GAA Football

Fermanagh and Ulster University to get 2019 Dr McKenna Cup under way in Derrygonnelly

James McMahon (left) played a big part as Fermanagh saw off Armagh and Monaghan en route to this year's Ulster final. Picture by Philip Walsh
Neil Loughran

Bank of Ireland Dr McKenna Cup Section C: Fermanagh v Ulster University (today, 1pm, Derrygonnelly)

THE season has to start somewhere, and for Fermanagh the green jersey will be pulled on earlier than usual when the Ernemen and Ulster University lift the curtain on this year’s Dr McKenna Cup today.

A Saturday lunchtime start is one thing, playing county football 10 days before the turkey has been carved quite another.

Throw five new experimental rules into the stuffing mix and it feels like the traditional St Stephen’s Day hangover is already beginning to unfold.

Needs must though as Fermanagh are gearing up for an early start, while UU – building towards their January 16 Sigerson Cup date with IT Tralee – might be happy enough to stagger their McKenna Cup groups games ahead of that tie.

UU, managed by Paul Rouse, have a strong looking panel heading into 2019, with Tyrone pair Lee Brennan and Michael McKernan both lining out for the students rather than the Red Hands in the coming weeks.

Mayo wing-back Patrick Durcan could feature alongside the likes of Derry’s Terrence O’Brien and Down’s Pierce Laverty, the Saul clubman who has attracted the interest of Aussie Rules scouts in recent months.

However, Brian Kennedy, David Mulgrew, Benny McGallen and Ben McDonnell will all be involved with Tyrone during the pre-season competition.

UU are also unable to call upon Cullyhanna’s Jason Duffy and Ballinderry’s Gareth McKinless, who are part of the Armagh and Derry squads respectively.

Fermanagh, meanwhile, have welcomed back experienced duo Richard O’Callaghan and Ciaran Flaherty for the 2019 campaign, with both in the mix for game-time in Derrygonnelly this afternoon.

Garvan Jones joins brothers Ryan and Conall in Rory Gallagher’s panel as they bid to improve on a year when promotion to Division Two was secured, before an against-the-odds Ulster Championship run that took them to the provincial final.

They may have lost out to Donegal that day, but Gallagher and his backroom team will have taken plenty of heart from a season when expectations – from outside their own panel at least – were exceeded.

One of the key men in that run was centre-back James McMahon, especially when they overcome Monaghan in a dramatic semi-final at Healy Park.

The Roslea man was outstanding that day, and admits the challenge facing Fermanagh now is to build on what has been achieved during the last 12 months.

“It was my best day [with Fermanagh] anyway,” he says, reflecting on that victory over the Farneymen, hopefully there will be another few ones but that would be my number one to date.

“Last year we set out initially to get promotion from Division Three and we did that. We felt that would give us a good platform going into the Championship and from very early days we were focusing on Armagh in the first round.

“We took it game by game and to get to an Ulster final was great but obviously we were seriously disappointed with how we performed. 2019 is another season and we are back to square one again in terms of the Ulster Championship.”

Fermanagh lost out by 12 points to the Tir Chonaill men in that provincial showpiece at the end of June, before exiting the All-Ireland series at the hands of Kildare a fortnight later.

The Ulster Championship draw has paired the Ernemen with Donegal next year, and McMahon admits they will be looking to put the disappointment of this year’s defeat behind them by the time that game comes around.

“That was the biggest regret - coming away knowing you hadn't performed anywhere near to our potential and any day you do that you always have regrets and look back with 'what ifs'.

“If we had performed to our capabilities and Donegal had beaten us by a couple of points you could hold your hands up and sort of accept it, but the fact we didn't produce a performance ourselves was definitely the biggest disappointment of all.

“I know it's a cliché but we've found there are no easy draws. We were really hoping for a home draw and after that you can't ask for much more.

“It was nearly inevitable after the way it ended last year that we would get them [Donegal], and it's a tough draw surely. It's a date we will be working towards, I'm sure they're no different.”

Ulster University panel: M Magee, M McAvoy, P Teague, L Brennan, L Harney, J Doherty, N Donnelly, P Durcan, T O’Brien, D Gallagher, R Beatty, S Fegan, C O’Hagan, O Duffin, T McConville, P Laverty, M McKernan, D Kerr, D Jones, R Jones, F McElroy, C Quinn

NUMBER

15

TYRONE are the most successful county in the history of the Dr McKenna Cup win, winning the competition 15 times since it was first played in 1927. It has been a particularly happy hunting ground for Red Hand boss Mickey Harte, with Tyrone coming up trumps 10 times (2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017) under his charge.

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