BY CHRIS MCNULTY
A NEW season dawns this weekend in the Four Lanterns Ulster Senior League with three League games pencilled in, two on Saturday and one on Sunday.
The honour of getting the new campaign off and running fittingly goes to the defending champions, Fanad United, who were winners of a record 14th USL title following a troubled 2011 that saw much boardroom strife, which all involved in the League’s clubs will be keen to place to the back of the minds with the curtain going up on the 2012 season this weekend.
Ollie Horgan’s side were only crowned Champions a couple of months ago when a drawn-out appeal, submitted and contested by Cockhill Celtic, whom Fanad defeated in a play-off for the League in November, finally failed at FAI level.
Without being spectacular, Fanad had the resolve and ruthless streak that has become ingrained in their physce over the years in 2011 – and the capture of a 14th title was testament to the way they held off the challenges of Kildrum Tigers and, finally, Cockhill in a play-off.
The Triagh-A-Locha men, as they always tend to be, will again be right up there when the runners and riders are being looked at at the outset. Transfer activity in the League hasn’t exactly caught the eye over the closed season, though Fanad have added centre-back Kieran Gorman and wide player Mark ‘Sparky’ Friel to their ranks, with Lee McFadden in goals.
Fanad have been scoring freely so far, ten goals chalked in their three games in the Donegal News USL Cup and despite the absence of the again-injured Christy Connaghan, the men from the Kingdom look like they’ll again be a tough nut to crack. Certainly, anyone who finishes ahead of them will be squarly in the shake-up.
Teams will play each other three times in the 2012 season after clubs voted to bring in an extra series of fixtures, meaning a congested summer with quite a few Wednesday night fixtures to fill the calendar.
The opening chapter of the new term will be inked by Fanad and Drumkeen United tomorrow in a high noon showdown in Triagh-A-Locha.
Benny Bonner’s Drumkeen have a useful look about them with Richard Moore and Sean Ferry a troublesome front-line, while player-manager Bonner, Chris Kyle, Philip Whyte, Shaunie Gallagher and Peter McNamee have all caught the eye in recent weeks. The St Patrick’s Park side are looking forward to Monday’s draw for the FAI Ford Senior Cup – as are fellow USL side Kildrum Tigers – and seem in good shape under the training of Marty Gormley, taking Kildrum to penalties in the Knockalla Cup, before drawing with the St Johnston side last Sunday in the League Cup, a competition in which they also earned a draw against Cockhill Celtic.
Tomorrow evening (6pm) Cockhill Celtic welcome Jason Gibson’s Swilly Rovers to the Charlie O’Donnell Sports Grounds. Donal O’Brien’s side have had something of a stuttering start to 2012, including a shock Knockalla Cup loss to Milford United. Indeed, the Inishowen side – the 2010 Champions – have yet to win a competitive game this year.
Swilly scored a decent 2-2 draw at Fanad on Monday night and might well fancy themselves to take something here – still, Cockhill will begin as favourites with Gerry Gill, Liam and Aidan O’Donnell in tow. Swilly won’t make it easy. The Ramelton side have improved under Gibson, but they may have to wait another week to get points on the board, with Cockhill looking to arrest their fortunes after a difficult opening to the new season.
On Sunday, Bucnrana Hearts face Derry City, with Eddie Seydak’s young charges from the Maiden City the tip of many to be dark horses in the race for honours this year.
Elsewhere, there is a big Knockalla Caravans Cup derby in Leckview on Sunday with Bonagee United making the short trip to play Letterkenny Rovers, in a game that will see Graham Cullen face off against his former club. Darren McElwaine has been in good scoring form for the Rovers, who have made good use of a promising crop of youth players of late, and who will start as the favourites here.