BY HARRY WALSH
A CROKE Park appearance in the final of this year’s Nicky Rackard Cup is the carrot for Ray Durack’s Donegal team ahead of their clash with Louth in Letterkenny this afternoon (2.30pm).
Following impressive wins over Roscommon and Monaghan, the men from Tir Chonaill will play either Armagh or Roscommon in the decider at GAA headquarters early next month should they prevail against the men from the Wee County.
Louth easily accounted for Donegal (4-24 to 0-12) when they met in this year’s National Hurling League in Darver back in March but Durack expects things will be much closer this time around.
“We’ve got home advantage for a start while we were also missing seven or eight players when we met them in the league,” he said.
Indeed, players the calibre of Jamsie Donnelly, Justin McGhee, Joe Boyle, Enda McDermott, Benny Harrigan, Paddy Hannigan, Kevin Campbell and Danny Cullen didn’t take their places on the Donegal team that sunny Sunday afternoon in Darver towards the end of March. Each and every one of them will be hoping to start this time around.
“We owe them one after the beating they gave us that day but, maybe, they’ll come up here like Roscommon did and think we’re push-overs and that it’s only a matter of them turning up to win the game,” he said.
Setanta’s Danny Cullen is expected to lead Donegal from full-forward while the attack will also include Niall Campbell, Enda McDermott, Eugene Organ, Lee Henderson and young Ronan McDermott as the manager has reported a clean bill of health.
He received a welcome boost with the news that Burt’s Stephen Gillespie has re-joined the panel following a troublesome hamstring injury which has kept him out of the Nicky Rackard campaign to date.
“Stephen is back running and he’s expecting to join in full training tonight (Tuesday) and while he mightn’t start this weekend he’s back earlier than we expected,” he said.
“Confidence is high after the wins over Roscommon and Monaghan and we are looking forward to meeting Louth and, hopefully, making it through to the final,” he said.
The Donegal manager decided against playing any challenge games in the week leading to the Louth match, believing that his players are already match hardened.
“Some of the lads are dual players who have had to line out twice for their football teams in the past week. We’ve already had two tough games against Roscommon and Monaghan and we’re in good shape. Hopefully the lads will go out and give a good account of themselves this weekend,” he said.
Durack travelled to Markievicz Park last weekend to watch Louth brush aside the challenge of Sligo (3-15 to 1-09).
“They’re a big, physical team like Roscommon and Sligo put it up to them for most of the first half before losing a man and running out of steam. It’s hard to judge how good they were. That said, we’re playing well and there’s a massive carrot there in front of the players. They have the chance to play in Croke Park in a few weeks time and it’s up to the younger lads to step up to the plate and for the older fellas to lead by example and help to bring them up to that level,” he explained.
Donegal finally got their hands on the Lory Meagher Cup after last summer’s victory over Tyrone, at GAA headquarters, and they’re greedy for another opportunity to play at Croke Park.
They went into the championship on the back of a mediocre league campaign and just about surviving in Division 3A of the National Hurling League, beating neighbours Sligo in a play-off to determine who survived in Division 3A and who made the drop to Division Four.
“We are in much better shape now than we were at any time for the league and with the exception of Justin Browne (broken collar bone) we have a fully fit squad. We’ll give them the respect they deserve but we certainly won’t go into the game with any fear,” he said.
The final of the Nicky Rackard Cup has been pencilled in for Saturday, June 9.