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Jim McGuinness: Derry emerging as strongest contenders for one of the most open All-Irelands in memory

Seven counties have serious chance of lifting Sam Maguire this year

At lunchtime today, a roadmap for the All-Ireland series will emerge. The provincial championships still have to produce their respective winners, but this afternoon’s Sam Maguire draw signifies the start line for the 16 teams who will chase down the game’s biggest prize.

We’ve got to see all the protagonists in action now, and while this new championship group stage will throw up plenty of unknowns, it’s clear to me there has been a serious levelling off in terms of the teams we would consider to be All-Ireland contenders.

With the pack tightening up, we have the potential for one of the most open championships in recent memory. Several teams will fancy their chances of going all the way and it is quite a while since we have had so many counties jostling for top spot.

Dublin’s dominance was so complete for many years that it was almost an impossible task for others to make a breakthrough. Dublin’s brilliance set them apart, but it also ensured there was a shallow pool of genuine challengers.


The Dubs have come back to the pack now, and their lacklustre performance against Kildare on Sunday highlighted they still have improvements to make if they are to wrestle Sam back to the capital.

I believe there are seven teams in the top bracket now – Dublin, Kerry, Galway, Mayo, Derry, Armagh and Tyrone.

Kerry haven’t yet really shown their hand in 2023, while it will be interesting to see what Mayo team re-emerges after their loss to Roscommon in Connacht. Kevin McStay’s side were the form team during the league.

Tyrone were All-Ireland champions as recently as 2021 and they still have a talented squad. Armagh have already won three championship games, more than any other team in the country, and there is no doubt Derry and Galway have both been on an upward trajectory in recent years.

Indeed, of all the teams that played last weekend, I was most impressed by Derry. They are developing nicely. For me, their game plan can be distilled down to four key areas – established defence (the bedrock for everything else they do), a strong kick out strategy, executing a very high composure possession game, and putting an aggressive press on opposition kickouts.

You might argue these are all key areas that every team target, which is a fair point, but where Derry differ from others is the zonal nature of their defensive structure.

Like many sides, they have their man-markers who will pick up the opposition’s key forwards to try nullify their influence on a game. But after that, it is a very zonally orientated structure where all of the players are expected to participate. Fitness levels are extremely high within the squad and as a result Derry don’t often get pulled and dragged out of position. They can hold the structure and prevent gaps from appearing in their defensive shape. It makes it difficult for opponents to punch holes and gradually as frustration grows, they are able to seize on indecision and turn the ball over.

Interestingly, Derry are equally as structured going forward. In these attacking moments their ambition is to drag the opposition out of their defensive shape, and when a gap appears, attack it. It’s all well and good for them to create such opportunities, but the key is identifying when that gap appears. They have been so good at doing so, and they are hurting teams with their strong decision-making and ability to execute such attacking plays.

Conor McCluskey’s goal at the weekend was a perfect example. Derry were patient in their build-up play, showing a lot of composure by continuously moving the ball out of contact while all the time waiting for that opening to appear.

They are excellent at the mastery of the one v one duel in such scenarios. What I mean by that is, as Derry move the ball around the edge of a defensive structure, they are looking to reduce the attack down to a favourable one v one matchup. That is exactly what they achieved with McCluskey’s goal. After patiently recycling the ball around the arc, Derry suddenly spotted the gap and the moment had arrived. McCluskey had a one v one with Conor McManus – exactly the kind of matchup Derry had been waiting to materialise.

And these established attacks are not limited to Derry’s forwards, because all 15 of their players are encouraged to get involved. We have seen them get a lot of joy with scores from their defenders and even goalkeeper Odhran Lynch.

At midfield, Conor Glass and Brendan Rogers is a partnership that will compete against any other in the country. It provides Derry with a strong anchor in the middle of the field, while up front they have a marquee forward in Shane McGuigan – though crucially he is not carrying the scoring burden alone, and there is a decent support cast around him, not least Paul Cassidy who is having a fantastic season.

Derry had scored 0-8 after 20 minutes last Saturday, had 1-12 on the board by half-time and at the end of the long whistle they had posted a tally of 1-21. That is no mean feat in the white heat of an Ulster Championship match and I have no doubt they will be a tough nut to crack in the weeks ahead.

However, for all of that, they have issues to address and I think the elite teams will have identified some fault lines in their armoury.

In the Division Two league final, they struggled with Dublin’s offensive movements, in particular the backdoor cuts of Con O’Callaghan. Dublin scored four goals, and they probably should have raised even more green flags.

Against Fermanagh it was high balls in the square that caused them most problems, and Monaghan attacked that area at the weekend as well. Derry conceded a brace of goals in both of those Ulster games and that is something I’m sure Armagh will be targeting in the provincial final.

Lastly, when Monaghan went with direct runs it caused them problems, Karl O’Connell’s goal was the result of a straight incision down the middle of the defence. Derry do have areas to work on but nevertheless they remain very much an improving team.

There is still a long road to run in the championship and this afternoon 16 teams will get a roadmap of where the All-Ireland may take them.

But the reality is not all have the capability to go the distance. For me, our champion in 2023 will come from one of the lucky seven.