Donegal are back in the Ulster Senior Hurling Championship for the first time in five years when they face Down on Sunday.
The game, a quarter-final tie, is in St. Tiernach’s Park, Clones and is the curtain-raiser for the Tyrone versus Monaghan, Ulster Senior Football championship clash. The throw-in for the game is 12 noon.
It is Donegal’s first outing since their surprise defeat to Fingal, in the Nicky Rackard Cup semi-final two weeks ago in O’Donnell Park. Down, last year’s winners of the Christy Ring Cup’ are a Division 2 side and are a big step up for Ray Durack and his men.
It is a step that is even bigger given that Donegal are without their marquee player and vice-captain Danny Cullen. Danny, who suffered an injury late on in the Nicky Rackard semi-final, has been diagnosed with a cruciate ligament injury and is out for the rest of the season and the early part of next season.
And to make matters worse, Durack is also planning this week without first choice centre half-forward Enda McDermott. The Burt man picked up a straight card in the closing minutes of the Fingal game and is serving a one match ban.
“Danny and Enda are both huge losses and they are certainly two players we could do with on Sunday against Down. But that is the hand we have been dealt with and we are just going to have to get on with it and make the most of it,” the Donegal boss told the Democrat.
Down had a very good Division 2B league campaign, winning all five games before being pipped by Wicklow by two points, in the Division 2B final and promotion to Division 2A play-off. Donegal last conquered Ulster all of 82 years ago, in 1932, when they defeated Antrim to claim the county’s fourth provincial crown.
The Mourne men are seasoned championship campaigners. And while it is 17 seasons since they won the last of their four Ulster titles, in 1997, they have been the only real challengers to Antrim since the turn of the millennium. They played in seven finals between 2001 and 2010.
“They are a step up in class and there is no getting away from that and we are fully aware of the challenge facing us on Sunday.
“But is a challenge we are looking forward to and the opportunity to measure ourselves against a higher class of opposition. It is just unfortunate that we are missing the two boys (Danny Cullen and Enda McDermott).
“They are a good side but they are also a young side. A lot of their more experienced and top players of the last decade or so like Gareth Magic Johnston and Michael Braniff have all retired and they are building again.
“They still have a number of class players such as Johnny McCusker, James Coyle, Conor Woods and Johnny Toner is their target man and main scorer. We are certainly going to have to play out of skins to give them a game. But it is championship hurling and anything can happen. One thing’s for sure we will give it our best and we certainly are not going up to Clones to make up the numbers.”
Donegal have only trained once a week since losing to Fingal in the Nicky Rackard.
“It has been a long season with a lot of games over a short period of time and with the boys playing club hurling and football we felt they needed a break so we have only trained once a week since Fingal. Hopefully, we will be a bit fresher than we were against Fingal.
St Eunan’s Eugene Organ and Setanta’s Justin Browne look like the most likely replacements for Cullen and McDermott. They were their replacements against Fingal and look most likely to fill in again on Sunday. The Aodh Ruadh brothers Chris and Ciaran Kilgallon may also come into the reckoning.
But Cullen and McDermott apart, the team is not expected to alter greatly from that which has featured against Fingal,
Paul Burns will line out in goals behind a back six of Brendan Tourish, Justin McGee, Shane Gallen; Jamsie Donnelly, Joe Boyle, Christopher McDermott, though Marty McGrath if recovered from injury may reclaim his place at right corner back. Ronan McDermott may revert from the half-forward line to partner Paul Sheridan in the middle of the park. Seán McVeigh, Kevin Campbell, Paddy Hannigan, Ciarán Mathewson are expected to man four of the attacking positions with Justin Browne and the experienced Eugene Organ likely to complete the front six. Another option might be to partner Paddy Hannigan with Sheridan at midfield with Organ slotting in at full-forward.
However, Durack may be reluctant to take Hannigan’s goal scoring ability away from the edge of the square.
Due to a number of players carrying knocks and bruises from a busy club schedule Durack will not name his starting 15 for what is a tall order against the Mournemen until closer to the game.