PLUS PODCAST: Kieran McGeeney and Declan Bonner have another chance to look at depth of Armagh and Donegal squads
Bank of Ireland Dr McKenna Cup semi-final: Armagh v Donegal (tomorrow, 2pm, Healy Park)
WEDNESDAY night’s victory over Cavan marked the 100th appearance in Donegal colours for the versatile Martin McElhinney. Coming up on 12 years since his inter-county debut, the St Michael’s man has seen it all in a career that long pre-dates the Jim McGuinness glory days.
Yet despite having been part of the Tir Chonaill’s period of provincial domination during the earlier part of this decade, culminating in that momentous 2012 All-Ireland success, McElhinney sees Donegal stronger now that he can ever remember.
That’s some statement to make when you consider some of the panels he has been involved with, and some of the men with whom he has shared a dressing room.
Looking at the players Declan Bonner can call upon - even in the absence of the talismanic Michael Murphy, stalwarts Frank McGlynn and Paddy McGrath, star forward Paddy McBrearty and the entire Gaoth Dobhair collective - it is hard to take issue with McElhinney’s point.
Against the Breffnimen, Niall O’Donnell, Michael Langan and Jamie Brennan were among those who starred. All three played major parts in last year’s Ulster Championship success, and are now an established trio among an emerging crop of serious talent driving the county on.
And while the likes of 33-year-old Neil McGee and even Murphy, at 29, may not have as much road to run as the young guns coming through, they remain cornerstones of the side.
It feels as though McBrearty has been around forever yet, when he comes back from his cruciate ligament injury this summer, he will still only be 25-years-old.
Ryan McHugh will be the same age in April. The Kilcar dynamo returned to action in Ballybofey on Wednesday night, his first appearance for the county since that devastating Super 8s defeat to Tyrone last August.
McHugh is expected to play some part in tomorrow’s McKenna Cup semi-final clash against Armagh as he builds up his fitness ahead of Donegal’s Division Two opener away to Clare on January 27, with the Tir Chonaill looking to retain the trophy they landed last February.
Donegal aren’t the only ones whose squad looks in rude health either, with Armagh boasting a much stronger hand now than this time 12 months ago.
The impact of the returning Stefan Campbell comes as no surprise. ‘Soupy’ has picked up consecutive man-of-the-match awards in their last two wins over Antrim and Monaghan.
Jamie Clarke showed flashes of his undoubted class in both games, while powerful full-forward Andy Murnin is back involved and will return for the League.
Tomorrow is likely to come too soon for defenders Patrick Burns and Paul Hughes, while James Morgan picked up a knock to his knee against Antrim and may be held in reserve until the Orchard’s Division Two opener against Kildare in a fortnight’s time.
“We’ve been trying to build things over the years. It’s a process,” said boss Kieran McGeeney.
“It’s different in other counties when there are carrots at the end of the stick, but when a county starts doing bad, the clubs get stronger and it’s hard to get a balance between both.
“In fairness to the clubs in Armagh and the county board, they’ve been very accommodating so over the last couple of years we’ve built up a lot of players that people wouldn’t have seen – Paddy Burns, Jemar Hall, Ryan McShane, Joe McElroy, Jarlath Og [Burns].
“Fellas like that who are just starting to come through that people wouldn’t maybe put in the same league as the likes of Stefan, Jamie, Ethan [Rafferty] and that, but that’s what we’re trying to build.
“Everybody has to fight for their position, there are no superstars. In fairness to the group, they are like that.
“We’re not under any illusions either - we’re out of the third division, we’ve been touching on the last eight this past couple of years but we’re still not of that quality yet.
“We had some great games, but then some of the teams that went into the Super 8s didn’t fare that well so it’s a big step up for us. That’s what we’re looking for, there’s some serious teams in Division Two and that’s what we have to measure ourselves against and see where it takes us.
“That will tell us whether we have a stronger panel or not.”
There will be plenty more at stake when these two counties meet again on March 2, in the fifth game of their National League campaigns, but tomorrow grants Bonner and McGeeney another chance to survey the depth at their disposal.