Donegal minor footballers have a new man at the helm - Derry man Stephen Friel, who is domiciled in Drumkeen and has been managing Naomh Colmcille for the past few years.
Having been appointed just two weeks ago, Friel has hit the ground running and hopes to have his panel in place as early as possible to be fully prepared for the new season.
Friel, who runs his own business consultancy, Friel Consulting, came through an interview process last month and a competitive field of candidates including All-Ireland winning full-back Matt Gallagher - who was outgoing manager Charlie Mulgrew’s assistant for the last two seasons - and the high-powered combination of Eamon O’Boyle and Micheal McGeehin.
The new boss is a native of Dungiven. He played football for St. Canice’s and hurling with Kevin Lynchs and is a product of the famous Derry schools nursery St. Pat’s, Maghera with whom he won Ulster Colleges McRory and Mageean Cups and All-Ireland Hogan Cup.
“I was never a fantastic footballer and during my time in St. Pat’s and I was more a panel man that a first choice player. But it was a great time to be at the college and certainly I attended St. Pats during a golden age of football at the college under Adrian McGuckin and Dermot McNicholl and I was fortunate to play alongside such great players as Anthony Tohill, Eamon Burns, Karl Diamond and Brian McCormack, all who later went on to win All-Ireland with Derry,” said Stephen.
“During my time we won a number of both McRory and Mageean and we also won the Hogan Cup (All-Ireland Colleges) in 1990. I was really privileged to be part of that squad and I learned a lot football wise during my years in Maghera.”
For the last three years Stephen, who also played with Derry City club Steelstown, has been guiding the fortunes of Naomh Colmcille and last year guided the Newtowncunnigham based club to a junior championship and promotion to Division Three of the All- County Football League.
Stephen has worked with development squads for the past four years - two years ago he led Donegal U-16s to the Buncrana Cup final. Derry defeated Donegal in that Buncrana Cup decider.
In the season just gone by he was manager of the county U-17 development squad.
“I have worked with a lot of these lads over the last four years. First with the East development squad and have also managed the county U-16s and U-17s and it was from that experience and the fact that it nice to get the opportunity to work with a county team that attracted me to the job.”
The new manager has named Convoy clubman Oliver Prunty as his assistant; Gary Duffy Buncrana as team trainer with Kevin Gallagher, Downings - an Ulster minor championship winner with Donegal in 1991 - David Gillespie and Declan Bonner as mentors. Former Armagh All-Ireland winner Barry O’Hagan, who plays under Friel at Naomh Colmcille, will act as an adviser.
“The management team are well spread geographically and I feel we have all parts of the county covered and it is great to have two All-Ireland winners, Declan Bonner and Barry O’Hagan. Declan has been a tremendous help so far and is a fountain of knowledge on football and I’m really delighted to have him as I am Barry O’Hagan who is going to act in an advisory capacity.
“Oliver Prunty is going to be my assistant. He has done a lot with Convoy and East development squads in recent years. Gary Duffy is going to train the team I have worked with Gary for a number of years and we work well together while David Gillespie and Kevin Gallagher have years of experience working with their respective club teams, Naomh Columba and Downings.”
The new manager has not been letting the grass grow under his feet and though only officially ratified at the beginning of the month he has already had two trial games and has ran his eye over in the region of 150 players.
“We’ve had a number of trials over the last two weekends and have looked at over 150 players and the target is to whittle it down to a provisional panel of 45 and eventually a panel of 30 players.
“The plan is to bring to the provisional plan into the Letterkenny I.T. on Saturday November 26th and give them a training programme which they will follow on their own over the winter months. We will then bring them back in early in the new year and we will then find out who has been working and following the programme and who has not and from that we will draw our panel of 30 for the Ulster minor football league on March 21st.”
And it will not be a case of using the minor league to try out players and experiment. It is the new manager’s intention is to have a fairly settled panel and have them in training a few weeks before the minor league and have his team playing together and working as a unit well ahead of the preliminary round championship meeting with Cavan in mid-May.
“I think it is important to get a settled team and squad as soon as possible and use the minor league to get the team playing as a team. We start with Fermanagh away and that is followed by three home games against Derry, Monaghan and Tyrone and of course we are out early in the championship away to Cavan on May 20th.
“I’m a great believer in giving players time to get used to playing with each other and playing as a team.
“I would hope to have my panel in place or as near as possible to having it in place for the start of the league. We can bring players in and out of the team in the course of the league but it is all about being ready for Cavan, which is a tough draw. They are the reigning champions and from what I hear they will have seven or eight of last year’s first choice players available to them again next season.
“It is no easy draw especially away from home and that is why we must get down to work straight away. Having worked with most of these lads in recent years and given that a number of new players that have emerged in the trials so far, I would be reasonably happy that we have a decent enough squad of players.
“It is just now a matter putting in the effort and getting some serious work done over the next six months.”
In the meantime as well as his minor duties Stephen has also to try and steer Naomh Colmcille away from relegation at the bottom of Division Three of the All County Football League.
With two games remaining and the league not likely to be finished until February of next year at the earliest the new Donegal minor boss has a busy couple of months ahead of him.
That is before he makes a final decision if he is going to carry the dual role of Donegal minor manager and Naomh Colmcille boss in 2012.
So as well as a lot of plotting and planning for the minors Stephen has a lot to ponder over his future with Naomh Colmcille over the next few months too.
Stephen is married to Stephani (Bonar) and they have two children, Elsie who is four and 14-week-old Canice.