Sunday 16 December 2018

Captain O'Kane calls on Derry to show ruthless side

Donnchadh Boyle

Donnchadh Boyle

THE statistics Gerard O'Kane outlines make Derry folk shift awkwardly and the vehicle carrying the message serves only to hammer home the point.

The recently-appointed Derry football captain lands for interview equipped with facts and figures which lay out the failings of the county's squad in recent years in black and white.

O'Kane is an honest, straight-talking type and not ruffled when it's put to him that, on paper at least, Derry have underachieved with the talent they have at their disposal. Armed with a flurry of stats, O'Kane honestly offers the view that Derry's mentality has been a stumbling block.

"Some of the boys have played in five Ulster semi-finals in five years and got beaten by five different teams," he says. "It's not as if we have a mental block with one team that keeps turning us over... no matter what optimism we have, some team has come along and swept us off our feet.

"We're back to square one this year, in that we're in the preliminary round. We've not won back-to-back games in Ulster in 10 years. If we are to get near an Ulster final we have to win four. It's a big ask for us."

It might have been O'Kane's no-nonsense approach that persuaded Derry manager Damian Cassidy to appoint the 25-year-old as captain, or maybe it was his predisposition to success.

By the end of his teens, he had twice been up the steps to accept All-Ireland titles on behalf of the Derry minor side and his school St Pat's, Maghera.

His display in that minor final of 2002 was awesome. He started at full-back, charged with taming Meath danger man Joe Sheridan, and ended the day with three points to his name as Derry eased home.

What O'Kane points out is nothing new. Tyrone's Joe McMahon agrees that Derry have underachieved considering their talent pool and the Red Hand visit Celtic Park tonight for their National League opener.

The league has been good to Derry in the past two seasons, providing silverware in 2008 and another final appearance last year, but O'Kane acknowledges that on each occasion, the realities of their championship form failed to match their league billing.

"I know we took the league seriously (in 2008) and always wanted to win every game.

"In 2009 it was a bit different in that we got to a league final, not that we weren't trying to, but we got there by surprise thanks to the way other results turned out.

"As I say, it's always the last three or four games of the league coming into the championship when you see boys stepping it up. You see teams stepping it up coming into March and then boys kick on coming into the championship.

"Unfortunately for us the last couple of years we didn't do that, so we have sit down and look at it, and maybe try something different this year."

That something different could be provided by the return of Liam Hinphey and Michael McGoldrick to the panel, though, regardless of personnel, they must decide how best to deploy their brightest lights. Their game plan over the last few years has been as simple as was predictable -- plant the Bradley brothers Eoin and Paddy inside and get the ball to them.

Cassidy worked hard to find a system to suit his side and even tinkered with the idea of deploying Fergal Doherty on the edge of the square to add some power to the Bradleys' panache.

O'Kane, a cousin of the brothers, agrees having the Bradleys in their side can be their trump card and Achilles heel all at the same time.

Lethal

"It's something that we've worked to our advantage at times and also to our downfall.

"If you have them two up front it's hard not to play to their strengths, because on their day, they're two of the most lethal finishers you can get. I've been playing with them now for 20 years with the club.

"I'm not sure what Damien will do this year, because when the two of them are inside, it can become a bit predictable. Teams will put a line across the '45' or around the edge of the 'D' and it's impossible to get past. You'll often find with Paddy, especially that he's double marked."

At times last year, Derry didn't help themselves. The fallout from their bad-tempered, ugly affair with Monaghan got the championship off to a forgettable start and had both teams under the microscope for the remainder of their summer.

However, O'Kane believes Derry can take some encouragement in to the new season after Derry's display of mental strength in their recent McKenna Cup game against Down, where they overturned an eight-point deficit before narrowly losing out.

"Being able to bring that mental strength out when you're in control of a game and kick on is maybe something that we haven't been able to do recently," he says. "You have to be as ruthless if you're five points in front as you are if you're five points behind."

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