Eir Grid Ulster U-20 Championship
Derry v Fermanagh
Saturday, Celtic Park, 2pm
HE’S not going to say so on a public forum, but deep down Ollie Fay mightn’t be too despondent that St Michael’s Enniskillen were knocked out of the MacRory Cup at the weekend.
The apparently arbitrary switch of the U-20 championship to this early part of the calender has created a world of problems for players and managers alike and Fermanagh had been affected more than most.
The GAA imposed a rule in November that “players involved in the ‘A’ and ‘B’ post-primary football championships are ineligible to play for their county team until such time as their school has been eliminated from its own championship”.
That had the potential to completely scupper Fermanagh’s chances of a run in the U20 championship as they had 13-cup tied players.
They successfully applied for an exemption, but the possibility of a serious skirmish between St Michael’s, the Mecca of Fermanagh school’s football, and the intercounty set-up has only really been avoided by their defeat to Holy Trinity on Saturday past.
Fay commented: “It’s not fair to say that it’ll make things easier for us. I know those St Michael’s lads will be very disappointed, they were hoping to retain their title.”
Speaking on Monday, he said: “I haven’t really approached them yet as I want to give them a bit of breathing space. I’ll get in touch in the next couple of days, there’s nothing like getting back on the horse after a defeat like that.
“St Michael’s pride themselves on MacRory Cup football. It’s a great breeding ground for players to come into the county set-up. They’ll be disappointed but please God they’ll come out and drive things on for us. I’m not saying they’ll start against Derry but they’ll be available and they’re the type of intelligent footballers who can slot in quickly and don’t need much coaching.”
On the subject of Fermanagh’s exemption, which was only the start of half the country making a similar request, Fay said the fixtures chiefs really need get their finger out.
“There was talk of an exemption but it was a headache for everyone concerned.
“They have to start looking at the fixtures more fairly as it’s causing internal friction within schools and county teams. They need to really investigate it and sort it out.”
Fermanagh have a number of Hogan Cup winners within their squad, including Brandon Horan, Conor Love, Garrett Kavanagh and Luke Flanagan. Brandon and Love both played in their shock U20 Championship first-round win over Donegal last year, and they were subsequently beaten by Derry, who they play again this weekend, in the semi-finals.
Fay, who is in his second year in charge, says they are quietly confident of reversing that result against the Oak Leafers, explaining that his players have taken a massive amount of inspiration from training with the Fermanagh senior set-up in recent weeks.
“Ricey’s been brilliant. Brandon and Sean (Cassidy) are part of the senior set-up but he’s given them time with us and obviously after the U20 championship they’ll be back in with the seniors because they’re serious footballers.
“Fair play to Ricey, he’s been very accommodating and we’ve had a few sessions with the senior team recently because numbers were low. He’s a football man and he’s doing it for the best of Fermanagh football and not for himself, he can see the benefit of bringing them in, and seeing if they’re capable of making the step up.
“I’ve seen a change in the mentality of the U20s after a couple of training sessions with the senior team. You can see their attitudes change – they’re standing in the huddle with all the players they look up, and with Ricey, Paul McIver and Joe McMahon, who are in the middle giving them instructions. I’m learning a lot from those guys too.”
Derry coach Donnelly praises opponents
By Niall Gartland
MICKEY Donnelly’s Derry have appeared in the last two Ulster U-20 finals – winning one, losing one – but he finds it difficult to envision the team going on a similar run this year.
The reason for that is that he doesn’t have access to his MacRory Cup players at the moment with St Pat’s Maghera and St Mary’s Magherafelt both still involved in the prestigious school’s competition.
While Donnelly has nothing but good to say about the players who are at his disposal, he sincerely believes that Fermanagh are heavy favourites to prevail as the curtail opens on the competition in this weekend’s preliminary round clash.
“Two weeks ago I wondered whether I’d have a team at all with this rule that the schools have priority over the players.
“We know it’ll be a massive challenge against Fermanagh, they’re backboned by Hogan Cup winners. It’s a hell of a Fermanagh team.
“We’ve been planning without the St Mary’s and St Pat’s lads to be honest. There’s eight or nine lads we’d love to have, but we haven’t had them and I don’t think catapulting boys into the squad works either. The way we’re looking at it, we have what we have and we’ll see how far that takes us. St Pat’s play on Tuesday, the lads haven’t been training with us and it’s hard to see how they could tog out against Fermanagh.”
Donnelly says that it isn’t the school’s fault that this fixtures clash has arisen, and says it’s up to the people in power to rectify the situation.
“It not only diminishes the value of the competition, it diminishes the value of intercounty football. In my opinion playing with your county is the pinnacle, and if you take that away, it’s a terrible shame. It’s not the fault of the lads or the schools, the calender needs an urgent overhaul.
“In previous years we had a real run at it but at the moment we’re wondering who’ll be available. We still have a cohort of 20 really committed lads who have put in a massive effort since October.”
The Oak Leafers accounted for Fermanagh in last season’s semi-final clash. The competition was run off during the height of the summer last year, so the circumstances were quite a bit different.
“We know they’re going to be a good side and a lot of their players played for Fermanagh during the McKenna Cup. I’d see them as strong favourites – they have everyone available and we don’t, to be blunt about it.”