Minor Championship is being "diluted" as Derry boss Damian McErlain slams Croke Park call

Armagh's Shea Loughran tackles Derry's Rian Collins in May's Ulster final at O'Neills Healy Park and the sides return to the Omagh venue for Sunday's All-Ireland MFC final
-Credit: (Image: ©INPHO/Leah Scholes)

All-Ireland MFC final: Armagh vs Derry (holders) (Sunday, 2pm, O'Neills Healy Park)

Derry minor manager Damian McErlain claims the U17 grade is being ‘diluted’ amid growing anger that Sunday’s All-Ireland final against Armagh isn’t being played at Croke Park.

O’Neills Healy Park in Omagh will instead host the decider, which is a repeat of the Ulster final clash between the sides.

The Oak Leafers defeated the Orchard County 0-12 to 1-7 back in May and they’ll be hoping to retain the Tom Markham Cup after beating Monaghan in last year’s final at the Box-It Athletic Grounds.

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It the third successive final to feature two teams from the same province and the third to be played away from Croke Park as Galway’s 2022 victory over Mayo took place at Dr Hyde Park.

Next weekend sees Croke Park hosting two double-headers with the finals of the Tailteann Cup and the All-Ireland Junior Football Championship being played before the All-Ireland SFC semi-finals.

McErlain says the minors could have featured on a triple-header even if it meant a noon throw-in for the teams involved.

“When you see all the different matches that are taking place at Croke Park, there’s no reason why this couldn’t be played before one of them,” said McErlain.

“I think the whole minor Championship is being diluted left, right and centre between no speeches, no Man-of-the-Matches and no interviews. I don’t think anyone is listening - it is falling on deaf ears.

“I don’t think anyone is listening because I don’t see anyone bringing the conversation up. I think even without stringing the season out longer, you could have them before the All-Ireland semi-finals.

“You’ve two matches next weekend. You could play the minors at 12 o’clock. At the end of the day, the minors aren’t going to fill Croke Park, but it is a curtain-raiser.

“At the same time, to win an All-Ireland at Croke Park would be something else for the boys. Some of them will never get to play there. Some of the lads will never get to run out at Croke Park after this age group.”

Derry are bidding for a third minor title in five seasons. Marty Boyle led the Oak Leafers to victory over Kerry in the 2020 final (played in 2021).

Derry minor manager Damian McErlain
Derry minor manager Damian McErlain -Credit:©INPHO/Leah Scholes

McErlain took Derry to a final in 2017 in his first spell in charge, but David Clifford ensured there’d only be one winner that afternoon as Kerry won their fourth title in succession before completing the five-in-a-row the following year.

Now, it is Derry who are the dominant force at underage level and McErlain credits their recent success to the work being done by club coaches throughout the county.

“It starts with the clubs. They are doing work with the players from six or seven years of age night-in, night-out,” said the Derry boss.

“The coaching is well-organised and everything is driven towards developing better players. That even feeds into the way the primary schools are competing in tournaments and that works through into underage football in Derry.

“When you get to 14 and 15, that gives you a serious pool of players. When they get to Owenbeg, they are ripe for further development. That piece is in place and it is very well structured. It takes it all. Coupled with that, you’ve a strong schools setup with the likes of St Pat’s Maghera, St Mary’s Magherafelt and St Pius X College.”

Derry thumped Armagh 2-18 to 0-7 in the Ulster MFC group stages, but Eoin Duffy’s first half goal in the Ulster final meant Derry were forced to come from behind and withstand a late fightback to hold on to their Ulster crown in Omagh.

Wins over Dublin and Kerry in the meantime sees Derry head into Sunday’s rematch as strong favourites, although McErlain is expecting a different challenge from Aidan O’Rourke’s side.

“It will be a totally different game to the Ulster final. We’ve both been through tough games in the All-Ireland series,” stated McErlain.

“Both teams will have developed and it will be a different game. I expect them to come at us and they’ll want to go one better than they did in the Ulster final.

“Both Dublin and Kerry were quality teams and we came through tough games. We felt we had to lift our game to a different level to get through them and, thankfully, we’d enough to come through.

“We’ve the experience of last year and you hope that has its advantages - we’ll know after 10 or 15 minutes on Sunday.

“You don’t know how some of the lads are going to react on the day, whether they were there last year or not."

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