BY CHRIS MCNULTY
WHEN the white smoke billowed in Ballybofey on January 19th 2012 to signal the appointment of Maxi Curran as the new Donegal Under 21 manager, time was short.
The Downings man had just under nine weeks to prepare for a joust with Tyrone at Healy Park.
They fell 0-12 to 0-6, no surprise given that Tyrone had had quite the head start and were well underway with their preparations by the time Curran was installed and had to begin the task of trawling the county to find a squad.
This time, it’s different. With a diligent programme in place, Curran and his team put Tyrone to the sword in some style before clinging on for dear life in beating Derry in last week’s semi-final.
“Last year we were caught cold,” says Curran.“We only had about six week to get a team together to prepare for a game against Tyrone.
“We had a good enough side, but we were under-prepared.
“With the amount of work that we’ve been able to do this year and what we’ve got out of it, that has been proven even more.
“You need to put in massive time and effort to get teams ready to play at this level. Thankfully we’ve got that this time and it has stood us in good stead.”
While Curran’s team has been a surprise package, the manager himself is unlikely to have been shocked by the results obtained by his group. His optimism in the lead-up to the Tyrone game was notable. It was neither smug nor arrogant, but there was something positively positive about his demeanour as the game approached.
“I don’t think anyone is under any illusions about the standard of footballer that we have in Donegal,” he says.
“That has never been an issue and this Under 21 team is no different.
“Tyrone were massive favourites for the game, but we were under no illusions about the talent that we had ourselves.
“When you have players of the calibre of Patrick McBrearty and Ryan McHugh in your squad, you’re always in with a fighting chance.”
The bulk of that Tyrone squad had won an All-Ireland minor title three years ago, in 2010. The natural assumption was that they’d come to pass as being the kings of this year’s Under 21 competition.
Curran’s take on that line of thinking is interesting: “People looked at Tyrone in terms of the minor team of three years ago. That is very unfair. The performance of a minor team three years earlier is a wrong barometer for gauging an under 21 team.
“Minors are brought in at 17, or even the odd time at 16, but that is a long way from under 21. At this level we have players from five different age groups. That makes it a more level playing field.
“We have young Darach O’Connor at 17 and have fellas right up to the likes of Luke Keaney, Caolan Ward and Kevin McFadden at 21. Look at Peter Boyle, who is in his fourth year playing at Under 21 level.
“You do have a wider field to select from and that does level the thing out.”
Curran also believes that the ‘odds are stacked’ for the likes of Tyrone, Derry and Down in the minor grade. With their minor managers able to call on players from the height of MacRory Cup-competing schools like St Patrick’s, Dungannon, Omagh CBS, St Patrick’s, Maghera and St Paul’s Bessbrook, the landscape can seem somewhat skewed at times.
“Those fellas are coming in with such a high level of football education behind them,” Curran says.
Donegal and Cavan collide in a final at this level for the second time in four campaigns.
In 2010, Michael Murphy scored 1-5 in the final as Donegal won by 2-8 to 0-7. Peter Boyle, the goalkeeper from Ballyshannon, is the sole survivor from those who played in that final.
There are similarities, though. Replace Murphy with Patrick McBrearty and it is still a side built around its marquee forward.
Theirs is a high-energy game that is not unlike that adopted by Jim McGuinness three years ago.
Curran speaks confidently about the ability of his team heading into tonight’s final at Brewster Park.
He says: “There is a lot made of the so-called ‘Donegal system’ and the ‘Donegal style of play’ but the bottom line is that the current crop of footballers in Donegal are working at a very high level.
“They are putting in massive commitment and effort. They’re training so hard and are finding reserves of energy to take them through matches.
“No-one every doubted the ability. Once the other elements – the work ethic, the commitment and the structure – the sky is the limit. This group is no different. It’s not the greatest team in the world and we do have our limitations, but there has been a massive buy-in by them to everything that we’ve asked them to do.”
Curran is joined on the sideline by his brother Barney and Termon’s Francie Friel. The backroom team runs along a similar vein to that of the senior team – and their assiduousness is in concurrence with that of McGuinness’s set-up. That was outlines in their immovability last Wednesday when Derry delivered an onslaught upon their goal.
Goalkeeper Boyle tweeted after the game and remarked on the ‘balls and grit’ that his side had shown as they ‘grinded out at the end’.
“They showed a lot of character and perseverance,” his manager agrees.
“We hung on. You’ll not find too many teams who win anything without a bit of luck. Lady Luck was definitely shining on us. Had we lost against Derry, we’d have been the authors of our own downfall.
“When you’re six points up with eleven minutes to go, you’d definitely be shooting yourself if you lose from there. Derry’s championship was over and their backs were against the wall so they had no choice but to come out fighting. They had us to the pins of our collar and had the ball bounced a bit differently they’d be looking forward to the final, not us.
“Credit to the boys for the way they came out in the second half after under-performing in the first half.
“We’ll learn from the experience, the team will be stronger and the players will be better educated after coming out on the right side of it.”
They’d do well to have learned lessons. Up next is a clash against Peter Reilly’s Cavan, the dominant force of the modern era at this grade.
The Breffni boys are in their fourth final in succession and are looking now to win the Irish News Cup for the third year on the trot. Reilly can call upon ten players who won last year’s while there are still three remaining from the 2011 Ulster-winning team.
Paul O’Connor’s goal paved the way for a comfortable win over Down on Wednesday, while Enda O’Reilly, Michael Argue and their ‘keeper, Conor Gilsenan, are other notable players in their ranks.
This, for Donegal, is the ultimate test in Ulster. It is, as their manager says, a case of ‘out of the frying pan and into the fire’.
He says: “They’re going for three-in-a-row and are in their fourth final. At senior level, they’re looking like they’re going up from Division 3. Things are on the up in Cavan and we’ll be huge underdogs.
“They were definitely one of the favourites before a ball was kicked at all. That has come to pass. They beat a very good Monaghan team and then got over Down. Cavan are very confident by their nature. They will definitely have no fear of us, but hopefully we’ll be able to give them a game.”
DONEGAL U21 SQUAD:
Peter Boyle (Aodh Ruadh), Christopher McGlynn (Dungloe), Kevin McFadden (Cloughaneely), Pauric Carr (Kilcar), Ciaran Cannon (Letterkenny Gaels), Conor Parke (St Eunan’s), Gavin Gallagher (Sean MacCumhaills), Aidy O’Gara (Naomh Mhuire), Caolan Ward (St Eunan’s), Gary Clancy (Bundoran), Ryan McHugh (Kilcar), Leon Kelly (Glenswilly), Luke Keeney (Four Masters), Aidan Sweeney (Termon), Eoin McHugh (Kilcar), Conor Gibbons (St Eunan’s), Patrick McBrearty (Kilcar), Martin O’Reilly (Sean MacCumhaills), Willie Gillespie (Naomh Colmcille), Christopher Barrett (Milford), Odhrán MacNiallais (Gaoth Dobhair), Michael Cannon (St Michael’s), Anthony Browne (St Mary’s Convoy), Lee McMonagle (St Eunan’s), Pauric Doherty (Carndonagh), Jason Campbell (Naomh Conaill).