Donegal will play Cavan in the Ulster Championship Under-21 final on Wednesday in Brewster Park Enniskillen, as they go in search of their eighth title at this grade.
However, they travel to the Fermanagh venue with a big doubt over one of their key players. Ryan McHugh is troubled by a calf injury which saw him play no part for the Donegal seniors in their game against Dublin yesterday.
Donegal last won the Under 21 championship in 2010, when they defeated Cavan, and that victory proved to be crucial in the transformation of Donegal under Jim McGuinness, and was a catalyst for Donegal winning the All-Ireland Senior title in 2012.
Michael Murphy, Mark McHugh, Paddy McGrath, Leo McLoone and Dermot Molloy all featured on that glorious day last September, and their success at under-21 level in 2010 was crucial in their development .
Maxi Curran is now in the Bainisteoir bib for the under 21s, and his side showed great character and resolve to hold on against a late Derry fight-back in the semi-final on Wednesday last.
“We’re very happy and relieved to get over the line in the end. We were under pressure for the last couple of minutes. We played well in patches, did some things well, and some things not so well. Semi-finals are there to be won and nothing else,” said Curran.
“Derry were always going to come with a game-plan to counteract how we had played in the previous round. We hit a purple patch at the start of the second half and that is what effectively won the match for us,” he added.
Goals from Odhran MacNiallais and Caolan Ward helped Donegal to a 2-11 to 0-15 win, but Donegal survived a late scare when Ryan Bell’s shot rebounded off Peter Boyle’s crossbar. Senior panellists Patrick McBrearty, Ryan McHugh and MacNiallais all had big part to play in the win.
“Paddy (McBrearty) and Ryan McHugh definitely came to the fore, and Odhran MacNiallais was magnificent. He caught a lot of kick-outs and was very creative around the middle of the field. He is a very clever player and his contribution on Wednesday night was huge. Our senior players did well and they stood up when they were needed.”
Donegal will go into the final as underdogs against a Cavan side with a lot of pedigree at this level recently. This will be their fourth final in a row, and they have won the last two titles. They have now won 10 of their last 11 games at this grade, with the only blip in the record being that defeat to Donegal in 2010.
“They’re huge favourites and they’re the standard bearers for everyone. They have been in the last four finals, and won the last two, and they won a minor championship in between, so they have a huge pool of players with success,” said the Na Dunaibh clubman.
“They’re the benchmark for everyone to aspire to. You have to expect them to be in the ascendency for Wednesday night. They are a very strong, big physical team, and that will cause us a lot of difficulties as well. We’re just glad to be in the final, we’ll sit down in the next few days, and have a look at them,” he added.
Cavan had a comfortable 1-12 to 0-06 win in their semi-final against Down, with Enda O’Reilly kicked five points for the Breffni men. They can turn to Killian Clarke, Jack Brady, Fergal Flanagan, Jason McLoughlin, and Turlough Mooney who all featured against Donegal in the Senior Championship last year.
Eleven of the Cavan team picked up Ulster under 21 medals last year, while Fergal Flanagan, Jason McLoughlin, Turlough Mooney also picked up winners medals in 2011.
“Donegal play like their seniors play, very defensive, and try to break on the counter. They have McBrearty up front and a couple of other very good forwards,” said Cavan U-21 manager Peter Reilly.
“We were favourites for the last two games and it didn’t effect us. Who are favourites or who is not favourites is probably irrelevant.
“Ultimately, in my mind, and the Donegal people would say the same, it’s a 50-50 game and whoever gets the best performance on the night is going to win the game. The favourites’ tag is irrelevant.”
Cavan have been dominant at the U-21 grade for the past couple of years and are aiming for a third Ulster title in succession.
“I’m enjoying it very well. They are a very good bunch of lads to work with,” Reilly added. “They’re very committed, they know what they want to do, they know how to try to get there and obviously the success of the last couple of years has helped that process as well. It has been very good and hopefully it will continue for another few weeks.
“There’s no comparison to playing and that can never be replicated, that’s done and dusted. I’m not one to look back, I’m finished playing football and that’s it. They’re two different roles and my playing days are over. It’s great to be involved with them and as I said, they’re a great bunch.”
Donegal panel: Peter Boyle (Aodh Ruadh), Kevin McFadden (Cloughnaeely), Caolan Ward (St Eunans), Gavin Gallagher (Sean MacCumhaills), Pauric Carr (Kilcar), Martin O’Reilly (Sean MacCumhaills), Luke Keaney (Four Masters), Caolan Ward (St Eunan’s), Ryan McHugh (Kilcar), Leon Kelly (Glenswilly), Odhran MacNiallais (Gaoth Dobhair), Conor Gibbons (St Eunan’s), Willie Gillespie (Naomh Colmchille), Patrick McBrearty (Kilcar), Eoin McHugh (Kilcar), Christopher McGlynn (Dungloe), Adi O’Gara (Naomh Mhuire), Darach O’Connor (Buncrana), Conor Parke (St Eunan’s) Aidan Sweeney (Termon), Jason Campbell (Naomh Conaill), Padraig Doherty (Carndonagh), Christopher Barrett (Milford), Anthony Browne (Convoy), Michael Cannon (St Michael’s), Lee McMonagle (St Eunan’s).