Jim McGuinness, the Donegal manager, will use the Dr McKenna Cup as a trial for the panel’s fringe members before the Allianz League.
McGuinness’s side open the Dr McKenna Cup against Tyrone at home on Sunday, January 5, before facing Armagh and Queen’s University, Belfast.
Queen’s are returning to the competition having opted out last year after a row over players representing their counties instead of colleges.
The Ulster Competitions’ Control Committee will meet on Thursday, November 21, to decide the other fixtures with Sunday, January 12 and Wednesday, January 15 the pencilled dates.
Donegal have used the Dr McKenna Cup loosely in recent times with McGuinness winning just one of his first six matches in the competition - a 0-14 to 0-10 win over University of Ulster, Jordanstown, in 2011.
Last year, Donegal’s All-Ireland winning panel returned from Dubai for their end of season holiday to play a deferred first fixture against Fermanagh at Brewster Park.
Maxi Curran, the Donegal U-21 manager who was then video analyst with the seniors, was given the early season competition to prepare for the U-21 championship.
Donegal U-21s eventually defeated Tyrone and Derry to reach the Ulster final, where they lost to Cavan 0-13 to 1-6.
Curran, selector Rory Gallagher and kitman Francie Friel were removed from the Donegal senior set-up in September and all three currently work with the U-21s.
“We’ll take it ourselves,” McGuinness said yesterday in reference the seniors using the Dr McKenna Cup.
“We’re having a good long break now and that’s a very different dynamic to last year when we were only arriving back in the country after the McKenna Cup had started.”
McGuinness expected to be working off a playing panel of “36 or 37” for the Dr McKenna Cup. Glenswilly’s Ciaran Bonner, Naomh Conaill’s Leon Thompson, the St Michael’s pair of Christy Toye and Antoin McFadden are back. Also returning are Conor Classon, Ardara, and Thomas McKinley from Naomh Colmcille.
New to the panel are Stephen McLaughlin of Malin, Killybegs’ Hugh McFadden and Darach O’Connor from Buncrana.
Ryan Bradley, also from Buncrana, is currently in Qatar but is expected home at Christmas before he will decide to stay in the country and Ross Wherity of St Eunan’s has emigrated to New York.
“In regards players, we’ve an open door policy,” McGuinness added. “If a club wants us to take a look at any player then we will. The McKenna Cup will provide good games and it’s pre-season.”
Donegal have six third-level students in their panel with Mark and Ryan McHugh studying at IT Sligo, McKinley attending University of Ulster, Jordanstown, and Patrick McBrearty on the books of NUI Maynooth.
Hugh McFadden is enrolled at St Patrick’s College, while Anthony Thompson is now at Letterkenny Institute of Technology.
Come the start of the Allianz League, where Donegal open away to Laois in February, the priority will be slightly different to last year where Donegal were relegated from the top flight.
“We had a long season in 2012 so last year was about trying to stay up,” McGuinness said. “It was hard to keep going. The approach to the League is not hugely different year on year - we aim to look and players and see if any can add something to the panel. But we are looking for traction and momentum.
“Last year our growth stumped and, as I said then, it was like managing a situation and not a team. But now we’re looking forward to getting the ball rolling again and starting to build for the Championship.”
Dr McKenna Cup draw
New Year, New Season
Section A: QUB, Donegal, Tyrone, Armagh
Section B: St Mary’s UCB, Fermanagh, Monaghan, Derry.
Section C: UUJ, Down, Antrim, Cavan.
The Dr McKenna Cup starts on Sunday, January 5, with the second series of matches on seven’ days later.
The group stages will conclude with the third round of fixtures taking on place Wednesday, January 15.
The winners of Section A in the Dr McKenna Cup will face the top side in Section B in the semi-final on Sunday, January 19, while the best runners-up take on the side that wins Section C. The Dr McKenna Cup final is on Sunday, January 26.