Derry begin defence of Eirgrid U20 Ulster title with quarter-final against Armagh
DERRY U20s will be brimming with confidence as they begin their defence of the Eirgrid U20 Ulster Championship against Armagh in Owenbeg this evening.
An 8pm throw-in time awaits the Orchard County in the U20 quarter-final, much to the annoyance of Armagh boss Peter McDonnell, who asked for the game to be played on Saturday or Sunday instead.
He told The Irish News earlier in the week that the throw-in time and venue is “disappointing”, especially given that fact that Down and Antrim U20's began their Ulster campaign with a curtain-raiser to the Ulster SFC final.
“It's bad enough having to play Derry, Ulster and All-Ireland potential winners,” said McDonnell, “without having to trek all the way down there on a Friday night - I think it is a bit much to ask.”
Meanwhile, Derry manager Mickey Donnelly has the inside scoop on some of Armagh's panel and this intimate knowledge could help the Oak Leafers get over the line.
Donnelly is a teacher at St Ronan's in Lurgan and has taught and coached many of the Armagh players that will line-out in Owenbeg tonight.
“I know a lot of the Armagh lads through school, a lot of them would have gone through St Ronan's. I know the quality that those lads possess,” he said.
“It's a big challenge and we're going to have to be at our best to get over the line."
Tonight's fixture is a repeat of last year's inaugural Eirgird U20 Ulster final.
In that final, Derry ran out seven point victors in sun-soaked Clones.
A stellar second-half cameo by substitute Brian Cassidy, in which he scored 2-2, and a five point haul from namesake Declan Cassidy ensured that the Oak Leafers lifted the Danny Murphy Cup.
Many of the players from last year's Derry panel will be in action tonight, something which isn't the case for Armagh.
Most of Armagh's young guns have moved on from last year's team.
Rian O'Neill, a stand-out player of 2018, has gone on to become a major force for the Armagh senior panel.
Ross McQuillan, who was Armagh's leading scorer in last year's final, will also miss tonight's game.
However, he misses out due to a suspension following a game against Tyrone, where an on-field melee seen ten Armagh players face suspensions.
This year seen the introduction of the U20 Development Leagues, with Ulster counties competing against teams from other provinces in the Philly McGuinness and Leo Murphy Cups.
Derry boss Mickey Donnelly said the introduction of the league was “brilliant” as it prevents his team from going into the Ulster Championship “cold”.
Donnelly will hope to ramp through the gears in the Ulster Championship, having only picked up three of a possible six points in the Leo Murphy U20 Development League this year.
That being said, Derry's point tally doesn't give a full picture of how the team performed.
The Oak Leafers hammered Louth by 20 points, drew to Antrim, and lost by a single point to Leo Murphy Cup finalists Cavan.
And whilst Armagh finished with a greater points tally in their Leo Murphy group, they were also on the receiving end of an annihilation at the hands of Down. The Mournemen put an eye-watering 7-13 against Armagh.
Derry's U20 squad is at full strength heading into tonight's game, while Armagh have several injuries to contend with.
Orchard County full-back Conor Tierney, son of All-Ireland winning Benny, is out of action. So too is Aaron Kimble, Niall Courtney and James Bennett.
Despite this, McDonnell is happy with his squad and says he has a “fit panel of 25 players to choose from”.