Santa Claus has departed the scene, the last of the Christmas wine has been poured down the sink and only the Bounty bars remain in the box of Celebrations. Although the festive season is still a very fresh memory, the GAA inter-county season begins this weekend as the traditional curtain raiser of the Ulster GAA season, the Dr McKenna Cup gets underway.
This year sees one major change in the rules of the competition with college inter-county players having a choice whether to line out with their county or their college. Expect most to play with their county sides as they seek to nail down positions for the coming year.
Tyrone V Queens
In the first game, the post Brian Dooher and Brian McGuigan era gets underway in Tyrone as they take on Queens University in Omagh. It is likely to be a new look Tyrone side that we see this year as Mickey Harte sets about rebuilding after the breakup of the team that won three all-Ireland titles between 2003 and 2008. However, after a string of successes at minor level, Tyrone are better equipped than most to go through this process and with talented youngsters such as Kyle Coney, Conor Clarke and Ronan O’Neill.
Experienced players such as Stephen O’Neill and Justin McMahon have been rested for this particular competition and one expected the rest of the squad to go flat out in order to stake a claim for a place in the Championship panel. However, Tyrone are unlikely to have everything their own way against a crack Queens outfit who are one of the favourites for the Sigerson Cup. However, Tyrone should prove too strong for the College side whose two best players, Peter Harte and Sean O’Neill will actually be in the Tyrone squad.
Fermanagh V Antrim
Fermanagh GAA followers are likely to flock in their thousands to Brewster Park on Sunday as their team play their first competitive game under the management of Peter Canavan. After the controversies of last year when a lot of the players walked away from the panel, the people of Fermanagh will be hoping that Canavan proves to be a unifying influence. There is a feeling that if the players do not play for the Tyrone legend, they will not play for anyone.
Canavan has already out his own stamp on the squad by appointing Ryan McCluskey as captain. The squad has an abundance of new faces from the one that reached the All-Ireland semi-final back in 2004 but some star names such as Barry Owens, Ronan Gallagher, Ryan Keenan and Niall Bogue remain. Antrim manager, Liam Bradley has already indicated that he has deliberately picked a very physical squad but he too can call upon some classy performers such as Paddy Cunningham and star midfielder, Aodhan Gallagher from St Galls. While Antrim do have better credentials, I feel that home advantage and the Canavan factor may just get Fermanagh over the line.
Down V Armagh
There is no doubt about what the tie of the round is this weekend as near neighbours and arch-rivals, Down and Armagh meet in this tasty encounter in Newry with the controversial Martin Sludden on the whistle.
Down were extremely disappointed to be kicked out of the Ulster championship after running into an Armagh juggernaut last year. Down did not really kick on last year after reaching the All-Ireland final in 2010 and will be anxious to get back to the big time this season. However, they have been dealt a blow by the decision of Marty Clarke to return to Australia in order to play with Collingwood in the AFL. In the last two years, Clarke has been the pivotal figure in the Down attack and his loss is a severe blow to their chances of bringing the Sam Maguire North in 2012.
However, in Benny Coulter, Daniel Hughes and last year’s newcomer, Conor Laverty they still have plenty of scoring power in their arsenal. Armagh themselves are also still trying to get back to football’s top table after a slight decline in their fortunes in recent years. Paddy O’Rourke is going to use this competition as an opportunity to blood some new talent such as Niall Geoghan, David Lavery, Sean Hughes and Mark Shields. He probably has no choice in this as the Crossmaglen contingent are still club tied meaning Jamie Clarke, Paul Hearty, Tony and Aaron Kernan are unavailable as is Stevie McDonnell who is taking a break until March. Down probably need to win this game more than Armagh do and this may well be critical on the day.
Monaghan V St Mary’s
Monaghan are without the honeymooning Dick Clerkin and as a result manager, Eamonn McEneaney has appointed full-back cum goalkeeper, Darren Hughes as captain. Famously, Monaghan are still missing former star forward, Tommy Freeman who has emigrated and are also without Conor McManus who is currently injured. As a result, it is very much a new -look Monaghan squad with youngsters such as David Millar, Karl O’Connell, Tommy O’Neill and James Bellew all getting a chance to shine. They do still have the experience of the likes of Vincent Corey, Eoin Lennon, Paul Finlay and Stephen Gollogly to call upon.
Last year, St Mary’s caused a massive shock when they beat Armagh in the group stages of this competition and they will be hoping for more of the same this year. On that occasion, they were boosted by being able to call upon senior inter-county stars such as Tyrone’s Peter Harte and Fermanagh’s Ryan Keenan. It remains to be seen how strong their panel will be on this occasion and one expects Monaghan to come away with the victory.
Derry V Cavan
One of the interesting things I read in twitter this week was a tweet from Derry star, Paddy Bradley stating that for the first time in his life, he got sick at training. Now, whether that is an indication of Bradley’s condition after a long injury lay-off or the intensity of Derry’s training regime remains to be seen. One of the things about this competition beginning so soon is that it comes a week after teams are officially allowed to return to collective training and one expects teams will have been training exceptionally hard this week.
Derry will be boosted by the return of the Bradley brothers sometime this year, and it is expected that Paddy will make some contribution this weekend. Cavan are very much in rebuilding mode at the moment and one expects that several of the Under 21 team that reached an All-Ireland final last year will see some action in this competition.
They will be without star player, Seanie Johnston about whom there were rumours of linking up with Kildare this year. Apparently, the player himself is currently in Australia. They played Meath in a challenge game last week and were beaten. I would expect a similar result for the Breffni men in this occasion.
Donegal V University of Ulster Jordanstown
The Ulster champions, Donegal will begin the preparation of their defence in Letterkenny on Sunday with a tricky tie against UUJ. Donegal raised a lot of eyebrows and earned a lot of criticism for their style of play when reaching the All-Ireland semi-final last year. However, it is often forgotten that they also possess a lot of quality and three of their defenders actually won All-Stars and they also possess forwards of the calibre of Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden.
The Donegal winter was not without its controversies with the Kevin Cassidy saga taking some of the gloss off their first provincial title since 1992. They will be without several regular players this weekend but nonetheless will still put out a strong side with Jim McGuinness already stating his desire to progress in this competition. UUJ are one of the leading college sides but are likely to be missing several key players who will be playing with their counties. This gives them a massive disadvantage and for that reason, I expect Donegal to win this.