VOX POP: Ulster says yes to the McKenna Cup

Micheál Bannigan (Monaghan)

“PERSONALLY, I definitely always look forward to the McKenna Cup. I think it’s very important at this time of the year and it’s very useful to get those couple of competitive games in before the National League.

“You get them under you belt and it lets you know where you’re at. From a broader team perspective, it’s good to see where you’re at in terms of what you have been working on in training.

“Obviously in preseason, you are always going to have a few tweaks on you did the year before and until you play an actual game and especially a competitive game, it’s hard to know where you’re at.

“I think it’s a good benchmark and it’s good to get those couple of competitive games under the belt and get the match fitness up and everything else that goes with it because it has a different intensity to it than a challenge game.

“Then you have the impact of the younger players too. I made my debut in a McKenna Cup game in Clones against Fermanagh and it’s very different pulling on that jersey in front of a couple of thousand people in Clones than at a club ground on a Thursday evening after a day’s work.

“I think there’s a big difference and especially for the younger players it’s definitely a big deal. They are making their county debut, and you want to have a competitive game in a county ground and not just a challenge game somewhere.

“There are a few new boys in with us this year. Vinny, as every manager is this time of the year, is looking to get a few new boys in from the club championship, so we’ll be hoping to get fresh blood in and bed them in through the McKenna Cup and the league.”

Ethan Rafferty (Armagh)

“I SUPPOSE it’s a bit of both when it comes to the McKenna Cup. You’re definitely glad to be playing matches again and this time of the year, it’s the nature of the beast, you’re training hard during the pre-season block.

“Then you get a bit of a break at Christmas and come back into the fold and do another wee bit of hard training. You try to get up to the speed of things again before playing the matches.

“I can definitely see both sides of it. As a player, yo’re glad of a competitive game because it’s obviously better than out running in the dark.

“We have two tough games to start with against Tyrone and Donegal, all three of us were Division One teams this time last year and we’re happy enough with the draw to be honest. We won’t get it all our own way, and neither will they.

“The point of the McKenna Cup is to get good, stiff competition going into the National League so we couldn’t really ask for two better teams than Tyrone and Donegal to start the year off with.

“We have a few injured boys on the way back (Oisin O’Neill, Niall Grimley, Tiernan Kelly, Mark Shields, Ciaron O’Hanlon) and they’ll hopefully see some game time now in the McKenna Cup as well.

“You look back and review last year and you sometimes forget that we were missing all of those men. It’s great to get them back in, especially with a couple of them that had picked up long term injuries.

“I was delighted to see Oisin back playing with Cross in the club championship and now he’s back in with us. Mark Shields as well, he had a tough couple of years there so hopefully if we can all stay injury free, we’ll have a good rattle at it.”

Pierce Laverty (Down)

“WE have a tough group to get us up and running for the year (against Derry and Cavan) and it’s two very competitive games and they’ll be two good tests for us against a Division One team and a Division Two team.

“It will be good to get playing against the likes of Derry and Cavan because it will let us know where we’re at and obviously you want to win games and play as many competitive games as possible this time of year, running into the National League.

“It’s a great challenge and personally I love the McKenna Cup. The more football you can play the better and it means you’ll do less dogging sessions at pre-season training.

“Everyone probably has that same attitude, but these games are a great way to build up towards the National League and personally I am a big, big fan of it.

“We have some of those u-20 teams of the past few years breaking into the senior team now, they’ve won two Ulster u-20 titles in the last three years, so we’ll be able to bleed some of those boys in and give them a bit of gametime and see where they are at.

“Bringing those boys in, it keeps everyone else on their toes as well. You can’t relax for a second, you really have to earn your spot and hang on to your jersey as long as possible.

“I suppose that all comes down to trying to stay injury free as well and things like that so you’re always playing football and you’re always on the field.

“Promotion is obviously at the top of the list for us, and we want to be playing Division Two football next year and we’re putting a lot of emphasis on the National League, and we want to win as many games as we possibly can, starting with the McKenna Cup.”

Mickey Harte (Derry manager)

“I THINK the Ulster Council do a great job with the promotion of the McKenna Cup and I think it’s very good for the counties and we all need it.

“People talk about trying to do away with it, if we do away with them, what’s going to replace them only a load of challenge matches which are of no value particularly to anybody, I think.

“Here, you’ve got an organised competition, you’ve got the media that are very interested in it, and you’ve got a cup at the end of it. So, I think what we have here is well worth going after and I’ve been an advocate of it over the years.

“I’m glad to be back in this arena again because I love the McKenna Cup and I think now, particularly the way the league starts before the end of January, counties need competitive games to get ready for the league. It gives the Ulster teams a head start, I believe, in the competitive stakes.

“Our panel isn’t finalised yet, there’s some young lads there that are still u-20 and they are training with us at the minute and there’s a few other names that hadn’t been on the squad before, so that’s a process of working through that.

“There’s a lot of injuries and obviously you have the Sleacht Néill men (hurlers) that are only back and available now and the Glen men that are doing so well where they are, we don’t have access to them.

“So, there will be room for other players to be seen and that’s part of the McKenna Cup as well. It’s great to have that opportunity to get those players into a competitive game where you hope you have the spine of the team available to you and then you can add on to that particular core of the team.

“That’s the way I’ve always used the McKenna Cup, as long as you have five or six of your key men available to you, that makes good sense that you can add new players or younger players or inexperienced players to that and they get some value out of it.”

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