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Derry are on the rise, but Farneymen are the favourites says Conleith Gilligan

By Paddy Tierney

Conleith Gilligan was part of the last Derry team to reach an Ulster final back in 2011 and he knows his native county have their work out out if they are to make it to the provincial decider later this month.

Rory Gallagher’s men caused the biggest shock of the Championship season so far when they claimed a fully-merited 11-point win over All-Ireland champions Tyrone in Healy Park at the start of May.

Now, their path to Anglo Celt glory is known. Two more seasoned Division One outfits stand in their way as they bid for a first provincial title since 1998.

Read more: Niall Morgan insists Tyrone's All-Ireland success last season was no fluke

On Sunday afternoon, they head to the Athletic Grounds in Armagh to face a Monahan side who swatted away Down in Clones in their quarter-final.

Should they overcome the Farney, Declan Bonner’s Donegal await in the final.

“You are going back to 2011 to the last time Derry won back-to-back Ulster Senior Football Championship games,” stated Gilligan.

“They’ll have to beat two Division Ones teams to do so again - they’ve been very unlucky in the draw.

“They’ll have to beat the All-Ireland champions, then beat Monaghan just to reach an Ulster Final. It is a massive task.

“It shows just how difficult Ulster is. It means whoever comes out of Ulster is battle-hardened.

“Monaghan are at the very top end of Division One football. Any team that beats Dublin in a game that Dublin must win. . . that shows serious character and serious ability. In Jack McCarron, they’ve got one of the most in-form forwards in the country.

“Everybody in Derry is realistic, you are playing Monaghan and they are going in as favourites.

“They’ve seen Derry at their best now and they’ll be well prepared for it.

“Look, Derry have shown they can do it. Against Donegal last year, they almost beat a very seasoned Donegal side.”

While Derry were unlucky not to defeat Donegal last year, they didn’t rely on luck against the Red Hands last time out.

Tyrone lost All-Star midfielder Brian Kennedy to a straight red card midway through the first half, but the game was already slipping away from them at that stage.

Shane McGuigan’s penalty minutes later put Derry into a commanding lead and Conor McKenna’s second booking late on rounded off a woeful afternoon for the home side.

Derry, in contrast, celebrated a deserved and overdue Championship success against their near neighbours and Gilligan was delighted to see the Oak Leafers come good on their potential.

“It was brilliant. We’d been travelling in the past to Tyrone and Derry games more in hope than expectation,” said Gilligan.

“We’d a wee bit more expectation this time around because of the trajectory Derry were on.

"There weren't many people who really believed they were going to win it, but the Derry team made fools of all of us because, on the day, they were exceptional.

“They got everything bang on tactically and they didn’t concede scores easily. You could see what it meant after the game.

Derry’s Shane McGuigan congratulated by fans following their Ulster SFC quarter-final win over Tyrone in Healy Park. (©INPHO/Lorcan Doherty)

“Derry don’t really do pitch invasions - they haven’t had enough over the last decade or more. There is a real buzz in Derry. Regardless of whether we get over the line against Monaghan or not, there is proof that they are on the right path and they are improving.

“If they fall short against Monaghan, there is still a back door.”

Having worked alongside the great Mickey Moran, Gilligan stepped up to take the reins as manager of Kilcoo along with Richard Thornton when Moran stepped down following their All-Ireland club success earlier this year.

Gilligan is also a respected GAA pundit and, while he is delighted to see Derry progressing, he warns it is far too early in the season to be writing off the chances of Tyrone retaining their All-Ireland title.

“The League was patchy for Tyrone - they came back late from a holiday and the League probably wasn’t a priority for them,” added the Ballinderry native.

“Then they needed to win the game against Mayo, they did. When they needed to beat Kerry in Killarney, they did. There was a sense that Tyrone can always dig out performances when they have to.

Conleith Gilligan played in Derry's last Ulster Final appearance when they lost to Donegal in 2011. (©INPHO/Morgan Treacy)

“I was at the Fermanagh match and Tyrone were very flat and they played like that against Derry.

“They just didn’t look like they were ever going to get into their stride. On the back of that, maybe the players who left the panel were missed - the likes of Tiernan McCann, Mark Bradley, Lee Brennan.

“Beyond that, Mattie Donnelly and Richie Donnelly being injured - they would have loved to have had those players available.

“Tyrone will improve. . . I don’t think they are gone. There is a lot of talk that’s maybe overestimating the decline of Tyrone.

"When you’ve (Conor) Meyler and (Darren) McCurry and players like that, you are going to be there or thereabouts.

"If they get the right draw in the Qualifiers, no team is going to want to face them in the later stages of the Championship."

Read more: Down football in disarray as Caolan Mooney becomes the fifth player to depart

Read more: Croke Park or Carrick-on-Shannon? It doesn't matter to us says Tyrone U20 boss

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