After a nightmare start and two defeats, Donegal are chasing Ulster Minor Football League silverware this Saturday when they face Monaghan in Brewster Park, Enniskillen. (Throw in 12 noon).
It is most definitely rags to riches for this year’s Donegal minor crop. They lost their opening game to Fermanagh 0-11 to 0-9 after being seven points up at half-time. And it was even worse when Tyrone ran out nine-points winners on a 2-13 to 1-7 scoreline on second day out.
But it has all changed in the last three games as they bounced back with wins over Derry - weakened by the absence of players St Pat’s from Magerha on Hogan Cup duty - and Antrim to seal second place in Group B.
The play-off victory over Down, who as well as topping Group A, also beat Monaghan - runner’s up in the sections. Down won that game 2-19 to 3-11.
“The win over Down was a huge result,” said Donegal manager Stephen Friel. “They won their group and were undefeated until last week. They were a big strong team and the game was in Downpatrick.”
“It was our best performance by a good stretch so far this year. We played well against Derry, but they were very understrength, and really until last weekend we didn’t know how good we were.
“But the lads stood up and showed great character and when the backs were to the wall in the second half when Down came back. The lesson learned from Fermanagh stood to us and we held on to win, and we deserved to, as we were the better team.”
Buncrana’s Darach O’Connor is the Donegal captain and the team’s top scorer with 2-13 from five games with the bulk of those scores posted against they two better sides Tyrone and Down. O’Connor included 1-5 against the Red Hands and ended last week’s semi-final with a 1-3 to his name.
James Brennan from Bundoran is a dual player and has been a regular on the scoresheet too. Brennan has posted 3-7, while Termon’s Aiden Sweeney has proved a real goal poacher. Sweeney, like Brennan, scored 2-1 against Derry.
Friel has used the league to build for the championship and a May 26 showdown, with Tyrone, and has experimented quite a bit both with personnel and different formations.
Yet, despite this, Paddy Byrne,in goals, the Scally twins Eoin and Jack O’Brien in the full-back line, Colm Kelly in defence, Peter McLaughlin and Conor O’Donnell in midfield and Conor McCormack, O’Connor and Brennan have been regulars in the starting XV in all games.
Buncrana’s John Campell has impressed on each occasion he has been used, while Lorcan Connor from Downings’ recent form in training and in last weekend’s semi-final has been encouraging.
“Last weekend’s victory over Down was a great boost to confidence and we seem to be finally finding the form I was always confident we were capable of playing,” insisted Friel. “And hopefully it augurs well for the championship and our clash with Tyrone.
“The championship and getting ready for the first round against Tyrone has been our number one priority since we got together. But a league title is nothing to be frowned at and we have suspended all thoughts this week on the championship. The total focus is on Saturday’s final and going all out to win against Monaghan.
Monaghan booked their place in the final following an impressive four-point 3-14 to 1-16 victory over Group B winners Tyrone, who, like Down, topped their section and were undefeated until last weekend.
Monaghan have one game less played than Donegal, having emerged from the four team section along with Down. The other two teams in Group A were Cavan and Armagh.
It’s seven years now since Donegal last won the Ulster Minor League when a late Brendan Faherty goal denied Armagh in Clones. That team, which included Michael Murphy, Declan Walsh, Martin McElhinney, Ross Wherity and Leo McLoone went onto win the Ulster minor championship.
Donegal trained on Tuesday night and are due to train tonight before Friel and his backroom team sit down to settle on a starting 15.
“We select the team on form and who is going well in training. No-one is guaranteed a place. Lorcan Connor came in last week and played well and he wasn’t even in the panel for the Antrim game the week before.
“We go very much on form so at this stage I can say what the final line-up will be until we see how everybody goes in training. As always the case there are always a few positions up for grabs.”
Friel has made a number of changes to his squad in the last with Aaron Dalton, Daire McDaid, and Alan Russell all dropping out. They have been replaced by Darren Curran, Dylan Ward and Tony McCleneghan.
Donegal minor panel: James Brennan, Bundoran; Eamon McGrath, Aodh Ruadh; Aiden Sweeney, Termon; Jack Scally, Dungloe; Eoin Scally, Dungloe; Darren Curran, Dungloe; Colm Kelly, Aodh Ruadh; Peter McLaughlin, Buncrana; Patrick Gillespie, Naomh Mhuire; Lee O’Brien, Cloughaneely; Eoin ‘Ban’ Gallagher, Killybegs; Bruce Waldron, Buncrana; Paddy Byrne, Naomh Columba; Conor McEniff, St. Eunan’s, Conor O’Donnell, St. Eunan’s; Jack O’Brien, Naomh Mhuire; Oisin Carr, St. Eunan’s; Jordan McBride, St. Eunan’s; Hugh ‘Yank’ Gallagher, Naomh Mhuire; Lorcan Connor, Downings; Darach O’Connor, Buncrana; Cian Mulligan, Gaoth Dobhair; Conor McCormick, Carndonagh; David Tyrell, St. Eunan’s; Martin Byrne, Kilcar; Conor Harkin, Burt; Calum Gallagher, Naomh Brid; Stephen Jones, Naomh Columba; Aodhan McGinley, Kilcar; Stephen McBrearty, Kilcar; Dylan Ward, Four Masters, John Campbell, Buncrana; Niall Friel, Gaoth Dobhair; Tony McCleneghan, Moville..
Donegal’s Path to Final
Donegal 0-9 Fermanagh 0-11, Brewster Park
Donegal 1-7 Tyrone 2-13, MacCumhaill Park
Donegal 4-13 Derry 0-7, MacCumhaill Park
Donegal 1-7 Antrim 1-3, MacCumhaill Park