The traditional curtain-raiser to the Ulster Gaelic football season will be brought to a climax on Saturday night when Tyrone takes on Derry in the Morgan Athletic Grounds.
This clash will see a re-enactment of a rivalry that is almost as old as the GAA itself and although the tournament itself is a glamorised form of shadow-boxing, no one wants to lose to their rivals and there should be plenty of bite in this clash.
Having watched his team grow a little stale over the last few years, Mickey Harte has been forced to freshen up his Tyrone squad this year, due to the retirements of some of his trusted lieutenants of the glory years of the past decade. No more will the likes of Brian Dooher, Enda McGinley, Philip Jordan and Conor Gormley wear the red hand jersey on the fields of Ireland and certainly the game itself is worse for their absence.
However, Harte is determined to bring through another era of Tyrone stars and young hot-shots such as Ronan O’Neill, Kyle Coney and Sean O’Neill are coming with big reputations from their days at underage level. The absence of Sean Cavanagh for the beginning of the year with a pec injury is could prove to be a blessing in disguise as it will keep him fresh for the year ahead.
The McKenna Cup has never been a huge priority for Mickey Harte but in the team he has picked for this final, one can ascertain a certain desperation to lift the trophy especially with the inclusion of experienced campaigners such as Owen Mulligan, Stephen O’Neill and Justin McMahon whose experience is bound to be a big help to the relative newcomers such as Matthew and Mark Donnelly as well as midfielder, Michael Murphy.
After his mixed form over the last few seasons, Mulligan is due a good season and in the run up to Saturday night, Harte has challenged the Cookstown to reproduce his best form. Mulligan, on the other hand has looked sharper than usual for this time of the year and scored a wonderful goal in last Sunday’s semi-final victory over Fermanagh.
Derry raised a few eyebrows last weekend when they scored a two point victory over Down and they will be anxious to keep that form going this weekend. Whatever the result this weekend, this campaign can be constituted a success by virtue of the fact that Paddy Bradley has managed to get games under his belt as he continued his rehabilitation from a cruciate ligament injury, he picked up last summer.
Bradley will once again take his place at the edge of the square on Saturday night. Another knee injury victim, James Conway will also continue his own comeback and he takes up a midfield position on Saturday night.
Another early season plus for Derry manager, John Brennan is the form of corner-forward, Conleith Gilligan who has been one of the stars of this competition and has really helped Paddy Bradley carry the attack, on the absence of his younger brother, Eoin, ironically with another knee injury.
Gilligan has really bounced back after two years of non inter-county activity and seems to be relishing his second chance at becoming a star.
Games at this time of the year are notoriously impossible to predict as we have no idea of knowing how seriously each side is taking the game. Indeed, it may well be possible that one or both of these sides will have a training session before Saturday night’s game. However, if I really had to pick a winner, I would have to go for Tyrone whose need is probably greater.
Derry: D Devlin; D McBride, L Morrow, R Dillon; G O’Kane, B McCallion, B McGoldrick; J Conway, J Diver; C McKaigue, M Lynch, SL McGoldrick; C O’Boyle, Paddy Bradley, C Gilligan
Tyrone: J Devine, A McCrory, Justin McMahon, PJ Quinn, C McCarron, P Harte, D Carlin, M Murphy, C Cavanagh, Matthew Donnelly, P Hughes, M Penrose, O Mulligan, Mark Donnelly, S O’Neill