Ulster Club U-21 tournament
Carrickmore (Tyrone) v St Eunan’s Letterkenny (Donegal)
Sunday, Creggan, 3.30pm
Carrickmore boss Ryan Daly is hoping that the Ulster U-21 tournament can drive the Carmen club into the top four in Tyrone.
The Creggan tournament has been an indicator of future success for many clubs, most recently Gaoth Dobhair who won the competition in 2018, the season when they won the senior championship.
Tyrone teams Omagh and Clonoe have also won the Creggan-run Ulster u-21 tournament in the past, and Dromore were champions last year.
Carrickmore manager Ryan Daly presides over a team that has experience of playing in the Paul McGirr u-16 tournament, and the St Paul’s minor football competition. They also have lads who have featured on county u-17s and u-20s teams.
Daly hopes that the team can bring that to bear this weekend.
“These boys would have played at a high level, this is an opportunity for them to play against the best in Ulster.
“Dromore won the competition last year, and they went on to win the league title in Tyrone. We are hoping that we can take similar steps. We are hoping to get back into the top four.”
Carrickmore have a squad that is fully fit. The issue that they have is that some of their players are on duty elsewhere this weekend.
Cormac Munroe and Ruairi Slane are part of the county u-20 panel who are playing Donegal in the Ulster final on Saturday. It might be too great an ask for the to tog out a day later to play for their club, but that’s a wait-and-see decision.
Daly said: “It would be a big ask for them boys to come back in after playing the day before.”
Ryan Daly’s panel has also been trimmed by the new rule that restricts teams from using players who are u-17.
Yet despite the pressures on their panel, the Carrickmore manager sees the competition as an important one.
“It is a big competition. It is well respected throughout the country.
“A lot of good teams who have won this competition have went on to win their county championship.
“We will be aiming for something similar. Tyrone is an exceptionally competitive championship, but this group is very young. We are hoping that success can come in time.”
Preparations have been ongoing since the second week of January. The u-21 squad is training with the senior squad, and so this competition becomes part of their preparation for the new season of club football in Tyrone.
“Preparations have been badly hampered by the weather. It is hard to get grass. A lot of our training has been done indoors.”
Meanwhile, St Eunan’s captain Brian MacIntyre echoes Daly’s attitude to the tournament. As he said that the club hope that the u-21 tournament will be a spring board for senior success in the county.
“We saw what Gaoth Dobhair did. They won the Ulster u-21 tournament and the core of their senior championship winning team were those u-21s.
“For us (St Eunan’s), the next goal is to win a senior championship. It’s been five or six years, but we are not that far away. A lot of this team were playing seniors last year. And we got beat by Glenties in the semi-final.”
Like Carrickmore, St Eunan’s also have a contingent of their team who will be playing the day before in the Ulster u-20 final. Five of their team, Peter McEniff, Ronan McGeehin, Cormac Finn, Padraig McGettigan and James Kelly, will be in Clones playing against Tyrone. They won’t know if they will be available to play or not. Niall O’Donnell is with the senior county team and he might not be available either.
MacIntyre said that he is glad that the tournament is going ahead, even though their team could be limited.
“Some people might say that you can’t play a game with half a team. But we have a good squad. It is important that this competition goes ahead. There are fixtures the day before, and the day after with Freshers games. Three games in three days would be tough.
“But every man wants to play at Ulster level. A lot of boys aren’t going to play at county level, but this is the next best thing for them. When you win your county championship, you want to push yourself on.”
St Eunan’s beat Convoy in the county u-21 final, by 2-19 to 1-2 in December last year.
Their preparations since then have been limited as most of their team is away at university. They train on Saturdays collectively, and have recently started to do mid-week sessions.
As MacIntyre said, no matter how difficult the preparations, it’s important for them to get the chance to play on the provincial stage in Ulster Club football.
Ulster Club u-21 tournament
Clann Eireann (Armagh) v Latton (Monaghan)
Sunday, Creggan, 12 noon
Clann Eireann return to the Creggan Ulster U-21 tournament this weekend eager to improve on last year’s performance, but their chances have been limited by rule restrictions.
Creggan’s u-21 tournament does not allow teams to field u-17 players, and as a result that has reduced the Lurgan team’s squad.
They could be down up to six players from the squad that won the county title before Christmas.
Conor Turbitt may also be unavailable as he will be part of the Armagh team lining out against Fermanagh in their refixed National League game.
Furthermore, Ryan Meehan is injured. He was part of the St Ronan’s team that won the Hogan Cup.
Had they had all their players available, there would only be one absentee from the team that reached last year’s Ulster u-21 quarter-finals.
Manager Ruairi Lavery said that the club have accepted that they are going to have absentees but they won’t let it dampen their enthusiasm for playing in the competition.
“I have to say that it is a really well run tournament. It is publicised very well. It is a great experience for the lads.
“After last year, the boys wanted to get back there.
“This team has won the Armagh U-21 championship two years in a row which is the first time that has happened in the club’s history.
“We were there last year and we beat St Eunan’s in the preliminary (0-9 to 0-8). But then we were unlucky enough to come up against Dromore. We were down to the bare bones, but that is not an excuse. Dromore beat us fair and square (2-11 to 0-5).”
For Lavery, playing in the tournament has obvious benefits for the players.
“It helps us in our championship because we are playing against the best in their peer group.”
The rest of the club understand that too.
“Our senior management team have been very accommodating in letting us train.”
The challenge they have faced is getting the grounds to train on with the weather being so bad. But Lavery pointed out that all the clubs have faced the same challenge.
Ulster Club u-21 tournament
Carryduff (Down) v
St Brigid’s (Antrim)
Sunday, Creggan, 1.45pm
Last year’s Ulster Club u-21 semi-final clash of Carryduff and St Brigid’s was one of the highlights of the tournament, so the organisers and anyone who was there that day would have been delighted to see that the pair will go head to head again in this year’s opening round.
The tie is a delicious one for both teams. They may be from two different counties, but they are pretty much neighbours, as north Down’s Carryduff meets south Belfast’s St Brigid’s.
As Carryduff defender John McGeogh said: “A lot of these boys went to school together, university together, and might have lived together. They know each other well.
“There will be huge interest in this game. It’s a derby game.”
Though McGeogh pointed out that he wouldn’t know the St Brigid’s boys too well, he accepts this is a game which will have an undeniable derby feel to it.
The Carryduff lads have the upperhand though, as they triumphed in last year’s quarter-final, 2-12 to 2-11.
The Saffron Gael reported the game as an ‘epic’ 60 minutes of pure football. One of the highlights of the game came from Josh Connery, whose slaloming run finished with a drilled goal, and that gave them the first half lead.
The second half was more of the same, brilliant, attacking football with both teams desperate to put the scores on the board. The defining score of the game came from Daniel Guinness whose charging run ended with the winning point.
“We ended up winning by a point. It was a good game. There may not be as many hits as there is in senior football but it is good.”
Carryduff had got a bye into the semi-finals after Carrickmacross withdrew. They beat St Brigid’s and then pitched up against Dromore in the final. But things didn’t go to plan as they lost 1-9 to 0-8.
“We learned that we need to take our chances,” McGeogh said.
“You have to be confident. You have to go in thinking you can win.
“It is an opportunity to win an Ulster title, but it is not easy. You are playing against the best. You have to be a great team to get out of your county.”
Preparations for Carryduff have involved training with the seniors.
“The competition has turned up at a bad time with the season starting and players carrying injuries. It is tough for the managers. But we will give it a blast.
“We have a few players missing.”
They should be able to deal with that though. This is a group that knows how to dig deep and work for each other.
“All these boys have been playing together for a long time. They have bonded together over the past few years.”
By John Hughes
Ulster Club u-21 tournament
Dungiven (Derry) v
Enniskillen Gaels (Fermanagh)
Monday, Creggan, 7.30pm
Ahead of their participation in this year’s Ulster Club u-21 tournament, Enniskillen Gaels manager Brendan Dooris says the Gaels conveyor belt continues to turn out gems and he’s expecting some new faces to create headlines in Creggan.
“I’ve been massively impressed with the young contingent coming through. The Gaels senior team are developing an awful lot of young players, but there’s another wee batch of them coming through which should add to it.”
They face a major hurdle in their last eight opener. Dungiven are the Derry champions and, as ever, the Oak Leaf representatives will be expected to be one of the main contenders for silverware.
“Last year we played the Derry champions and we were probably in trouble after 15 minutes and struggled to get a grip of the game at all,” said Dooris. “Derry teams tend to be strong in underage competitions and are usually in among the favourites for Ulster competitions.”
While Fermanagh sides don’t generally have a great record in Ulster, Enniskillen Gaels are the exception, the gold and blue jersey seeming to acquire an extra swagger when it strides onto the provincial stage.
“We have a fairly good record in underage Ulster club competitions,” said Dooris. “We usually get past at least the first round in the St Paul’s tournament and we generally make some sort of dent in the competition and were lucky enough to win it two years ago.
“I think a lot of teams from the county might have gone into these competitions beaten before they started, but the group of individuals we have now are used to winning. We have St Michael’s lads who’ve won Ulster and All-Ireland titles, we’ve boys who are playing inter-county senior and u20 football so playing at this level holds no fears for those men.”
Enniskillen have plenty of quality about them, but with that comes the extra demands of school, college and county sides. That means Dooris has found it difficult getting his side together much ahead of the clash with Dungiven.
“It’s been difficult because of senior county commitments we have three or four lads involved there, u-20s was pulling lads away from us up a couple of weeks ago, the MacRory, Jordanstown Freshers and Sigerson, players are just pulled in so many different directions.
“Fixtures are just so congested for that age group. There was a complete mess made of it this year which has put a lot of pressure on this competition and come March 29th the club season starts.
“They’ll [Creggan] play the first round on Saturday, but they’ve no idea when they’ll be able to play the semi-finals and finals because they’re waiting for Ulster GAA to give them a free date.
“But the single biggest factor has probably been the weather. It’s been nearly impossible to get a grass pitch to get any sort of quality work done. Everyone is scrambling to get 3G pitches so we’re having to do a lot of the training indoors.”
That said, Dooris says most other clubs will be in the same boat in terms of preparation. Where the Gaels do have an edge though, is in having had previous experience of the lough shore venue.
“Rather than thinking about Dungiven you have to think about where we’re playing,” said Dooris. “The pitch up in Creggan is on the shores of Lough Neagh and it can be extremely windy. The last two years we were there you tend to play one half into a strong breeze and then play the next half with the breeze, so you basically have to have two tactical plans for the venue.
“They say you learn more from your defeats than your victories and I’d like to think we’ve learned a lot of valuable lessons from the last two years.”