GAA Football

Big guns set to return as Monaghan and Donegal meet in Dr McKenna Cup final

Ryan McHugh returned to action for Donegal against Derry in Tuesday night's Dr McKenna Cup semi-final. Picture Margaret McLaughlin.
Andy Watters

Bank of Ireland Dr McKenna Cup final: Donegal v Monaghan (today, O'Neill's Healy Park, 5pm, live on TG4)

By Andy Watters

AN unwritten law of Ulster's pre-season competition is that benches must be emptied and, although neither camp would turn their noses up at some January silverware, that will be the case again this evening.

Both finalists have Division One fish to fry and with the National League starting for them on January 30 (Donegal take on Mayo at Markievicz Park, Monaghan return to Omagh to face Tyrone) their managers will hope for an injury-free dress-rehearsal this evening and a cup at the end would be a welcome cherry on the top of a fourth competitive game.

Donegal, who last won the McKenna Cup back in 2018 when they broke Tyrone's stranglehold on the competition, have blooded a host of youngsters in their three games so far and Monaghan (most recent win 2003) have done the same.

The Farneymen drew with Derry and beat Fermanagh to top their group but looked a sluggish second-best throughout the first half at the Athletic Grounds against Armagh on Tuesday night. Whatever manager Seamus McEnaney said at half-time to shake them out of their easy-come-easy-go attitude certainly worked and they recovered from trailing by four points to briefly take the lead before Armagh equalised to force penalties.

Monaghan won the shoot-out thanks to five absolutely cracking spot kicks from Conor McCarthy, Aaron Mulligan, Shane Carey, Jack McCarron and David Garland. It was 5-4 to them when Jemar Hall sent his penalty over the bar to complete a valuable evening's work.

“It was a really good experimental evening for Monaghan,” said manager Seamus McEnaney afterwards.

“We played 25 players and Colin Walshe started his first game in three years, so from that point of view it was really good for us and we showed a bit of character too to get a result, albeit on penalties, was good and to perform as well as we did in the second half was pleasing.

“Drew Wylie played his first football in a long time and some of the younger players did really well. We played 31 players the first weekend and we played 25 against Armagh. We needed to get game-time into our experienced players and our younger fellas did well.”

Conor McManus, an interested spectator at the Athletic Grounds, didn't see any action but could feature today. Meanwhile, Conor McCarthy was outstanding in his new wing-back role and footballing full-back Conor Boyle was instrumental in the second half fightback. Karl O'Connell and Jack McCarron both made their presence felt when introduced after half-time.

The one setback was an injury to midfielder Conor Leonard in the opening seconds. Leonard leapt to get a hand to the ball at the throw-in but landed heavily and played no further part in the game.

“That was the only disappointment,” said McEnaney after Tuesday night's win.

“He is a good young fella with a brilliant attitude and really good DNA. He comes from a really good football family and I'm really disappointed for him because he has come in and worked extremely hard.”

Although no serious damage was done, Leonard faces a few weeks on the sidelines and won't feature but burly Gael Truagh forward Gary Mohan could see action because, final or no final, manager McEnaney is determined to stick to his ‘game-time' policy.

“We're looking forward to it,” he said of the Healy Park decider.

“Donegal are another Division One team and I'd be looking to play 23 or 24 players so I can get the best 22 I have for the following Sunday and the best 26 to make up the panel.

“We believe there's a real competition within the group here and we've had a good week from an experimental point of view so it has been a positive week or our football.”

While Monaghan were having to fight tooth and nail to get past Armagh, Donegal had a relatively comfortable victory against neighbours Derry at Ballybofey. Goals from Caolan McGonigle and then Odhran McFadden-Ferry paved the way for their 2-9 to 0-11 win.

Jamie Brennan, Michael Langan and Tony McClenaghan were all withdrawn with injury against the Oak Leafers so manager Declan Bonner could give more game-time to Dungloe's Mark Curran and Muff's Caolan McColgan who both had their first tastes of senior action mid-week.

Meanwhile Donegal's senior statesman Michael Murphy could start after he came off the bench to good effect and so did Kilcar's Ryan McHugh who got his first action of the year against Derry and wants another run-out today.

"You can train all you want but competitive matches are the best thing you can do to get ready for the National League," added McHugh.

An entertaining affair awaits at Healy Park as rookies in both teams look to rubberstamp their place in the squad and experienced personnel hone their skills and sharpness for the more serious tests that lie ahead.

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