GAA – DR MCKENNA CUP
By Harry Walsh
NEW Donegal team manager Rory Gallagher is expected to give at least five players their senior Inter County debuts in Sunday’s McKenna Cup opener against Derry at Owenbeg, Dungiven.
One of those is Monaghan native Eamon Ward (33), coming into the full-back line in place of All-Star Neil McGee, who will be eased back into competitive action over the coming weeks.
The Clontibret man, who works as a vet with the Donegal Animal Hospital, has enjoyed his football in Donegal since first linking up with the Glenswilly club four years ago.
Eoin McHugh (Kilcar), Conor Parke (St Eunan’s), Eunan Doherty (Naomh Conaill) and Cory Gallagher (Dungloe) are others expected to make their debuts with Hugh McFadden (Killybegs) and Willie Gillespie (Naomh Colmcille) also expected to feature.
“|t’s a case of using quite a few of the new faces, mixed in with a few more experienced players, against Derry on Sunday and those who do well, stand a good chance of being involved the following week against Queens,” Gallagher said.
The Fermanagh native, who is looking forward to his new role, confirmed that Glenswilly’s Michael Murphy will retain his role at Donegal team captain.
Murphy had the honour of lifting the Sam Maguire Cup back in 2012 when Gallagher was assistant manager to Jim McGuinness while he also led Donegal to the All-Ireland final last summer.
While Murphy’s former club manager Gary McDaid has been installed as Gallagher’s number two, the names of the remaining members of the backroom team have yet to be made public.
“I’ll meet with the local media some day next week at which I’ll sort all that out. For now though, the focus is on the Derry game.
“It’s my first game in charge and I’m excited. There’s a new management team in place, some new players in the squad and I’m sure that they too are excited. Pitch conditions are good at present and hopefully that will carry through to Sunday,” he said.
Donegal and Derry are scheduled for two meetings in January. As well as opening the McKenna Cup, the pair also cross swords on the opening night of the 2015 National Football League. On Saturday, January 31, Donegal host Derry, still managed by former Donegal manager Brian McIver, in Ballybofey.
“To be honest, this weekend’s game won’t have much relevance to the League meeting. We’ll have a lot more experienced lads to come back into the squad over the coming weeks so the two teams who line out on Sunday will bear little resemblance to those who play in the league at the end of the month. That said, it’s always good to get a game against good quality opposition,” he admitted.
Although the Donegal team won’t be finalised until after training tonight (Friday), the new Donegal manager did confirm that Eamon Ward is in line to make his debut.
“Eamon’s been one of the best defenders in club football these past three of four years. It’s not a case that we’re looking too far into the future here but he’s mad keen to give it a go,” he said.
“There will be a few other new faces too. I would anticipate the likes of Eunan Doherty, Eoin McHugh, Conor Parke, Eamon and Cory Gallagher all getting game time on Sunday,” he said.
Another ‘new’ face in a Donegal jersey this weekend will be Kilcar’s Mark McHugh. He was an All-Star as McGuinness’ team won the All-Ireland in 2012 but left the panel last April in the wake of Donegal’s Allianz League Division Two final loss to Monaghan at Croke Park.
Other more experienced players who will be involved on Sunday include Paddy McGrath (Ardara), Declan Walsh (Malin), Odhrán MacNiallais (Gaoth Dobhair), Martin McElhinney (St Michael’s) and Darach O’Connor (Buncrana) who, although still a teenager, started last year’s All-Ireland final.
One player who won’t be involved this weekend though is Four Masters goalkeeper Paul Durcan who got married this week. Termon’s Michael Boyle will be handed the number one jersey with newcomer Mark Anthony McGinley (St Michael’s) in reserve.
Because they reached the All- Ireland final, Donegal were not permitted to resume senior squad training until Monday – less than a week before their opening game at Owenbeg.
As a result, the Donegal side which takes the field against Derry is likely to bear little resemblance to that which lined out against Kerry on the third Sunday in September.
“The team isn’t finalised yet. We’ll see how they all get through a tough session on Friday night and we’ll take it from there,” Gallagher said.
“We got them all together for the first time on Monday and they’ll be put through different tests to see where they’re all at fitness wise before they’re fully integrated back into training,” he added.
Donegal have been drawn alongside Derry, Queen’s University and Gallagher’s native Fermanagh in Group B of the competition.
Donegal will host Queen’s in Ballybofey on January 11, before Fermanagh visit Sean MacCumhaill Park on Wednesday, January 14.
Donegal panel: Michael Boyle (Termon), Paul Durcan (Four Masters), Paddy McGrath (Ardara), Declan Walsh (Malin), Frank McGlynn (Glenfin), Odhrán MacNiallais (Gaoth Dobhair), Martin McElhinney (St Michael’s), Christy Toye (St Michael’s), Darach O’Connor (Buncrana), Eamon Doherty (St Eunan’s), Hugh McFadden (Killybegs), Martin O’Reilly (MacCumhaills), Eamon Ward, Joe Gibbons, Michael Murphy and Gary McFadden (all Glenswilly), Mark McHugh, Eoin McHugh and Ciaran McGinley (Kilcar), Conor Parke (St Eunan’s), Daniel McLaughlin and Mark Anthony McGinley (St Michael’s), Cory Gallagher (Dungloe), Eunan Doherty (Naomh Conaill), Ryan Malley (Ardara), Willie Gillespie (Naomh Colmcille), Kevin McBrearty (Four Masters) and Dermot Molloy (Naomh Conaill).