Donegal host reigning League champions Mayo in heavyweight top flight battle
Allianz National Football League Division One: Donegal v Mayo (tonight, Ballybofey, 7.15pm, live on Eir Sport)
NOTHING says ‘welcome to 2020 sports fans’ than a battle between bona fide heavyweights and these near neighbours on the Wild Atlantic Way certainly fit that bill.
Newly-promoted Donegal host defending League champions Mayo, the side that knocked them out of Super 8s last season, and they will be determined to avenge that loss and start life in dog-eat-dog Division One by demonstrating that their bite is worse than their bark.
Declan Bonner’s men begin the serious business of the year against a Mayo side that includes just five of the players (Brendan Harrison, Colm O’Boyle, Stephen Coen, Paddy Durcan and James Carr) who started the last meeting between these rivals – the 1-14 to 1-10 win in the third round of the Super 8s in 2019.
Since last summer James Horan has lost retirees Andy Moran and Ger Cafferkey and with them a deep reservoir of experience and leadership. There could well by changes before throw-in, but Horan has named four League debutants as Mayo begin the defence of their League crown without household names including the O'Sheas, Lee Keegan and Cillian O'Connor.
U20 star Oisin Mullins starts at corner-back and he is joined by two of the leading lights from the side that reached the All-Ireland U20 final in 2018 - Ryan O’Donoghue starts at corner-forward while Jordan Flynn is named in midfield alongside Tom Parsons. Flynn featured in the FBD League defeat against Galway earlier this month as did Bryan Walsh who also gets a first League start tonight.
Donegal have been out of action since the Dr McKenna Cup group stages after deciding not to field a side for the semi-final against Monaghan and manager Bonner has had plenty of selectorial issues to concern him.
The Tir Chonaill manager is without Oisin Gallen, Jason McGee , Paddy McGrath and Eoghan Ban Gallagher while Odhran MacNaillais has resisted the efforts to coax him back onto the panel. Meanwhile, full-back Brendan McCole and Conor Morrison are also absent with the DCU Academy team in the Sigerson Cup final and key forward Paddy McBrearty won’t return to training until next week.
Despite the injuries, skipper Michael Murphy remained his usual upbeat self in the build-up to the MacCumhaill Park opener.
"If you weren't looking forward to playing, there would be something badly wrong," said the Glenswilly clubman.
"When you're watching the football now, you get a hunger to get back into it and this year we have been very lucky to be able to keep going in the off-season and to keep the bodies ticking over.
"It’s a game we want to win and there is a difference in 'want' and 'need'. Every game we play we want to win and three years on with this youngish team we would like to be kicking on and taking learnings from the last two years."
Murphy intends to make a statement of tonight and, despite all the injuries, Donegal get the nod to shade this against a new-look Mayo side.
Mayo: D Clarke; O Mullin, B Harrison, C Boyle; P O’Hora, S Coen, P Durcan; T Parsons, J Flynn; B Walsh, D O’Connor, F Boland; R O’Donoghue, B Reape, J Carr