Derry grabbed the Division 4 title after seeing off Leitrim – but the attention around the Sperrins will quickly turn to their Ulster SFC opener against Tyrone.
Derry 0-20 Leitrim 0-16
By Chris McNulty at Croke Park
Shane McGuigan’s magical left foot accounted for six of the Derry scores as they saw off a brave Leitrim challenge.
A trio of points in quick succession from the Slaughtneil man had Derry six up and on their way to the silverware with 20 minutes to play.
A late flurry of points – six in a row – had helped Derry to lead 0-10 to 0-7 at half-time.
Leitrim, intent on leaving every sinew behind them on the hallowed sod, hinted at a late comeback and when Michael McWeeney, their captain, profited from a Hawkeye call, there were only four points between the sides.
Leitrim just wouldn’t go away and theirs was a stirring finale even if they never really appeared likely to topple Derry’s lead.
Damian McErlain’s team earned the big prize of promotion from the spring, but a final win at Croke Park is never to be sneezed at. Even if the response at the end was somewhat muted at the conclusion, eight wins from eight represents as good a spring as could be expected.
In a frenetic start, Derry led 0-3 to 0-2 after just five minutes, with Ryan Bell’s brace sandwiching a neat Enda Lynn score.
The jitters whistled through Leitrim’s players and they kicked three wides before things settled at all.
But Leitrim hit four successive points and a gorgeous score off the boot of Ryan O’Rourke, after cleverly stepping inside his man at the Canal End, had them 0-6 to 0-3 in front.
Christopher Bradley’s free reduced the arrears, only for Raymond Mulvey to respond instantly at the other end.
Mulvey’s 23rd minute point was Leitrim’s last of the first half and Derry reeled off the last six points of the half.
Lynn was given a Tá from Hawkeye, Bell converted a free and McGuigan, the engineer of several of Derry’s early manoeuvres, got himself on the mark.
Leitrim’s visits to Croke Park have ranked somewhere between the lines of intermittent and non-existent over the years. The throngs of Leitrim folk dotted along the streets of Drumcondra beforehand told of an occasion to savour.
This was their first time at headquarters since a defeat by Louth in the Tommy Murphy Cup final of 2006.
Leitrim had nine wides to their name by the end of the first half and their wastefulness was already looking costly.
Derry were ahead for only the second time when Lynn burst through to fist over. Yet, with Bradley yawning in space on the edge of the square, one wondered about his election to take the point. There were others in the same scenario who would’ve rattled the Hill 16 net.
Yet, Derry were 0-10 to 0-7 in front at the changeover and finally seeming as if they were in control of the tie.
Just five years ago, Derry were jousting in the Division 1 final against Dublin. The Oak Leaf were routed 3-19 to 1-10 by the Dubs in a 2014 final that offered little hint of the slope down which they’d slide.
Last March, when Derry were beaten 3-11 to 2-12 by Sligo at Markievicz Park, the trapdoor from Division 3 flung open
Only Chrissy McKaigue, Lynn and Emmet Bradley of today’s starters had played any part in 2014 and McKaigue landed a supreme score to lift Derry early in the second half, when Leitrim found a second wind.
Emlyn Mulligan, O’Rourke and Paddy Maguire gave Leitrim hope, but a McGuigan brace and a useful Padraig Cassidy score helped Derry to lead by five (0-15 to 0-10) with just ten minutes gone in the second half.
Derry were able to stay in front and left with the silverware, but Tyrone looms a rather large shadow on the horizon.
Derry: Thomas Mallon; Karl McKaigue, Brendan Rogers, Paul McNeill; Michael McEvoy, Chrissy McKaigue (0-2), Niall Keenan; Pádraig Cassidy (0-1), Conor McAtamney; Emmett Bradley (0-2), Enda Lynn (0-3), Conor Doherty; Shane McGuigan (0-6, 1f, 1m), Ryan Bell (0-3), Christopher Bradley (0-2). Subs: Benny Heron for Lynn (50), Niall Toner (0-1) for Bell (50), Jason Rocks for Doherty (59), Eamon McGill for K.McKaigue (65), Ryan Dougan for C.Bradley (70).
Leitrim: Cathal McCrann; Aidan Flynn, Michael McWeeney (0-1), Paddy Maguire; Seán McWeeney, Shane Quinn, Raymond Mulvey (0-1); Mark Plunkett (0-1), Shane Moran (0-1); Dean McGovern (0-1), Emlyn Mulligan (0-1), Domhnaill Flynn (0-1f); Cillian McGlone, Evan Sweeney (0-2, 1m), Ryan O’Rourke (0-5, 4f). Subs: Pearce Dolan for McGlone (32), Darragh Rooney for Mulligan (45), Damian Moran for S.Moran (50), Conor Reynolds for A.Flynn (61), Jack Heslin for D.Flynn (65).
Referee: Brendan Cawley (Kildare).
Sports writer from St Johnston, now based in Letterkenny, with ten years’ experience covering sport in Donegal. Was a nominee for NUJ Sports Journalist of the Year in 2010. Honoured by the Donegal Boxing Board in 2016 for his coverage on the sport.