Tuesday 20 March 2018

O'Kane determined to embrace Armagh task

Colm Keys

Colm Keys

In the supplement, published with the Irish Independent on Monday, previewing the championship season, a segment of the county-by-county profiles provided suggestions as to what 'fantasy signing' would benefit each particular county.

Most of the recommendations stated the obvious. There isn't a team in the game that couldn't do with a fit Kieran Donaghy or Michael Meehan. Paul Galvin was a popular choice too. In fact, if a poll of managers was taken at any stage since last season, Galvin would surely have figured prominently on their wish list.

Defenders didn't feature too heavily, but those mentioned ranged from Graham Canty to Tomas O Se.

Gerard O'Kane's name didn't feature, but the list of top-level counties that could do with his services is undoubtedly lengthy.

Galway for a start, Dublin too. Meath would have to consider breaking the bank to shore up their full-back line.

Mickey Harte has long known the value of one of Ulster's most versatile defenders. Whether it's a destructive or creative influence Derry seek from their back line, the plan will almost certainly revolve around the Glenullin man.

In the maelstrom of the 'Battle of the Bogside' with Monaghan 12 months ago, he stood apart as the figure of composure at the heart of Derry's defence. As former All Star full-back Kevin McCloy grapples with his best form, it is O'Kane who provides their strongest pillar now.

He ticks most boxes, is at home in any of the six defensive positions and, on any given day, he can transform himself from spoiler to launch pad. Whatever service is required, he's ready to provide it.

Which raises the question of what to do about Stevie McDonnell, the much-rejuvenated star figure of the Armagh attack for the last decade.

For O'Kane, it's all about warming to the challenge, accepting it, shaking off the fears and doubts so synonymous with the Ulster championship.

If it's McDonnell he has to track tomorrow -- more than likely it will be -- then he won't be recoiling from the prospect.

"If Damien says 'hands up who wants to mark Steven' mine will be the first one up, but I would say that there would be four or five other hands in the air, knowing that it is championship football.


"You have to embrace the challenge and, more importantly, you have to look forward to it. If you are nervous and scared about it, you will go out and play that way, whereas you have to really enjoy it and embrace it.

"If ever someone mentions Armagh to me, whether it is Stevie or whoever, I tend to break into a wee smile because I am just looking forward to it."

Derry have had to weather a fair few storms in recent years, the eternal underachievers in the north have flattered to deceive so often that few are willing to place any trust in their credentials any more.

They come to Celtic Park under a pall of suspicion after a league campaign that has seen them plummet to Division 2 after contesting the previous two finals.

But they have long since learned to live with imbalances between league and championship and since their fate was sealed they have begun to enjoy their football again.

"Maybe the tables have turned," suggested O'Kane. "We went through very good leagues in the last couple of years, but we have been hit with a spate of injuries in our last couple of league games with fellows playing club football.

"We had a pretty disappointing league, but all around us injuries appear to be clearing up now."

For O'Kane, the Ulster championship was never something to appreciate until he travelled to Ballybofey last year to watch a side managed by one of his Glenullin club- mates cause one of the shocks of the season.

Antrim were the story of last year's Ulster championship and Liam Bradley, father to Paddy and Eoin, certainly got the most out of them. But the journey to Ballybofey stirred O'Kane too.

Strangely, it was his first time at a championship game in Ulster not involving Derry since he became an inter-county player. Seeing it from a different perspective opened his eyes.

"I only went because of the fact that a lot of the club was going to watch Liam Bradley managing Antrim and we all went together as a club. It was a refreshing experience.

"In Ballybofey it was 80pc Donegal supporters and only 20pc Antrim. I was just sitting back taking the whole thing in wondering if this is what it is like for a Derry fan to watch a match, seeing how intense and caught up all the supporters were getting around me.

"I felt it was a refreshing experience to be in the crowd, and get into a game and see how the supporters get into it. Hopefully, we can go out and do ourselves justice."

Justice is something Derry haven't been delivering for themselves for a long time now.

The last time they won back-to-back Ulster matches was 2000 when they last reached a final. On that basis, the prognosis for an extended run is poor.

However, O'Kane wants his team to be confident in their own ability and talk themselves up for a change.

"I could stand here and give the old party line that the pressure is on Armagh, that they are the Division 2 champions.

"You have to be very confident, not only in your own ability, but in your team's ability. Realistically, you have to take the game to the other team and if you sit back and try and play a game of chess you always get caught on the hop. You really have to embrace it and enjoy it."

Irish Independent

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