Conor McGurk Cup round one: Derry v Armagh (Tuesday, Owenbeg, 8pm)
A BIT of a feel-good factor built up around hurling in Derry in 2023, and Ryan O’Neal is desperate to kick it on into the new year when his side line out against Armagh in Tuesday’s McGurk Cup opener at Owenbeg.
The Oak Leaf U20s blitzed Roscommon at Croke Park back in May last year to capture the All-Ireland B Championship title, and it is that side – give or take a few names – under manager O’Neal who take to the field to represent Derry in this year’s McGurk Cup.
“Things are very good for us at the minute, we’re just coming off the back of the All-Ireland B Championship win, and we want to kick on now,” said the Kevin Lynch’s clubman.
“There’s a few new faces on the panel as a lot of the lads from last year pushed on into the senior squad. We’ve had the chance to watch the likes of Ballinascreen and Swatragh and Lavey and there’s a lot of good, talented hurlers coming through there.”
O’Neal intends to use the McGurk Cup to have his side in tip top condition for the Ulster U20 Championship, which starts in February, and while a few players from last May’s All-Ireland win, including Jack Cassidy, have now made the step up to senior grade, he still boasts a strong core of experienced medal winners. Captain, and joint top scorer in last year’s B Championship, Ruairí Ó Mianáin is still on board, as are James Friel, Conor Murtagh and Conor McBride. And Odhrán McElhinney has valuable experience under his belt having been one of the youngest players on the panel last year.
As for Tuesday’s opponents, O’Neal thinks he has an idea what to expect, and he is excited about the task ahead of Derry in the tournament: “Armagh are a team like Donegal – we’ve been back and forward with them over the years.
“I’m sure they’ll have a good, strong squad. They’d Middletown went well in Ulster and I’m sure they’ll have some serious players from that team on board. Armagh will be looking, like ourselves, to get themselves in good shape for the rest of the year through this competition.
“Hurling is in an exciting place in Derry at the minute with the county board letting us kick on with it.
“The Ulster Council have put a good bit of effort into promoting both the McKenna Cup and the McGurk Cup, and fair play to them. They held a good launch and it was very good to see Conor McGurk’s family still involved, his mother spoke very well at the launch.”
After the Orchard county, Derry have the challenge of defending champions Donegal next up on Saturday, January 6. Despite the task of facing seasoned players, O’Neal is not underestimating what his young side are capable of.
“We used the Celtic Challenge to build our team up for three or four years, and we progressed in it every year, eventually ending up in division one,” the Dungiven man said.
“You can only judge yourself on your first training session, but we will be looking to go as far as we can in this competition. Antrim have played their U20s over the years, and they’ve benefited from it.”
Elsewhere on Tuesday night, Antrim travel to Garvaghey to take on Tyrone, Cavan host Fermanagh at Breffni Park, and Louth make the journey to Cloghan to play Monaghan. All those games have a 7.30pm throw-in time.