Donegal put their Ulster U-21 football crown on the line this Wednesday night when they entertain Antrim in Ballybofey. (Throw in 8pm).
For the defence of their title Donegal will be without Michael Murphy, Leo McLoone, Paddy McGrath, Ciaran Boyle, Kevin Mulhern, Declan Walsh, Peter McGee and James Carroll, all who are overage this year.
But despite this manager Jim McGuinness can still call on quite a few of the stars from last year’s run to the All-Ireland final and subsequent defeat to Dublin.
Peter Boyle, Eamonn Doherty, Thomas McKinley, Antoin McFadden, Dermot Molloy, Mark McHugh, Daniel McLaughlin and Conor Classon have all graduated to senior football but are still available and will feature prominently in manager McGuinness’s plans.
Luke Keaney and Odran MacNiallais have graduated from minor football and have seen action with the seniors in the Dr. McKenna Cup, are also key figures in McGuinness’s plans. Nathan Mullins, a member of last year’s Dublin All-Ireland winning squad, is also in the team having declared for Donegal.
“It’s a new year and a new team and we will take a different approach. But as well as the lads that have featured regularly in the senior team in recent weeks they all have been training with the seniors. And a good few of them have played in the Dr. McKenna Cup and have picked up a fair bit of experience,” said McGuinness.
“As was the case last year we will be taking it one game at a time. The U-21s is different to the seniors - or for that matter the minors. There is no league and no great form guide going into the first round.
“You have to rely on training and challenge games and take it from there. We will be taking Antrim as any other team. It is a matter of going out and putting in a performance and taking it from there and hopefully getting the result on the night.”
McGuinness did confess to not knowing an awful a lot about Antrim, other than they had six or seven players from the side that lost to Down in the first round last year. However, his number two Rory Gallagher, who plays his club football with St. Galls in Antrim, will have the inside track on the most of the Antrim players.
Donegal have warmed up in recent weeks with challenge games with Kildare, Galway, Sligo (twice) and a number of in-house games against the senior squad.
“We played Sligo twice, winning one and losing the other, while we lost to Galway by a couple of points and drew with Kildare and overall with so many of the boys being involved with the seniors I am happy with the preparations. And I feel we are ready; it is just a matter of going out and working hard and sticking to the game plan.”
Gaoth Dobhair’s Danny Curran, another member of last year’s team, is the manager’s only real injury concern. Curran, who alternated between half-back and midfield last season, is struggling with an ankle injury picked up in an in-house game with the seniors last Tuesday night and is rated as highly unlikely to have recovered in time for Wednesday night.
Mark McHugh, who had a touch of ‘flu late last week, came though Sunday’s 0-15 to 0-9 league victory over Meath in Navan without any trouble and will be fit to take his place on Wednesday night.
The winners of Wednesday night’s game will have an Ulster semi-final against the winners of Cavan and Fermanagh, who also meet on Wednesday night.
Donegal team and squad: Peter Boyle; Stephen Doak, Eamonn Doherty, Thomas McKinley; Sean O’Kennedy, Luke Keaney, Antoin Mc Fadden; Conor Classon, Nathan Mullins; Mark Mc Hugh, Dermot Molloy, Daniel McLaughlin; Seamus Corcoran, Ryan McErlean, Odhran McNelis. Subs., Christopher McGlynn; Danny Curran, Peter McNelis, Peter McGonigle, Kealan McFadden, Cory Gallagher, Jamie Doherty, Andrew Kelly, Kealan Ward.