Ulster Under 20 Championship: Derry v Fermanagh (Saturday, Celtic Park, 2pm)
Derry Under 20s boss Mickey Donnelly has described preparations for Saturday's Ulster Champions opener against Fermanagh in Celtic Park as a “disaster”.
Changes to the annual fixtures calendar forced the Ulster Council to bring forward the provincial championship, a move which has landed the under 20 grade directly in the midst of the busiest period of post primary schools competitions.
Not for the first time, Donnelly highlighted the issue during the recent Leo Murphy Cup and now, with St Patrick’s, Maghera and St Mary’s, Magherafelt both involved in MacRory Cup action next Tuesday and Wednesday, Donnelly is unable to call upon any players from those schools. Add into the equation the fact that Ben McCarron and Alex Doherty have been with the county senior panel this season and it leaves the Oak Leaf Under 20 panel well short of established players at this level.
“Call it what it is, it has been a disaster,” explained Donnelly candidly, “I would pride myself on preparing teams really, really well. We think we have a good set-up, a good coaching staff, loads of good people involved but if, for whatever reason, you can’t get the players on the pitch, it makes it very, very difficult. And ultimately it has been very difficult and it continues to be difficult.”
Donnelly’s mood will not be helped by the fact, with St Michael’s, Enniskillen knocked out of the Mac Rory Cup by Holy Trinity, Cookstown last month, it means the Ernemen will be at full strength in Celtic Park in what is a re-run of last year’s semi-final.
Derry came out on top in Healy Park in that game after a tense, tight battle thanks to Declan Cassidy’s goal but Donnelly says his team go into this weekend's game as big underdogs.
“Anybody who thinks Derry are not going into this game as underdogs doesn’t know a pile about underage football in Ulster,” he added, “All these Fermanagh guys are coming into Saturday with Hogan and Mac Rory Cup medals. They basically have their whole panel from last year so we have a huge challenge.
“Our lads will give everything they have and I’m very proud of the efforts they have put in so far. We just want them now to go out on Saturday and give a performance that reflects that.
”Plenty has been made about the whole school debacle and it does leave us a lot shorter going into an Ulster Championship match than we would like to be but ultimately we will have to deal with it.
“We haven’t had the two lads who are with the county senior panel either so it is going to be very difficult. This is a good Fermanagh team, most of the team they had last year, the team we struggled against in Omagh last year, is still there. As i said, all these Fermanagh lads that came through St. Michael’s winning Mac Rorys and Hogans so it is a massive challenge.
“We have prepared as well as we possibly can considering all the things that have been going on around us and we are just looking forward to Saturday now and getting out and playing a game of football.
“The lads know we have what we have and we are determined to make the best fist of it, giving as much as we possibly can. It would have been nice to have all the players you should have at your disposal but, listen, we are going to give this a good rattle on Saturday and see where that takes us.”