Donegal minors are the first of the two Donegal teams to put their Ulster title on the line when they face Tyrone, in Sunday’s opener in Ballybofey. (Throw- 2.15 pm)
Just like Rory Gallagher’s seniors, Declan Bonner’s young tigers also carry the mantle of favourites against the Red Hands, in what is a preliminary round clash
The Donegal minors retained the Ulster Minor League for back-to-back for only the third time in the county’s history. The previous Ulster Minor League back-to-backs were won in 1962/63 and 1984/85.
Donegal manager, Declan Bonner, in his second year in the job has been insisting in recent weeks that they have put the league success behind them and the championship is all that matters now. This is especially so after last year’s success and march to the county’s first ever minor All-Ireland final appearance. That has whetted the appetite of players, management and indeed supporters for more minor success and silverware.
“We all know the Ulster Minor Championship is the big one and since the draw was made May 17th against Tyrone was etched in our minds,” said Bonner.
“It is upon us now and we are looking forward to it. We are in a good place and feel we are ready. The league is all about finding new players and putting a system of place especially as was the case this year with so many new lads coming into the squad.”
Former All-Ireland winner Bonner has only six survivors from the team that lost last year’s All-Ireland final to Kerry.
Danny Rogers, Dungloe, in goals; the Gaoth Dobhair pair of Gary McFadden in defence and Micheal Carroll, the captain at midfield; defender Stephen McMenamin from Red Hugh’s; Ethan O’Donnell, Naomh Conaill and Conor Doherty, Kilcar.
Among those to make the step up from last year’s McGuigan Cup winning U-17 team are the O’Baoill cousins, Naoise and Dara, from Gaoth Dobhair; Philip Doherty and Philip McNern, Naomh Columba; Ethan Gavigan, Sean MacCumhaill’s; Michael Langan, St Michael’s; Niall O’Donnell and Rory Carr, St Eunan’s; Kane Barrett, Milford and Caolan McDaid, Termon.
Centre half-back Brendan McCole, St. Naul’s, has been the find of the season having not featured at all at U-17.
“The lads that have come in have taken up the challenge and have blended in well with the lads that were there last year and there is great competition for places in the squad.
“At minor level belief is a big thing. You have lads coming in wondering if they are good enough and it is all about instilling belief and confidence in them lads. I feel in the past we used to look too much at Tyrone and Derry in terms of their college teams.
“We took the league seriously so that we could build that belief and prove to those lads that they were good enough to play Tyrone and Derry in league matches and win. And that is what we have done. Once you get that belief in the squad you are in a good position.”
Tyrone, by their own high standards, had a mediocre league campaign. They were in Group B along with Donegal, Derry, Antrim and Fermanagh. They beat Antrim and Fermanagh and lost to Donegal and Derry. Donegal ran out 1-16 to 0-7 winners over the Red Hands in Strabane in the second round. That game was back at the end of March.
However, they did regroup in the latter stages of the league and beat Cavan and Monaghan well to win the Ulster Minor Shield. Tyrone are managed by Mickey Donnelly, in his fourth year in the job. Donnelly has strengthened his backroom team this season by including three time All-Ireland winners Ryan McMenamin and Brian McGuigan.
“We know that Tyrone will come to MacCumhaill Park well prepared and the match in the league in Strabane will have no bearing on how the game pans out.
“They are a talented bunch of players and from what I gather they were late starting their preparations. They have a number of players from the St Pat’s, Dungannon team that were beaten in this year’s MacRory Cup final.
“They have David Mulgrew, who played in an All-Ireland minor final at 15, back from injury. He is a very good player.
“They have Cormac O’Hagan and Fintan McClure and James McClure all back. They are all very good players. Look, it’s is going to be a battle; it is going to take a big effort if we are going to win. It is going to take five or six men coming off the bench in the last quarter to get us over the line.”
Conor Doherty and Caolan McDaid, who missed the league final against Derry, returned to full training for the first time in a number of weeks last Thursday night. Naoise O’Baoill and Gary McFadden, another two absentees against the Oak Leafers through injury, are back in training and believed to be in the running for places in the defence.
The starting 15, which was due to be announced last night (Wednesday) after training, is expected to be very much along the lines of that which started in the 2-14 to 1-11 victory over Derry in the league decider.
However, if O’Baoill, McFadden and Conor Doherty prove their fitness, they are all expected to make the starting line-up.
Meanwhile, Donegal Children’s Officer and minor team liaison officer, Mick McGrath, is appealing to Donegal supporters to get into MacCumhaill Park in plenty of time for the 2.15 pm throw-in and get behind the team.
“This is a very good minor team. They have worked extremely hard and are very well prepared and it is important that the supporters come out and support the team and get behind them from the first whistle.”
The prize for the winners of Sunday’s game is a quarter-final meeting with Armagh on Sunday May 31st. If Donegal come through that game is fixed for the Athletic Grounds in Armagh, throw-in 7 pm. It is a home tie for Tyrone in Healy Park, if they win.