Because of the wonderful scheduling arising from the current championship structure, here we are, for the second time in just seven days (following a seven-week layoff - what's all this crack about sevens?), on the eve of another shit-or-bust championship clash. While last Saturday's match never really evoked any kind of "oh jaysus, this could be it till the FBD in January" trepidation in advance, tomorrow's trek northwards certainly does. And if the Cavan match felt a little too much like a souped-up league encounter, tomorrow's tussle with the Oak Leaf lads will almost certainly be a proper blood and thunder championship tie. One that we could very easily lose and so kiss goodbye to our involvement in the 2007 championship.
I know that the bookies have us as favourites and that Setanta also tip us to win but that's no guarantee of success. RTE plump for Derry and I'd expect some of the print media to do likewise tomorrow. If we are favourites, we're only marginally so and solely because of our 2007 championship form and our good league campaign earlier this year. The odds don't factor in the significant alterations made to the team since the Salthill meltdown nor, apparently, do they seem to recognise that we cannot, in the third largest county in the country, apparently find a full-back that's six feet tall and can play a bit. They certainly don't account for the three soft goals we gave away to Cavan and the fact that we could easily have conceded three more. Neither do they take into consideration that Derry - unlike Cavan - are playing at home and that their side is packed with a hell of a lot more talent than the Breffni men had. In short, I'm worried about tomorrow. Very worried, truth be told.
I can only presume that Johnno has some fiendish plan for dealing with Paddy Bradley that somehow doesn't involve Liam O'Malley and that, likewise, we have over the past week developed some kind of effective ploy to counteract a policy of aerial bombardment. The Cavan match illustrated with perfect clarity the extent to which we're currently exposed at the back and my big fear is that if we haven't come up with some kind of strategy to deal with this problem, tomorrow is going to lead to a bad case of Northern exposure.
The big positive from last week, of course, was the high score we ran up so that, regardless of the amount of damage being wreaked at the back, we were able to make up for it at the other end. (Faint echoes may be picked up here of John Morrison's risible Brazil comment from last year). However, last Saturday our 2006 All-Stars were given the freedom of McHale Park by the Cavan backs and I for one don't expect the Derry backline - who limited Armagh to just nine points last weekend - to be quite so accommodating. We know that Alan and, in particular, Conor don't shine when subjected to close marking so tomorrow will be a big test not only for them but also for the other forwards to do the business. For example, if Andy Moran gets a point-blank-range opportunity in Celtic Park, he'll need to bury it. It also means that big performances are, once again, needed from Pierce Hanley and Barry Moran.
The refashioned attack does appear to be more potent than the previous configuration but if they're to do damage, they'll need to get the ball. As I said yesterday, it's great to have Pat Harte back at midfield because we'll need a bigger effort around the middle tomorrow. In fact, we need to be far, far tighter around the middle third tomorrow. The amount of time and space that we gave the Cavan lads to win the ball, have a good think about what to do with it and then pass to an unmarked teammate was just eye-popping, the very antithesis of a swarm welcome. I know we pride ourselves on the grand, open brand of football we like to play but if we play like this against Derry tomorrow, we're just asking for a hiding.
In a sense, tomorrow is a defining moment for us. If we turn up and play in the same lackadaisical manner as we did last weekend, then that's our championship season over. However, if we do step on the gas and provide our first truly satisfying performance of the year, we stand a great chance of getting a result, one that would, in turn, open the door for us to a return to the All-Ireland series. It's not in our own hands, of course, as Derry are a damn good side and will be difficult to beat at home so we could play really well and still get edged out. This is the all-or-nothing way it is with the knockout format: tomorrow could be the end or it could be our calling card to say we're back in business. Twenty four hours out from the action, I have to confess I haven't a clue which one it'll be be but I'll be making the round-trip of almost 300 miles from Dublin tomorrow to find out.