BY KIERAN LYNCH
MONAGHAN are hoping to begin their Ulster U-17 Championship campaign with a win when they host Down on Saturday (1pm) in Clones.
Speaking at the Ulster Championship launch event in Dungannon on Monday evening, Monaghan boss Dermot Malone said that whilst the team are looking forward to their opener, they will have to raise the level of their game from when the two sides played to a draw recently in the league.
“We can’t wait,” he said, “We played Down not so long ago in the league and we were probably lucky enough to come out of it with a draw, so we’re not expecting too much between the teams on Saturday.”
The league campaign gave Monaghan a good chance to work on their tactical structures as well as get minutes in the legs of their extended panel, and Malone is hopeful that the work they have put in up to this point will stand to them come the start of the championship.
“We’ve learned a lot about our players,” said the Monaghan manager.
“We have a large panel and we’re trying to balance schoolwork and injuries and everything else. We’ve learned possibly what offensive and defensive structures work best, and almost every single player on our panel has got game-time, so they’ve gotten opportunities to represent the jersey.
“The players are well bought in, they’re chomping at the bit to get going, and hopefully we’ll have a fully fit panel over the next couple of weeks, and we’ll give it a good rattle.”
Their fixture against Down will be played at Clones, and whilst Malone isn’t expecting a sell-out crowd, he still believes that the ‘aura’ of the venue can have a positive effect on his side.
“Home advantage won’t do any harm; I don’t think these young fellas would have got playing in Clones too often,” he said.
“But we want them out there as much as possible, because ultimately speaking, we want them playing in big games in Clones when they’re in their twenties.
“We’ve had a couple of training sessions in Clones over the last few months and you can tell that the boys are looking forward to it.
“As soon as you open the gates, straight away they’re like new lambs running out onto the field.
“The stand mightn’t be too full for the minor game, but the aura of Clones is still there, and the players are looking forward to it.”
The Ulster U-17 Championship is split into two round-robin groups, meaning every team will get plenty of games and Malone believes the structure will work well, and that whoever comes out of Ulster will take some stopping.
“I like it; I think young players need to be playing as many matches in their county jersey as possible,” he said.
“I think the format means that whoever wins the Ulster Championship is going to have earned it.
“We have played teams in other provinces but I have to say that Ulster football is at a very high level, and whoever comes out of it is going to take some beating this year.”