GAA Football

Monaghan big favourites to get Ulster campaign off to winning start against Down

Jason Irwin, pictured far left, scored 1-1 in Monaghan's All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Kerry last August. He is one of seven players who remain from the 2018 panel that landed the Ulster minor title. Picture by Cliff Donaldson
Neil Loughran

Electric Ireland Ulster Minor Football Championship preliminary round: Monaghan v Down (today, 6pm, Clones)

LAST year, Monaghan lost out at the preliminary round stage of the Ulster Championship before embarking on a journey that took them – via the scenic route - to a provincial crown, and within minutes an All-Ireland final.

The Farneymen, nor their Down opponents, will want to lose in Clones this evening, but Monaghan’s 2018 campaign shows that, no matter what happens at St Tiernach’s Park, all will not be lost.

Seamus McEnaney’s young side – contesting an All-Ireland minor semi-final for only the second time in the county’s history - led with just eight minutes to go against the five in-a-row chasing Kerry at Croke Park, only to be denied at the death.

‘Banty’ may have moved on, taking over the U20s, but seven of that panel remain - Shane Hanratty, Karl Gallagher, Jason Irwin, Darragh Dempsey, Eoin Duffy, Liam McDonald and Darragh Treanor.

Hanratty, Gallagher and Irwin all started against the Kingdom, while Dempsey was a second half sub.

Truagh native Mark Counihan is the new U17s boss and, given the depth of experience they possess, Monaghan go into this game as big favourites to book a quarter-final date with Antrim next Saturday.

Counihan’s Down counterpart James McCartan knows a fair bit about underage success from his own playing days too. He has enlisted the help of brother Dan and fellow ex-senior stars Ambrose Rogers and Mark Poland as they bid to get the best out of the county’s latest crop.

It is the first year Poland has been involved at this grade but, having worked with the Down U16 development squads in recent times, the Longstone man is well aware of the talent emerging.

“I would’ve been involved with the majority of these players last year and that’s one of the reasons why I ended up coming on board – because of the boys that I knew were coming through.

“There are some exceptional players. I know them and I know what they’re like, a lot of people in the county would know them too through schools’ activities and clubs.

“They’re a very exciting young team but they’re going to be up against it because Monaghan are a big physical team with a lot of experience from last year too.

“It just depends on how they cope with the occasion and how they react. Minor’s a funny grade - anything can happen with young lads.”

Following the recent form lines would also point towards the reigning Ulster champions, after Monaghan were convincing winners over Down when the counties met in the Ulster Minor League earlier this month.

However, there were mitigating factors that should see the Mournemen hold a stronger hand this evening.

Poland said: “We were without the Red High boys, they won the MacLarnon then went on, there was the St Colman’s Rannafast boys, and we had a few other cry offs too.

“It’s all on the day. We probably don’t have the power and the size they have but we do have some brilliant footballers.”

Poland enjoyed some memorable days as a minor in the red and black, at a time when counties provided the curtain-raiser to senior Ulster Championship clashes.

Derry minor manager Paddy Campbell yesterday urged the Ulster Council to reconsider the new calendar, introduced last year along with the creation of the U17 grade, which sees the games moved away from the senior competition.

And Poland admits he has some sympathy for the cause of current minor players.

“That was the big appeal. From going to Down games and seeing the minors play before the senior team, that was something you always aspired to.

“It is quite disappointing for the young lads, but if we can get on a bit of a roll, momentum will hopefully build and the crowd will get behind them further on down the line.

“It does take away, but then you can look at it that the U20s are getting their day out now before the senior fixtures. You’re never going to please everyone.”

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