Dublin's Evan Comerford parries away a shot on goal from Lachlan Murray of Derry. [Inpho/James Crombie]

Derry take Div. 1 title

Derry 3-18; Dublin 2-21

(Derry win 3-1 pens AET)

What an encounter the Big Ds - Derry and Dublin - served up in Croke Park on Sunday afternoon when they kept both sets of supporters and the huge neutral television public enthralled for almost two hours before penalties finally decided the outcome in favor of the Oak Leaf county.

It wasn’t an exaggeration to say that at the end Derry had to win the game three times before they could collect the League Cup Division 1 title - their first taste of success in this competition for 16 years.

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In addition to the drama on field, the game itself served as a subplot for the rest of the year with Derry now convinced that under new manager Mickey Harte, they have added sufficiently to their playing stock to not just compete but win the big national prizes on offer this season.

When the dust settles, they will start preparation for a third successive Ulster championship but their real aim this year is to bring Sam Maguire back to Foyleside for the first time since 1993.

Dublin on the other hand now know a few more things about themselves and those likely to stand in their way as they seek to win back-to-back titles in 2024.

They will have seen improvement in Derry – which have the likes of Eoin McEvoy coming from full-back last year to score 2-2 from center-back and get the Man of the Match award. Looking to their own ranks, Manager Dessie Farrell will realize once more that he needs more of the tried and trusted in his ranks if they are to come out on top ahead of their rivals in late summer.

For instance, a Dublin team that conceded three goals and quite frankly could have let in as much again is not the foundation either Farrell or his predecessor Jim Gavin built their success on. When you start a team minus Stephen Cluxton, Mick Fitzsimons, James McCarthy, Jack McCaffrey and Lee Gannon at the back, then maybe you are asking for trouble.

Dublin seldom lose kick-out stats when Cluxton is between the sticks; on Sunday they  failed to find a blue shirt on eight occasions while Odhran Lynch’s stats were much more impressive with only two going awry in regular time.

There were also big gaps in the center of defense, something nine-time Sam winners Fitzsimons and McCarthy, if the latter was not operating at midfield, could easily plug.

You have to hand it to Harte for plotting how to beat Dublin at their own game. Instead of sitting back and playing negatively, players appeared to be encouraged to run directly at the Dubs from midfield in over the entire 90 minutes - something that had the blues’ backline scrambling several times to prevent more goals going in.

All of which sets up the championship months ahead for supporters wondering who will mount the Hogan Stand steps at the end of July?

Let’s be frank about Sunday’s contest in declaring that Derry were the deserving winners and really should have won it in normal time except for Dublin’s cussedness which saw them come back from four points down to level.

Then in extra time, Derry again were the better side and had built up another four-point lead, which Dublin reduced to three when they played their Hail Mary card as the clock entered the red zone for the second time that day.

The lobbed ball into the Derry parallelogram by 14-man Dublin (as Brian Fenton had wrongly been sent off for boxing an opponent. which found its way to Greg McEneaney had rifled home in a crowded goalmouth, which then led to a right old kerfuffle with up to 20 players pulling and dragging at each other and Paddy Small seeing red.

When Conor Lane signaled the end of the increasing on-field hostilities, both sides regrouped for the penalty shoot-out and once again Derry took the initiative and held on.

Dublin skipper Con O’Callaghan, who was held scoreless from play but was still Dublin’s most dangerous forward in winning and using possession, for once failed when he put Dublin’s first effort in the shootout against the angle of the bar and upright with the ball rebounding back into the pitch much to Derry’s delight.

The men in red then showed nerves of steel as Shane McGuigan, Conor Glass and Ethan Doherty all confidently converted their attempt while Loran O’Dell and Tom Lahiff failed with theirs with only Paul Mannion converting in this denouement series.

In the game itself Derry started as they meant to go on and were well on top when Dublin struck through Colm Basquel for a goal which gave them an underserved lead at that stage.

They then swapped scores before going into the interval even on a 1-7 to 0-10 scoreline.

 When Dublin kicked on after half-time, it looked like we had seen this script before as Niall Scully and impressive newcomer Killian McGinnis had them cruising in front.

Lane’s decision to award a dubious penalty when diminutive defender Eoin Murchan was adjudged to have fouled Ethan Doherty as he pulled the trigger led to McGuigan coolly slotting home the spot kick and turning the game on its head again. 

Had Paul Cassidy added another green flag shortly after, perhaps the game would have gone another direction but the wide allowed Dublin to stay in the fight.

That seemed to end shortly afterwards when the impressive McEvoy strode through the Dubs defense to crack home a goal that had ‘winner’ written all over it. Derry were the ones cruising now with four points to the good and dominating the midfield section.

Like an old heavyweight boxer meeting a younger and more energetic opponent, Dublin went into muscle memory mode and just refused to throw in the towel. Points by Tom Lahiff, Ross McGarry and O’Callaghan had the match balanced once again on a knife-edge. Derry kicked for home with skipper Glass and McEvoy pushing them out to four to the good again with 56 minutes gone.

Subs Paul Mannion and Paddy Small added impetus and scores for Dublin to keep the game simmering before defender Seán McMahon and Ross McGarry and ultimately O’Callaghan’s free forced extra time.

More subs shone in the new shortened game as Niall Toner and Killian O’Gara kicked a brace each in the first half.

In the second period of extra time, the game seemed to finally be decided in Derry’s favor when McEvoy struck again to give his side a three-point lead which stood until McEneaney shot home at the death.

Derry: O Lynch; C McCluskey, C McKaigue, D Baker; C Doherty (0-1), E McEvoy (2-2), P McGrogan; CGlass (0-2, 0-1 ‘45’), B Rogers (0-1); E Doherty (0-1), C McFaul, P Cassidy; N Loughlin (0-2), SMcGuigan (1-4, 1-0 pen, 0-2f), L Murray (0-3, 0-1m) Subs: G McKinless for McGrogan (ht), N Toner (0-2) for McKinless (52), C Murphy for Loughlin (66), D Gilmore for P Cassidy (70), E Bradley for Murray (77), D Cassidy for McKaigue (81), E Mulholland for C Doherty (88).

Dublin: E Comerford; S MacMahon (0-1), C Murphy (0-2), E Murchan; J Small, B Howard (0-1), T Lahiff (0-2); B Fenton, K McGinnis (0-1); R McGarry (0-2), S Bugler (0-1), C Kilkenny; N Scully (0-1), C O’Callaghan (0-5f), C Basquel (1-1) Subs: P Mannion (0-1) for McGinnis (52), P Small (0-1) for Basquel (57), L O’Dell for Scully (57), K O’Gara (0-2) for McGarry (70), T Clancy for Murchan (80), C O’Connor for MacMahon (81), G McEneaney (1-0) for Bugler (86).

Ref: C Lane (Cork).