By Michael McMullan
COUNTY champions Scotstown are still top dogs in the race for the Mick Duffy Cup in Monaghan, but it’s open season among the rest of the teams insists Ballybay joint-manager Mark Doran.
Along with Jerome Johnston and selector Cillian McAviney, a former club chairman, they were beaten the semi-finals last season by Truagh.
“Monaghan football is very even,” said former Down player Doran, a selector under Paddy Tally during his stint as Mourne boss. “Scotstown are a wee bit ahead, but the rest could beat anybody on any given day. From watching Down, Derry, Armagh and Tyrone club football…Monaghan is as tight and as even as there is.
“Scotstown have won six of the last seven, but I don’t think they are as far ahead as they were six years ago.”
In the league, Carrickmacross were top of the table after four games, but had the advantage of not having anyone on the county squad.
“Clubs definitely struggle without their county players,” Doran added.
Ballybay face Truagh in the league quarter-final on Friday night, with Latton awaiting the winners in the last four.
They will have to plan without a trio of Colm Lennon, Paddy O’Neill and Mattie Ward who are playing their football with Boston club McAnespies for the summer.
“We didn’t go back until late this year and we didn’t start training until the end March,” Doran revealed.
“We made an effort in the first four or five league games to unearth a couple of young boys. We decided that at the start of the year and Ballybay’s committee were happy enough for us to try and find a couple of new players.
“We have a couple of young boys, giving them a chance during the league, there is no point in firing a young boy into the championship.”
One gap they needed to fill is the number one jersey, with a rotation policy in place to find the successor to Ashley White who stepped away after last season.
The return of Farney trio Dessie Ward, Ryan and Drew Wylie has bolstered their side for the last five games as Ballybay upped their performances.
“We won our last game against Carrickmacross, but if we had lost it, we were in the bottom four play-off,” Doran outlined, stating how a Dessie Ward goal helped them nick a play-off spot on score difference.
That’s the nature of a league that keeps team on their toes as they taper their preparations towards a championship run.
Ballybay will have to plan without former Cavan defender Michael Hannon, married into the Ballybay area where he now lives, to a long-term injury
A cruciate injury sustained by Tommy O’Neill in a challenge game before last season’s semi-final exit at the hands of Truagh is still keeping him on the sidelines.
Then there is the “million dollar question” surrounding their Boston trio for the Championship, with Doran accepting they’ll miss the first couple of games.
“’Jap’ (Paul Finlay) is only back playing three or four weeks not, we had given him a break,” Doran added. “He keeps himself in great nick and could play football for other three or four years yet, he has a wand of a left foot.”
When the championship kicks into action next month, Ballybay face a tough five-team group that includes holders Scotstown, 2019 champions Clontibret, last year’s Intermediate winners Donaghmoyne and a local derby with Aughnamullen.
The top team qualifies for semi-finals, with second and third advancing to the quarter-finals. It’s all to play for.