WHEN Sean Clerkin and Malachy McCann walked into the draw for the Ulster Minor Championship in Belfast at the end of October, the Watty Grahams representative turned an almost-apologetic glance to the Buncrana management.
The draw had pitted the Donegal minor champions Buncrana against the three-in-a-row-chasing Glen outfit at the St Paul’s club in Belfast (throw-in 12.30pm).
Buncrana upset the odds when they defeated St Eunan’s after extra time in the Donegal minor final in September.
The night had long since darkened when two ice-cool Caolan McGonagle points from placed balls sealed the deal for Buncrana and clinch the club’s first Minor title since 2000.
Buncrana had been hammered 4-18 to 1-8 by the same opposition in the Northern Board final before turning the tables for a splendid win when it mattered most.
Clerkin is laid up this week, but his team is expected to be fully fit.
Stephen Nelson has been struggling with a hamstring injury, but the Inishowen side is hopeful that the wing-back will be able to play.
Darach O’Connor has been lying low with a bout of flu’ since last week, but the exciting forward – a recent call-up to the Donegal senior football panel – will play on Sunday.
Last Wednesday night, O’Connor appeared as a sub for the Donegal Vocational Schools team and scored 2-2, as well as setting up another goal, in their Ulster final win over Cavan in Enniskillen.
“Darach is a class act,” McCann said.
“He was only on for sixteen minutes last week and he won the game. He has been carrying a bad dose of flu’ since, but we’re hoping he’ll be ok for the game on Sunday.
“He’s a super player who’s full of football. He’s something else and you could see why Jim McGuinness has called him into his plans.”
Not only can Buncrana call on O’Connor, but the likes of McGonagle, Nelson, Bruce Waldron and John Campbell are other instrumental figures who have appeared on underage Donegal teams. Buncrana’s key men also feature for Colaistí Inis Eoghain, who have qualified for the knockout stages of the MacLarnon Cup.
McCann said: “That is a great standard of football for the lads to be playing and we’re delighted to see them in there to be honest.
“They’re all doing something and they’re not coming in cold.”
Sunday’s will be a step up from anything they’ve faced up to now.
Watty Graham’s are the favourites to win the tournament outright. Enda Gormley has been replaced by Fergal McCusker on the sidelines, but they can still call on eleven of the fifteen starters who eased past Killeavy in last year’s final.
Ciaran McFaul and Ryan Dougan have departed – both have played for the Derry senior team – while Conor Carville and Ryan McDonald are also overage.
They can still call on the 2013 Derry minor captain, Oisin Hegarty and the free-scoring Conor Convery, not to mention their captain Stephen O’Hara, Cahir McCabe, Conor McDevitt and Paul Gunning.
McCann said: “They have a steady conveyor belt coming through at their club. Make no mistake about it, we’re up against a serious team with serious pedigree. They’re an excellent football side.
“Myself and Sean attend this tournament every year and these boys are the level you always want to be at.
“It’s great for us to be heading to represent Donegal and we aren’t going up to Belfast to say to them: ‘Here you are, boys’.
“We played an excellent game in the county final to beat St Eunan’s, but we know we’ll have to step it up again this weekend. We’ll need to be an awful lot better this time.”
McCusker’s team will be almost unbackable favourites, but the Watty Graham’s manager insists they won’t be taking Buncrana lightly.
“They would be a robust team, hard tackling, they’ll hit you on the break and will be set up quite defensively, and we’ll certainly not be under-estimating them,” he said.
“Buncrana appeared under the radar a bit in Donegal and I think St Eunan’s may have taken them for granted.
“They had played in a divisional game earlier in the year and St Eunan’s had beaten them by 16 or 17 points so there may have been a fair bit of complacency there.”
McCusker’s men have been busy with the likes of Jack Doherty, Declan McCusker, Conor Glass, Conal Darragh and Tiernan Flanagan all having started last weekend’s Paul McGirr Ulster Under 16 final loss to Armagh champions Crossmaglen.
“We had to give the under 16s their focus because they got themselves into a final,” said the Watty Graham’s boss.
“We have MacRory football as well, quite a lot of the boys are involved in that, and Derry minors are training on a Monday night too.
“It’s a lot of football and it’s a case of managing that and trying to be sensible about it. It’s about working with the respective managers and doing it right.”