The Derry SFC gets underway this weekend and Mark Doran will oversee his first championship game in charge of Slaughtneil this evening having taken charge of the former Oak Leaf kingpins at the start of this season.
The men in maroon last claimed the John McLaughlin Cup in 2020, and head into the campaign off back-to-back final defeats to Glen.
They remain one of the big-hitters, however, and Doran, who helped Ballybay win the Monaghan senior championship alongside Jerome Johnston last season, has enjoyed the 2023 campaign so far.
“I found the league really good because when you go into a new club, I obviously knew the county men, Sammy Bradley, Jerome and Patsy Bradley, Karl McKaigue, but the rest of them I didn’t really know,” said Doran, who was involved in the Clare management team with Colm Collins this season as well.
“The league was good for the younger players because they got game-time and it gave me a chance to see what they have as backup, so I found the league very useful. We didn’t play any challenge games this year we just played the league, and everybody got plenty of game-time.”
The county men – Brendan Rogers, Shane McGuigan, Chrissy McKaigue, Paul McNeill and Padraig Cassidy – who helped Derry claim the Anglo-Celt Cup for the second year in a row and reach the All-Ireland semi-finals, have been welcomed back with open arms.
“We have the five of them back now and we gave them a couple of weeks off after the Kerry game,” explained Doran.
“Some of them thought physically they were okay but mentally it was very important to give them a couple of weeks off and let them come back refreshed.
“To be fair to them, they’re coming back in serious condition, their conditioning levels are off the charts. It was good to get those five boys back into training and for the rest of our squad to see the level they were at and by and large everybody is fit and looking forward to the championship.”
Derry’s championship format has changed this season and will be made up of two groups containing seven teams.
Each team is guaranteed at least six games, with the top four in each group progressing to the quarter-finals.
Slaughtneil begin their campaign with a difficult away trip as they take on 2021 All-Ireland intermediate champions Steelstown.
Doran is expecting a challenging day at the office.
“It’s a tough opener because we have to go there and if you were hand-picking it you would love a home game first and the fact that this is our first game with our county men back, it’ll take them a wee while to integrate back into the set-up.
“I remember seeing Steelstown in Croke Park a few years ago when they won the All-Ireland intermediate and being very impressed with them and they had a good league campaign,” added Doran.
“Paddy Campbell from Donegal is over them, so they’ll be well coached. I saw them a couple of times in league games and they’re very well set up and very organised.
“It’ll be tough because they’re a wee bit of unknown, I think this is their second year playing in the senior championship and the fact it’s a home game for them, we’re expecting a serious battle.”
Slaughtneil and Steelstown have been drawn into Group B, where Kilrea and Ballinderry also clash this evening. O’Donovan Rossa will take on The Loup in round one on Sunday afternoon.
In Group A, reigning Ulster champions and last year’s beaten All-Ireland finalists Glen have a bye this weekend but begin their campaign on Wednesday with a trip to Dungiven.
Eoghan Rua take on Lavey in a repeat of the 2018 final, while Swatragh meet Ballinascreen and league champions Bellaghy host Dungiven, both on Saturday at 6pm.
FIXTURES (first named teams at home)
Group A Coleraine v Lavey; Swatragh v Ballinascreen; Bellaghy v Dungiven
Group B Kilrea v Ballinderry; Steelstown v Slaughtneil
Group B Magherafelt v The Loup (3.30pm)