Donegal hurlers face into a new season and a new challenge when they entertain Mayo in the Allianz League season on Sunday in O’Donnell Park. (Throw-in 2pm)
For the first time ever, Donegal will play in Division 2B of the Allianz Hurling League, though Donegal competed against many of the teams they will face in the forthcoming season before. Back in 1997, Donegal played in Division Three having won promotion having won the Division Four League the year before.
Kildare, Derry, Down, Roscommon, Louth and Armagh were Donegal’s opposition in 1997.
Mayo, Armagh, Meath, Down and Kildare will provide manager Ray Durack - who was a member of the 1997 team - and Donegal with the opposition this time around, albeit in Division Two.
Donegal defeated Louth in Burt, their only win of the 1997 campaign as they suffered heavy defeats to Kildare, Derry, Down and Armagh.
“We are better prepared this time around. After we won the Division Four league a lot of the older players retired so we were left with a very young and inexperienced team,” said Durack.
“The current squad have been together for a few years and we have won the Nicky Rackard Cup and being honest we were a bit disappointed that we did not go up the year before last.
“We know it is a big challenge. With the exception of Armagh and ourselves who are in the Nicky Rackard Cup, the other three teams are in the Christy Ring Cup. Kildare won the Christy Ring last year.
“We know what we are up against and that it is a big step up. I was talking to the Fingal manager after the play-off game. They played in the division last year and he said the big difference was that the game was played at a much faster pace than down in Division Three.
“That is something we are going to have to work on. But the only way that we will improve is playing at that level.”
Donegal have five games in 2B in a hectic schedule over a six week period with three games at home - Mayo, Meath and Kildare and Armagh and Down away.
“It is a hectic schedule of games. But it is what players want; it is much better having a game every week rather than hanging around waiting for games.”
Justin McGee and Eugene Organ are the only members of last year’s promotion winning side to retire.
Young guns Eddie Lynch, Aodh Ruadh; Sean Curran, Sean MacCumhaills, and Mark Campbell have been drafted into the squad.
Meanwhile, Danny Cullen (recovering from cruciate surgery), Paddy Hannigan (back injury) and Sean McVeigh (on work experience in Hungary), are also going to miss the early games in the league.
“Danny is making a good recovery and we hope to have him for the latter stages of the league. It is a similar story with Paddy Hannigan. Paddy is having treatment on a back injury picked up last summer and Sean is in Hungary as part of his course at Letterkenny IT.
“We hope to have Sean back for the last few league games and certainly for the championship.”
The Donegal boss makes no secret of the fact that the objective for the league is one of consolidation and retaining their place in Division 2B.
“The goal is very simple; it is to stay in the division whether that is picking up enough points or through the relegation/promotion play-off.”
The winners of Division 2B go into a play-off with the bottom team in Division 2A for promotion at the end of the season. And the bottom team in the division in 2B at the end of the five games faces the top team in Division 3A to determine who plays in Division 2B in 2016.
Due to the severe weather conditions since the start of the year Donegal have only managed one challenge game in the build up to Sunday’s opener.
That was against Fermanagh in Fr. Tierney Park, three weeks ago with Donegal running out comfortable winners.
“We had a number other games planned but with the weather we just couldn’t get them played. I suppose that is the one negative in our preparations - the lack of match practice.
“We have, in fact, got very little work done on grass; most of our training since the start of the year has been on the astroturf at the Aura and it is not the same as on grass. But it has been the same for everyone.”
Mayo, Sunday’s opponents, have for the best part of the last decade been consistently a Division Two team.
“We have played them a number of times in recent years in challenge games and while we have never beaten them there never has been too much between us.
“It is tough opener but if we play to the level we are capable of we will give them a game and we won’t be far away. It would be great to start with a win.”
The Donegal team will be named after training on Friday night.