armagh.

The Oak Leafers swept past Tyrone at Owenbeg to reach an eighth Ulster MFC final in ten years, maintaining a proud record at this level.

“You get two bites at he cherry. Obviously we’re in an Ulster final next week, but no matter how that goes, you get another go at it,” said manager Damien McErlain.

“We’re in an All-Ireland quarter-final now, and we’re just delighted to get to that point.

“It’s a quicker turnaround now, rather than the two-week breaks we had all along, but we’re looking forward to that.”

Ten members of the current team were part of last year’s triumphant squad, including five players who started the 2023 All-Ireland final, and they’ve been using their learned experience to lead the way through another promising campaign.

“There’s no question that that does give you a bit of a footing starting the year out, in the sense of culture, men knowing what it takes. It probably brings a maturity to the whole group too.

Caoimhin Hargan (centre) celebrates scoring Derry’s second goal during their Ulster MFC semi-final win over Tyrone at Owenbeg on Saturday
Caoimhin Hargan (centre) celebrates scoring Derry’s second goal during their Ulster MFC semi-final win over Tyrone at Owenbeg on Saturday (Margaret McLaughlin)

“We had 10 of the panel, so two years work in 10 men is a lot of work for them, and you can see how different they are physically in terms of last year. But that doesn’t happen every year.”

In contrast to Dery’s regular involvement, Armagh will be making their first appearance in a provincial final since 2014.

But they’ll feel they have every chance of dethroning the champions following their impressive semi-final win over Donegal.

“Armagh are a very strong side. We watched them through the championship and the league,” said McErlain.

“They’re well organised, big, physical half forwards, good in around the middle at winning ball.

“They have got a look at us, they’ll have a plan for us. It’s going to be another titanic battle.

“You don’t get Ulster titles just handed to you, they’ll take great encouragement from winning the two games back to back, against Monaghan and Donegal.

“Going to Ballyshannon and winning in Ballyshannon is never an easy task, against Donegal, a strong county.

2023 All-Ireland minor football champions, Derry. Picture by Philip Walsh
Ten members of the current Derry minor team were part of last year’s All-Ireland winning squad

“But Armagh has got it together, and we’re looking forward to that now.”

The Derry boss is hoping his players will handle the occasion with composure, in light of the nervy start they made to the semi-final against Tyrone.

It was only in the second half that they began to express themselves after going in at the interval level with the Red Hands.

“I thought we were nervous in the game. We had targeted this day as a big day, and we were nervous playing against the breeze, stated to carry the ball into the tackle a wee bit. Sometimes when you’re playing into the breeze, you do have to carry it more.

“But we tidied that up in the second half and really turned the screw, started to move the ball that wee bit quicker.

“We felt that Tyrone were probably working that wee bit harder, we felt that men coming out for the ball were having to look really hard for options, even coming off the shoulder.

“We just wanted more energy, we wanted boys to show that they had the desire to make an Ulster final as well.

“This group felt that they had the goods to do that, but there’s no point talking about it, they had to come out and lift it and do it.”