GAA Football

Derry U20 boss Mickey Donnelly full aware of Armagh threat

Fergal Keenan (left) from Eirgrid and Oliver Galligan, Ulster GAA president, with team captains from every Ulster county at the Eirgrid Ulster Under 20 Championship launch at Garvaghey on Monday June 17 2019. Picture by Cliff Donaldson
Francis Mooney

Mickey Donnelly’s attention to detail in carrying out a detailed analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of an opponent has played a key role in his many successes at club and county level.

Exhaustive research and painstaking assessment routinely form an important part of the build-up to each game, but the Derry manager’s preparation for Friday’s Ulster U20 quarter-final clash with Armagh has been unusually straightforward.

As a teacher at St Ronan’s, Lurgan, he has taught and coached many of the Orchard players that will face his side at Owenbeg.

While helping him to devise an approach to the champions’ first defence of the provincial title, this bank of knowledge has also created an awareness of the threat posed by a talented Armagh side.

“I know a lot of the Armagh lads through school, a lot of them would have gone through St Ronan’s, and I know the quality that those lads possess,” he said.

“So it’s a big challenge, and we’re going to have to be at our best to get over the line. We’re very aware of the quality that Armagh possess, we’re also aware of the quality of the sides that are in the competition.

“It’s totally wide open, I think the bookies have us among the favourites, behind Tyrone, Donegal and Down.”

Derry go into this year’s series with a handful of survivors from the 2018 title triumph in a team packed with players who have also tasted success at Minor level.

The county has been a provincial powerhouse at under-age level in recent times, and there’s growing optimism that a wealth of young talent will be central to the Oak Leaf’s return to greatness as a senior force.

“There’s a lot of good young footballers in Derry at the minute, a lot of good work going on,” said Donnelly.

“The club structure in Derry is very strong, there were Derry teams in the U16, the Minor and U21 club finals last year, which is probably a reflection of where they’re at.

“There’s a lot of work going on at development squad level, through U17, U20s and hopefully into senior level.”

Donnelly added his voice to the chorus of approval for the introduction of U20 Development Leagues this year, which saw Ulster sides compete against teams from other provinces in the Philly McGuinness and Leo Murphy Cups.

“It’s brilliant. We went into the Championship totally cold last year,'' he stated.

“I think we played Sligo one Wednesday night in Leitrim. It was the only county match we could get leading up to the Championship, so to have the benefit of three games is massive.

“It gives you a great opportunity to use your squad, to look at lads, giving people a dig at it. No county will be saying they’re under-cooked going into the Championship.”

Unlike last year, Derry’s U20 squad is at full strength, with none of its players plucked away by the senior management.

Donnelly is grateful for the availability of all his finest talents, and in agreement with the GAA directive that prevents participation at both levels.

“The senior management have been very supportive this year,'' he said.

“We lost two last year, and if you’re being brutally honest about it, it maybe was the difference between us just missing out on an All-Ireland semi-final and winning an All-Ireland.

“I think lads should be allowed to play at their own age group, but I think at least there has been some tweak in the rules this year, where if you’re out of the senior competition, the lads can return to U20s, which is encouraging.

“But I think we need to look at the calendar and have a wee bit more joined-up thinking.

“I don’t think it would be fair to ask a lad to play U20s and Seniors in that same window.”

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