Donegal and Cavan minors have the honour of getting the Ulster championship up and running this afternoon when they lock horns in the curtain-raiser in Kingspan Breffni Park. (1.45 pm).
For Donegal, who had an up and down Ulster Minor League, it is a mammoth task against the reigning champions with nine of last year’s all conquering side available again to manager Declan McCabe, and on the familiar surroundings of their own patch.
Everybody involved with Donegal and shrewd followers of the underage game also agree that Donegal are really up against it this afternoon. But while he accepts this is the case, Donegal captain Ryan McHugh is not without hope and feels this is more than a decent enough Donegal squad.
“We’ve been together since U-16 and we have been joined this season by a number of last year’s U-17 squad and they have definitely strengthened the squad and our options,” said Ryan, who along with his cousin Eoin is carrying on a proud McHugh tradition.
Ryan is son of Martin McHugh and brother of Mark, who features in the senior team today and first cousin Eoin is a son of James, also a member of the 1992 Donegal All-Ireland winning team.
“We are the underdogs and Cavan are the red hot favourites. They are the champions and have eight or nine of last year’s team and are the fancied team. But underdogs do win sometimes and we are definitely going to Cavan to win and hopefully go on and win Ulster and after that have a crack at winning the All-Ireland.
“We’ve a good squad of players and have prepared well and while we would have liked to have done better in the minor league I think people are reading too much into our league form.
“I think we didn’t play all that bad in the league except for in the last game, the Shield final against Armagh. We played fantastic against Fermanagh in the first game; we had a good first half against Tyrone and we played well against Derry, but did not take our scores and that was a game we definitely should have won.
“We beat Antrim and played very well against Down and the only real poor performance was against Armagh and we were short the U-17s that day and had a few injuries so looking back it was a decent enough campaign and we have trained well since and are looking forward to and ready for Cavan.”
McHugh has been named at right corner forward but few believe he will play there and is expected to be given a roving role or may even play in the half-back line where he played most of the minor league.
The skipper is one of five members of the Donegal Vocational School team - Darragh Mulgrew, Willie Gillespie, Raymond McNamee and Eoin McHugh the others - that defeated Cavan earlier this year in the Ulster Vocational Schools final that manager Stephen Friel has put his faith in to topple the champions.
Midfielder Brendan McNelis along with Ryan McHugh and Nicholas Maguire - who is in the squad - were all members of last year’s 2011 All-Ireland Vocational Schools winning side. Stephen McBrearty (still an U-16) - brother of senior star Patrick - and Aodhan McGinley (from this year’s U-17 development squad) make the Kilcar involvement the biggest on the team.
Gerard Smith and Michael Argue carried the big scoring threat for Cavan last season and were key men on their way to winning a first Ulster in 37 years. They are back on board again this season and along with Conor Madden at full-forward will take watching this afternoon.
Donegal’s prospects suffered a body blow in recent weeks with the loss through injury of midfielder Hugh McFadden and manager Stephen Friel was sweating last night on the fitness of Naomh Conaill’s Mark Gallagher. Gallagher, who has been named at centre half-back, suffered a nasty gash to his knee in training on Monday night and is believed to be extremely doubtful for what is a tall order against the champions on their home sod.
Donegal: Daniel Mullarkey; Gary Kelly, Conor Parke, John Rose; Stephen McBrearty, Mark Gallagher, Darragh Mulgrew; Brendan McNelis, Raymond McNamee; Aodhan McGinley, John McGarvey, Conor Harkin; Ryan McHugh, Willie Gillespie, Eoin McHugh.