Gaelic GamesThe Weekend That Was

It is hard to see how a gruelling Ulster campaign fits into Derry’s grand plan

Mickey Harte needs to protect his precious resources for the business end of the season

What do Derry do now? What’s their next move? Lifting the league title on Sunday moved them into a place where their 2024 season has taken on the sort of nauseating simplicity that Kerry and Dublin face every year. Anything short of an All-Ireland final appearance will be a failure from here, anything less than Sam Maguire a heartbreak.

That wasn’t quite the case before Sunday. It arguably wasn’t even the case before the penalty shoot-out. You can quail at the idea of penalties being the best way to decide a competition if you like but that’s a dead conversation at this point. It’s a far more interesting exercise to imagine what people would think of Derry today if they hadn’t come out on top.

Would they be considered quite so bona fide contenders now if the shoot-out had ended with Con O’Callaghan collecting the cup from Jarlath Burns? Probably not. Instead, we would still have a top two with Derry a little behind, crushed under the weight of having the Dubs where they wanted them but being unable to put them away. They would still have so much to prove and no guarantees from anyone that they had the goods to do so.

Winning, even on penalties, changes that. Hearing the DJ picking out Danny Boy from his Croke Park’s Sleepiest Dirges LP immediately after the final whistle changes that. Seeing Conor Glass stand bashfully by as the new president lists out all the medals he’s already won this year before handing him the trophy changes that. Derry, league champions, changes that.


Derry have one world left to conquer, that of putting Glass on the Hogan Stand in July. This is championship week, the part of the season where we traditionally settle in to kick off the summer’s great festival of Gaelic games. But because of all the various restructurings, we know well that the championship doesn’t start this week. Not really.

No, the only championship that Derry will be judged on starts six weeks from Saturday. And only two things can change for Derry between now and then – 1) their seeding in the Sam Maguire draw and 2) the state they find themselves in when the draw is made.

As it stands, they are in pot three, the number one ranked team in the league. The question now is whether or not they have a burning desire to be in pot one or two. And whether or not such a move would be worth the attrition it could take.

Do Derry really need to keep the pedal to the metal for the next month to try and win another Ulster title? They’ve already won two back-to-back, with both finals going to extra-time and last year’s going to penalties. Beyond tradition, is there any other good argument for them slapping on the warpaint and fatigues for a brutal month in the trenches that won’t advance their overall position significantly?

To win Ulster, Derry will need to beat Donegal in just under three weeks’ time, followed by either Tyrone, Cavan or Monaghan the following weekend. Then it will most likely be Armagh in the final, again. Derry are better than each of these teams individually but the coastal erosion inflicted by each advancing wave is nobody’s idea of a fun time.

It’s different for Dublin and Kerry. For the Dubs, the next six weeks comprises a Leinster championship where the best team on their side of the draw is Meath, who they haven’t lost to in 15 years. For Kerry, it’s (presumably) Cork in Killarney, where the visitors haven’t won since the mid-90s. Compare and contrast.

And for what? What price a provincial title? If last year’s championship is anything to go by, the worth of carrying your local crown into the Sam Maguire is mixed at best. The one good argument for it is that you avoid the other provincial champions in the group stage but since it’s harder to get knocked out than to make it through your pool, it probably doesn’t make a whole pile of difference.

What did last year tell us? We are still so early in the new championship era that the sample size is, of course, pointlessly small. So take these numbers with all the usual health warnings.

But for what it’s worth, only one of the provincial champions won their opening game in the group stage in 2023. Kerry lost to Mayo, Derry drew with Monaghan, Dublin drew with Roscommon. Armagh were the only provincial runners-up to win their opening game, against Tailteann Cup winners Westmeath. Eight teams made provincial finals, only two won their next game.

Coincidentally or not, the only provincial champions to win their opening Sam Maguire game were Galway – and they turned out to be the first of the provincial champions to be eliminated. Meanwhile the likes of Monaghan, Mayo, Cork and Tyrone, all of whom were knocked out early in their respective provinces, went away and licked their wounds and got bodies right for the All-Ireland championship. Each of them had their best results of the year in May and June, when the serious action began.

Ultimately, of course, none of them seriously contended for the All-Ireland. But with the best will in the world, it’s hard to argue that any of them had serious claims in the first place. And certainly not the sort of claims Derry look to have this time around. They all mixed and matched as they went and found the right formula to get them so far before being ushered off the premises when they could get no further.

Derry don’t need to do any of that. They know their best team, they know how they want to play, they’ve stared both Kerry and Dublin in the face and they aren’t one bit scared of either of them. If they could, they’d play an All-Ireland final tomorrow. But they can’t, so they need to ferry their most precious resources through to the point in the season where they can discharge them most effectively. It’s hard to see how a gruelling Ulster campaign fits into that.

So what do they do next? A delicate month ahead.