2018 National Hurling League: Focus on Donegal and Setanta's Danny Cullen
As ash artists go, Danny Cullen “The Third” is right up there with the most skilful players to don the Tir Chonaill jersey.
He is right up there with Laurence Doherty, Eamon O'Fearghail, James McLaughlin, Daren McDermott, Niall Campbell and his current boss, the youthful Mickey McCann.
The soft-spoken 30-year-old is also a leader and is in his third year of captaining the county team.
Danny glides over the surface like a Mercedes, reads the game in a heartbeat, has a smooth strike, hits a killer pass in mid-stride, and can also land a crucial point when it is most needed.
His best position is midfield and he is at the top of his game in a very busy schedule, which has presented quite a few problems for his team boss McCann from the great hurling stronghold of Burt.
For, the postponement of his club Setanta's clash with Waterford champions Ardmore in the All-Ireland junior hurling semi-final last Saturday, means that Donegal will have a tricky away assignment to Mayo in the opening round of Division 2B of the NHL on Sunday.
Donegal are once again back up with the big boys in a division that they have never won a match.
Setanta are due to play Ardmore again this Saturday and if they win then Donegal might not see them for another few weeks.
But should they lose, then technically the likes of Danny, Declan Coulter, Kevin Campbell, Niall Cleary, Bernard Lafferty and Colm Melaugh could be very valuable back up in the second half against a Mayo team that occasionally features the versatile Keith Higgins.
“It is a tough situation as the county is back up in Division Two B and will need to have our strongest squad out,'' said Cullen.
“But the postponement of our match against Ardmore means our club players might not be playing county hurling for a few weeks at least.
“Naturally we want our club to progress as we have put a serious amount of work in as well as training with the county when we can.
“It is tough on Mickey McCann and his backroom team but it is something that we have no control over.”
Donegal are pitted with Mayo, Derry, Armagh, Down, Meath and Wicklow this season, county's who have all played at Christy Ring Cup level, so Tir Chonaill will be facing quiet a task.
But despite the unavoidable early conflict of interests, Cullen is adamant that this “stronger” Donegal squad can mount a realistic challenge of staying in this higher division.
“I know we have yet to win a match in this division but we are targeting staying up in this division even though it will not be easy,'' added Cullen.
“We have a very strong squad this season and they all have been working very hard.
“And I think that our victory over a fairly strong Armagh side in the Nicky Rackard Cup last year clearly shows that we can compete with any team in this division.
“Armagh went on to contest the final and we slumped against Tyrone but that can happen.
“More crucially it shows that we can compete with any of the teams in this division as there is very little between any of them on any given day.”
It is hard to believe that Cullen, who is one of the very few Donegal players to hurl Fitzgibbon with NUIG along with his friend Barry Connolly son of the legendary Joe Connolly of Galway, has been playing county senior hurling since had made his debut against Armagh back in 2004.
“That was a pretty tough baptism but I have enjoyed every minute of it and it was a real thrill to beat Roscommon in the Nicky Rackard Cup final in 2013 and that would be the biggest highlight of my county career,'' he declared.
But Danny firmly believes that this current squad is more than capable of emulating that epic 2014 achievement: “There is a current panel of 35 training and we now have five pretty competitive clubs in the county and it is a very strong squad
“All the Setanta lads have been training with the county squad as much as we can and there is a very good relationship.
“Donegal hurling has improved immensely in the past few years and we have a number of exciting young talents from St Eunan's who reached the county final this year and from Buncrana who have some fine young talent as well.
“So we will try and go as far as we can with the club and the county this season.”
And with Danny Cullen at the helm, Donegal senior hurlers just might make a bit of history by staying up in what has previously proved to be a very difficult division for them.
Donegal are back up with the big boys in Division Two B of the NHL and will need all of their top guns if they are to survive.
Setanta's success in the Ulster JHC and last week's postponed All-Ireland with Waterford champions Ardmore means extra headaches for new boss Mickey McCann who faces a tough away assignment against Mayo on Sunday.
But if Setanta lose on Saturday then Donegal might have an outside chance of Setanta aces including the precocious Bernard Lafferty adding to their chances.
The Mayo match is one that team boss McCann (who still plays senior football with Burt at 39) has targeted in a tough division that also contains neighbours Derry, Meath, Down, Armagh and Wicklow.
Donegal will need these Setanta players as well as Tipperary star Davin Flynn who is still working in the county while playing his club hurling in Tipp.
But they can still call on other fine marksmen like Lee Henderson, Ciaran Matthewson, and Gerard Gilmore (ex Strabane player)
The McDermott clan from Burt, Ronan, Christopher and Enda who are still only in their mid 20s provide power and panache in central slots.
Donegal's biggest problem last year was inconsistency as after easily beating a fairly strong Armagh side in the Nicky Rackard Cup, they slumped to a heavy defeat to Tyrone shortly afterwards.
Any similar lapses will be ruthlessly punished in Division Two B.
But their current squad is the strongest to ever represent the county with 35 players committed to training.
And if they could engage the services of the towering and talented Kilgallon brothers Christopher and Ciaran it would certainly add to their options on a strong bench.
Dual star Oisin Rooney who is also from Ballyshannon is a real prospect in the making for the county.
But much could depend on how Setanta fares in next weekend's All-Ireland Junior hurling semi-final in a division where margins of success and failure are indeed wafer thin.
ONES TO WATCH
He may be getting slightly older but Bernard Lafferty remains one of the county' most talented players.
The Setanta star is still only 23 but he has already more than made his mark on the local hurling scene.
At his best he is a pocket rocket in the mould of Cork's Joe Deane, has the feet and balance of a dancer and can hook points over his shoulder all day long.
Bernard has established himself in a very useful looking Donegal forward line and should be there for many years to come.
Jack O'Loughlin from Buncrana is a few years younger and occupies a more central role.
These days he is completing a Masters Degree but will be a major figure when that matter is completed.
This dual star is strong in the air, has a great physical presence and can land an occasional valuable long- range point.
He is also well able to mix it in the heat of battle.
Aodh Ruadh's towering dual star Oisin Rooney has a huge physical presence, good wrists and also has a great eye for goal.
Rooney has immense physical strength and is very strong in possession and could complete a very formidable forward squad that also included Kevin Campbell, Davin Flynn, Declan Coulter, Ronan McDermott, Christopher McDermott, Lee Henderson and Bernard Lafferty.
Donegal will be pitting their wits against Mayo, Derry, Meath, Down, Armagh and Wicklow counties that would always fancy their chances of beating Tir Chonaill.
And that is a pretty considerable psychological barrier team boss Mickey McCann and Co to surmount.
Derry have slipped from the heady days of the late 1980s and early 1990s when the magical Downey's McGurk's, Collins's, Brian McGilligan, Tony Scullion and McKeever's ensured that they were right at the top in Ulster.
And they were once robbed of victory over Cork in a Division One NHL tie in a heaving Lavey in the late 1980s.
These days Liam Og Hinphey remains a key figure along with marksman Mark Henry, but hurling is still struggling for parity of esteem in Derry.
Mayo relies still on Keith Higgins for inspiration while they usually have a few Galway men to stiffen their challenge.
They will be hard to beat at home while Down may have slipped a bit from the early to mid 1990s they still have a deep cadre of class from Ballycran, Ballygalget and Portaferry.
Elsewhere Armagh has reached a few Rackard Cup finals and they have a superb striker of a sliothar in Ryan Gaffney after losing the gifted Declan Coulter to Donegal.
Meath's measure can be gauged by a victory over Antrim in recent years and have a strong squad in the post Pat Potterton era, who was one their most gifted strikers of a sliothar.
Wicklow will also be a tough enough proposition for Donegal ,to complete a competitive division.