Derry's bid to solve Ulster puzzle missing vital piece
THE Derry air is heavy with anticipation regarding the Anglo-Celt Cup and the Oak Leaf county footballers.
They haven't won an Ulster title since 1998, when the side managed by Dublin legend Brian Mullins defeated tomorrow's rivals Donegal.
Derry managed to grind their way through a hard-fought, intense match when Joe Brolly smashed the ball to the net for a late goal and a smash-and-grab win.
Brolly has of course gone on to become a national figure known for his uncompromising views on RTE's GAA coverage, which doesn't make him universally popular.
Since the '98 Ulster win, so many years have passed, so many games have been played, but so many times have Derry fallen short in the province.
They have produced some fine players and their NFL victories in 2000 and '08 suggested that something big was about to happen, but so far, so little.
Therein lies the intrigue of this latest Ulster final clash with Donegal.
Opportunity knocks for the team managed by the straight-talking, no-nonsense John Brennan.
Brennan made his feelings known about the improvement required from his players back in May when he was in charge for his first championship outing with the team. Derry had just defeated Fermanagh by 1-18 to 1-10 at Celtic Park, but he wasn't in any mood for sending out a message of congratulations.
"Brutal," was Brennan's verdict on the second-half performance in which Derry scored only six points and kicked 11 wides, compared to their first-half showing which brought 1-12 and only four wides.
"The elementary mistakes that were committed by very good players are not acceptable to me, but we'll work on it," he promised.
And work on it they did as they proved by hammering Armagh in the Ulster semi-final by 3-14 to 1-11. That was a significant victory, as Derry had previously suffered defeat in seven consecutive provincial semi-finals.
The wide count was only two in that second half against Armagh, which pleased Brennan.
He was also happier with the scoring rate in the second 35 minutes, as this time Derry kept the foot on the accelerator and notched up 2-6.
The manager predicted after the match that "if we play like that, we'll possibly beat anybody."
His confidence has since been tempered by the absence of Eoin Bradley, who joins brother Paddy on the sidelines with a cruciate ligament injury -- heartbreak for Eoin, who was Man of the Match against Fermanagh and Armagh, scoring 1-4 and then 1-5.
The pain is also felt by his team-mates, who relied so much on the Glenullin man's virtuosity and imagination, plus his reliability as a scorer of goals and points.
Derry's focus is on the challenge set by Donegal and not the weight of history, but their followers' hopes of having an Ulster title to celebrate depend on Brennan, his management team and the players to come up with the right answers in a side deprived of the star quality of Eoin Bradley.