Donegal host understrength Cavan in Section C finale at Ballybofey
Bank of Ireland Dr McKenna Cup, Section A Round 3: Donegal v Cavan (Wednesday, Ballybofey, 8pm)
THE difference between tonight’s game and last summer’s Ulster Championship clash between these counties is, quite literally, night and day and the Cavan bus will head north for the Section A finale against Donegal without up to 10 Dublin-based players.
Breffni manager Mickey Graham views the three-hour mid-week trip as too much to ask of students and players working in the capital and so he will rely on local talent to take on the group frontrunners under the MacChumaill Pairc lights.
Donegal manager Declan Bonner hasn’t named a squad but he will probably have the same issue so two sides packed with unfamiliar names will hope to impress and guarantee their county a semi-final berth and the extra game(s) that goes with it.
If Armagh beat Monaghan (and on current form they should) a draw or a narrow victory for either county in should see both progress to the semi-finals – the winners as group leaders, the losers as best runners-up.
Hosts Donegal and visitors Cavan are tied on four points after wins against Down and Queen’s University and, realistically, only a win for Malachy O’Rourke’s men at the Athletic Grounds (meaning they would top Section B and Armagh would be best runners-up) would throw a cat among the pigeons.
With that in mind, the only way to be sure of a semi-final slot is victory tonight. While he would gladly take another game, Cavan manager Graham says a place in the knockout stages of a pre-season competition that is struggling for relevance is “not the be-all and end-all”.
“At the moment all we’re looking for is for the lads to go out and perform,” he said.
“We haven’t really talked much about qualifying for the semi-final. Obviously an extra game would be beneficial as regards getting lads more game-time but we’ll approach it like we did the last two – it’s an opportunity to give the lads game-time and a bit more experience, especially the new lads that have come into the panel.
“While it would be nice to qualify, it’s not the be-all and end-all.”
Cavan got past Down by a point in their opener at Kingspan Breffni before hammering QUB 0-17 to just 0-3 last weekend. Meanwhile, Donegal had 10 points to spare over the students and were clear and impressive winners against Down in Newry last Sunday.
“We have given 12 debuts in the last two games so, from that point of view, it has been very good and it has given us an opportunity to look at those lads in a competitive environment,” said Graham.
“We are happy with what we got out of those games as regards personnel and getting a look at players and that’s exactly what we hoped for at the beginning of the competition.
“If we get to the semi-final it’ll be an added bonus.
“We hoped to take an upwards curve after the Down game and look for a small improvement.
“We got that last week and a couple of lads took their opportunity with both hands, they stood up and staked claim for the National League panel.
“All the young lads that have come in have come with a great attitude and they’re mad to play football for Cavan. They’ve shown great enthusiasm and energy and the one thing that I’ve noticed since these young lads have come about the place is that the energy levels have lifted.
“Every single one of them has brought something to the panel.”
Last summer Cavan travelled to Ballybofey for the Ulster Championship preliminary round full of optimism after they had won promotion from Division Two to Division One and Donegal had gone in the opposite direction. Their hosts proved far too strong for them on the day and that looks likely to be the case again tonight. However, Graham sees the game as another useful experience for his young players.
“Any day you go up to Ballybofey it’s a tough test,” he said.
“We’re going up with a lot of inexperienced players who’ll be playing there against Donegal for the first time so it’s a step up on the last two games and we have a lot of lads working or studying in Dublin as well and we can’t expect them to travel from Dublin to Donegal on a Wednesday – they’d have to finish work at 1pm.
“We can’t call on everybody to be available which is a wee bit unfair on them. The Dublin (based) lads wouldn’t be back in Dublin until two or three o’clock in the morning. It’s a bit annoying that we can’t bring everybody but you just have to deal with it and we’ll be bringing local lads and it’ll be easier for them travel-arrangement wise.
“It’s just that time of year with exams at colleges… It’s tough.”