Losing half your squad in any sport would spell disaster but when we recently spoke with Derry’s hurling manager Tom McLean it is obvious he has took it all in his stride. He is only looking in one direction and that is the Valentine's Day date with his native Antrim at Owenbeg.
A proud Dunloy and Antrim man, McLean stresses he is very much behind Derry as they aim to step up the ladder. From chatting to him, you can feel his genuine passion for hurling – the sport he loves. Sitting around the table in Owenbeg’s canteen he is cracking away with chairman Brian Smith and secretary Danny Scullion.
Oisin McCloskey finishes up his plate of beef and spuds, grabs his kitbag and heads for home. McLean sits on. He is relaxed. Masseur Terence Gray chips in with a line or two. The mood is positive, the session is complete and another busy night in Owenbeg is over.
Going into 2016 McLean has been dealt a tough hand. If this was a game of cards many a man would contemplate folding but the Derry boss has no intention of throwing his cards in. He can see a whole lot more.
Ruairi McCloskey, Liam Óg and Kevin Hinphey are the trio who officially retired ahead of this season. Dunloy native McLean pointed out that of the squad that took the field to face Kerry in last season's Christy Ring defeat to Kerry, a staggering fifteen are not on board this season. Many of the Gaels in the county wouldn’t have realised this.
As McLean put his squad through the final stages of a training session last week one familiar face was still there and visibly pushing everyone on. The bearded, towering, distinctive figure of Ruairi Convery was stretching every sinew to win the sprints.
McLean’s focus is to build a squad back up again. Convery’s experience will be vital. Along with team captain Sean McCullagh, McLean believes the next batch of players are ready to step in.
“Sean [McCullagh] did a great job as captain last year and will continue this season. Oisin McCloskey is back on board this year, Paddy Kelly and Gareth O’Kane (left), all men that have played at the highest level.”
“Brendan Quigley, Conor Quinn despite being injured at the minute, Paddy Henry and other good men, so there are plenty of leaders.” McLean didn’t follow the footsteps of managers who highlight players not available, he is very focussed on driving ahead on this journey with the men who have come on board.
McLean is a fan of his captain McCullagh and like all top leaders “he wouldn’t be looking anybody to do anything he wouldn’t do himself.”
The boss also speaks highly of Ruairi Convery. “The big man just loves his hurling and you can see that as he encourages all the young fellas along. They look up to him and he will be hard to replace but he’s still there and is going as well now as he was five or six years ago.”
Last season McLean didn’t have the services of anyone from county champions Slaughtneil but he is delighted to have three on board for this season – Meehaul McGrath, Mark McGuigan and Gareth O’Kane. “I’m just delighted to have those men on board, they are good quality hurlers.”
At the start of our conversation the Christy Ring Cup is mentioned and the possibility of going one step further. McLean has parked that thought, well for the time being at least. He is revisiting his tried and tested 2015 formula.
“We have Roscommon in the first match in the Christy Ring but at this stage we’re not looking any further ahead than the Antrim game on 14th February. That’s what we did last year; we took one game at a time.”
With Chris [Bamba] McAuley and former Kildare manager Brian Lawlor in charge on the training pitch the current plan is to keep working away. Lawlor won the Christy Ring as Kildare manager so this is a shrewd addition to McLean’s backroom team.
Well versed with underage hurling in Dunloy McLean was full of praise for Lavey’s Paddy Henry who has started the hurling nursery in his native Castledawson. With no hurling available Henry joined Lavey but his ‘small ball’ project in the Broagh is taking shape.
McLean has some advice for them. “Paddy deserves great credit for taking it on. They just have to start off at the bottom and work their way up. They need to get all the basics right and get involved in as many tournaments as they can both inside Derry and across Ulster.”
Like anything there is no secret formula. “Wherever you can just get playing and keep encouraging the lads. That’s all you can do.”
The first batch of the Castledawson hurlers have started to come onto the college hurling scene as Maghera reached this year’s McNamee Final. Paddy Henry knows a thing or two about college hurling and will be able to give his protégées the advice they will need.
For now Paddy Henry and Tom McLean will follow in the age old Kilkenny approach. Keep the head down and continue working way. The basics will take you a long way. When Derry host Antrim on 14th February there will be a keen interest.
PJ O’Mullan has strong links with Derry club Slaughtneil. He is a full cousin of Patsy Bradley and managed their camogie team to championship success but on this occasion it will be Dunloy’s Tom McLean who will have the Oak Leaf crest on his heart.
The fifteen players who have moved on from last year have been replaced and McLean will carry on doing that he does best.