Banagher may be without talisman Mark Lynch this weekend.
THE Derry senior football championship makes a welcome return this weekend.
After months of inactivity, gaelic games are back up and running across the country.
And nowhere moreso than the Oak Leaf county which boasts a plethora of games over the coming days.
Even better, limited numbers of spectators will be present at games, brining a little touch of normality in these most unusual times.
The championship is being played in four groups of four with first playing fourth and second playing third when their three games are completed.
Each team will have three group games with the club keeping their home ‘gate.’ There will be a home, away and neutral venues.
When teams are drawn out in groups it is inevitable that there will be some that are very strong and some not so strong and that has proved to be the case.
Group A consists of Loup, Bellaghy, Newbridge and Foreglen, Group B Slaughtneil, Kilrea, Eoghan Rua and Lavey, Group C Glen, Banagher, Magherafelt and Ballinderry, Group D Ballinascreen, Claudy, Swatragh and Dungiven.
The action starts this Saturday and Sunday with four games on each of these days. Most eyes will be on the very competitive C group in which last year’s finalists Magherafelt and Glen are joined by giant killers Banagher who reached the semi final last year and habitual winners Ballinderry who held the title from 2011 to 2013.
Group A, Saturday August 1
Loup v Bellaghy at Magherafelt. Referee: Barry Cassidy
Fifteen long years have passed since Bellaghy won the last of their 21 titles but with so many talented young players coming though they should have to wait as long as that for their next one.
The Loup last won in 2009 but currently are not the force they once were. They will hopefully have Jason Rocks back after injury and that will boost their chances.
They will have the edge in experience over the men in blue who should have the talented Paul Cassidy back after a knee injury. Both are probably in the weaker of the four sections and at the end should emerge to the knock-out stages.
The Loup have a small but accurate attack featuring Ciaran Devlin and Anthony O’Neill. At the back, the four McVey brothers and cousins will be pushed hard to contain a lively Bellaghy attack led by free taker Eoghan Brown and the speedy Frankie Donnelly. Rising star Paul Cassidy is back from injury to boost their scoring chances.
With no form to go on this year a lot will depend on who did most ‘home’ work. Both are under new management: John McKeever, a former Cookstown and Coalisland manager, is the new man at Bellaghy and he hails from Portglenone, just few miles away from the Bellaghy headquarters.
Paddy Bradley, who had three decent years with Newbridge, has now moved to The Loup but he has had little opportunity to see what that are made of.
It should be close, maybe close enough to end in a draw!
Group A, Sunday August 2
Newbridge v Foreglen. Referee: Richie Donohoe.
The two outsiders of the group will know that a defeat would most likely end their chances of going any further.
Damian O’Connor’s experienced Foreglen men are the reigning intermediate champions and they will relish a crack at the senior grade.
Newbridge have appointed former Ballinderry player Killian Conlon as their new manager and they look to have a team well primed for the future.
Last season, the ‘Bridge had the misfortune to be drawn against Slaughneil in the first round when, despite a brave battle, they lost by 2-11 to 1-6. They did enough to keep their senior league status but only just.
Conor and Mark McGrogan, Conor Doherty and Conor McAteer have promising futures but in championship football it is experienced campaigners like Danny Mulholland that can swing a game.
Foreglen have a core of players who keep defying time. Oisin Duffy is still as good as any defender in the county. Mark McCormick is a superb fielder with a great left foot. Kevin O’Connor just needs the sniff of the ball to pick a score and Ruairi Duffy has the pace to cut through any defence.
Newbridge will be favourite given the youth and promise of their team but they will not get anything easy against this battle hardened Foreglen team.
Group B, Saturday August 1
Slaughtneil v Kilrea. Referee: Damian Harkin
Slaughtneil are still major players in this competition despite after four in a row coming up just short in the last two losing to Coleraine and Glen.
They are still a relatively young team and should be strengthened by the return of goalie Antoin McMullan and defender Paul McNeill. Both missed last season through injury. Former attacking play maker Paul Bradley is the new man at the helm for Slaughtneil and he will know his players inside out.
Kilrea have not had much to cheer about in recent seasons. Career ending injuries and emigration has cut deep into their resources but they have been good enough to reach the county under 21 final last year losing to Dungiven by just a point.
With Shane McGuigan, Christopher Bradley and Cormac O’Doherty in attack the Emmets will be raging hot favourites to come through with a fair degree of comfort.
Kilrea got thumped by a moderate Ballinascreen team last year 2-14 to 0-9 and despite the presence of James and Charlie Kielt, Paddy Quigg and Conor Gillen they look to be facing a massive challenge. It should be comfortable for the former champions.
Group B, Sunday August 2
Eoghan Rua v Lavey. Referee: John Joe Cleary.
This is a repeat of the 2018 county final which Coleraine won despite a strong finish by the Gulladuff men. It will also be the clash of experience against relative youth. Lavey are holders of the Derry and Ulster Under 18 championships and look to be heading for future senior honours.
Last yea, the Eoghan Rua looked to have eventual champions Magherafelt on the hook but they got too defensive in the latter stages and got caught by an Emmett McGuckin goal, losing in the end by 1-8 to 0-10.
Every year for the past five the pundits have been saying that Coleraine are getting too old but for them age just seems to be a number! They will not want to be caught at the first hurdle this time and will be well geared for the challenge.
Lavey will want to forget their display in the quarter final against neighbours Glen at Owenbeg in 2019. They were beaten by 1-15 to 2-6 but in the end the six point margin was a bit kind to them. Shea Downey’s wonderful goal in the second half was perhaps their highlight of the game.
Amid the youth of the team, now managed by Michael Hasson, who did such a fine job with their minors, they have big Cailean O’Boyle at full forward and the jinking Niall Toner in the left corner. They have an excellent goalie in Ciaran O’Boyle who can kick long range frees to perfection and a fine half back in Eamon McGill.
The experienced managerial duo of Sean McGoldrick and Sean McLaughlin are in their 19th season and have nothing to learn about championship football. In that time they have beaten Slaughtneil and Ballinderry twice and took two titles. Sometimes they are accused of being a bit overly defensive but, if so, that makes them a difficult them to play against.
It looks to be the best game of the eight and the winner will have taken a huge step to the knockout stages. A hard one to call but Lavey may have the edge in terms of pace and a more direct style.
However, players like Liam McGoldrick, Niall Holly, Sean Leo and Colm McGoldrick - the best full forward in Derry - will have their own ideas about progression.
Group C, Saturday August 1
Glen v Banagher. Referee: Dan Mullan
Last year, Bellaghy and Swatragh thought Christmas had come early when they were drawn against Banagher, a team without a league point to their name.
Bellaghy got beaten by 3-12 to 3-9 and Swatragh by 1-11 to 0-11 but that form is unlikely to carry into the current campaign for one simple reason. Banagher stalwart Mark Lynch, who has just recovered from illness, is currently working in London and unlikely to be available.
Glen knocked out Slaughtneil in the semi-final last season but could not repeat that form and lost to Magherafelt in the final. The Watty’s are strongly fancied to go one better this year given the quality of players they have like Ciaran McFaul, Emmett Bradley, Jack Doherty, Ryan Dougan and Alex Doherty.
Banagher have some nippy forwards like Niall Moore, Tiernan Moore and Conor Feeney while further back Brian Og McGilligan and Gavin O’Neill are strong players.
Glen will be wary but for Banagher the element of surprise has gone. Banagher’s preparations were hit by a Covid-19 lockdown for a week while Glen have been moving smoothly with a large and very skilful panel of players under the experienced eye of manager Jude Donnelly.
Group C, Sunday August 2
Magherafelt v Ballinderry. Referee: Barry Cassidy
The defending champions have never had it easy against the Shamrock’s and even though the Ballinderry form has dipped in recent years the Rosas will have a stiff test on their hands.
Magherafelt, proverbial first round losers for years, came out of the blue last year to beat Coleraine in the opener and go on to bridge a 61 year gap and take the county title.
Ballinderry have won the John McLaughlin Cup 13 times, the last being in 2013, and they still have quite a few of that group still flying the flag.
In 2019, Ballinderry were the highest scorers of the championship, beating Dungiven by a staggering 6-18 to 1-14. Ryan Bell hit ten points with the goals coming from Gareth McKinless (2), Conor Nevin (2) Oisin Duffin and Daniel McKinless.
Apart from a clear win over Ballinascreen, the Rossas kept their huge support on the edge of their seats beating Coleraine, Banagher and Glen all by a point.
They have been strengthened by the return of Michael McEvoy following knee surgery while Peter Quinn and Ryan Ferris have transferred back from Kilmacud Crokes (Dublin) and Ballymaguigan respectively.
If there is a downside to the returning three it is that they are all defenders and they do already have a good back line. However, this may release Conor Kearns to a more natural half forward position. He had been playing as a half back last year.
Having won the senior, reserve, under 16, under 14 and under 13 titles last season the Rossas bright future is in their own hands. One of the hardest tasks in Derry football is to retain your crown. There has been three different winners in the last three years.
There is usually a bit of an edge when these teams meet. Ballinderry would love to get one over on their great rivals and it is not beyond the bounds of possibility in this very tough group. If Ryan Bell is on his game Ballinderry will push the Rossas to the limit.
Group D, Saturday August 1
Ballinascreen v Claudy. Referee: Mervyn McAleese
Liam Bradley managed most of this Claudy team in the recent past but now he is in charge of Ballinascreen so he will know the opposition inside out. Claudy lost in the intermediate final to Foreglen last year and it is a huge step up to senior with some of their players reaching the veteran stage.
Ballinascreen have been hit with injuries to two of their better young players - the Logan brothers - but they have a bigger pool of players Claudy. They will have Emmett McKeever, former Derry and Dungiven defender, in charge for a third season and he has one pretty well with them so far.
Ballinascreen have the luxury of outstanding forwards like Benny Heron and Shane Mulgrew, who scored 1-7 against Kilrea in the first round last season. At the back they have the experienced Carlus McWilliams who is capable of pushing forward to pick off points. Ryan Scullion is a really promising goalie with a pin-point kick-out.
Aaron and Shea Kerrigan, Eoin and Shane McGahon will lead the way for Claudy. It is not known whether Marty Donaghy will postpone his retirement for yet another season. They have enough pace to trouble ‘Screen but Bradley’s men look too strong overall and should win with a bit in hand.
Group D, Sunday August 2
Swatragh v Dungiven
This game will see two managers from Tyrone with three All Ireland medals each on either sideline. Enda McGinley is in his second year with Swatragh and Stephen O’Neill, one of the best forwards in semi modern times, now in charge of Dungiven. O’Neill has the biggest task in his in tray. The once mighty Dungiven have not won a senior championship for four years!
Last year, Swatragh had ten points to spare over neighbours Glenullin with the Kearney twins, Patrick and Francis, bagging 2-7 between them. They got a bit of a ‘gunk’ against Banagher in the quarter final losing by 1-11 to 0-11 at Owenbeg.
They had a good league run scoring a rare win over Slaughtneil but finished third. On the way they beat Dungiven, scoring four goals in the process, as Dungiven footballers slipped into second grade football for the first time in some forty years.
If Dungiven did have a ray of light to the club season it was the winning of the under 21 championship. Most of these players are the product of a good under 18 team three years previously.
The current Dungiven squad lacks physique. No Plunkett Murphy or Brian McGilligan look-alikes and no bustling Geoffrey McGonigle on the edge of the square.
Swatragh have a strong and very athletic team but they must play better as a unit. Too often, players are trying to win games on their own when a better placed colleague is screaming for the ball. They may have a few chinks in their defence and Mickey Friel cannot always keep pulling them out at midfield.
Doubtless they have the talent with the twin Kearneys and the twin McWilliams’ brimming with all the skills required. They play an exciting and very direct brand of football that will give the St. Canice’s defenders plenty to do.
The arrival of Stephen O’Neill looks to have had the desired effect in Dungiven with reports of over 60 players at training. Their ailments are unlikely to be cured overnight but with the talented young McKeevers and Higgins plus the experience of Mark Craig on board they can give Swatragh a decent test but that is likely to be all.
The Dungiven men will want to forget their embarrassing defeat in the first round last year when Ballinderry scored 6-18 against them.
* The Chronicle will have reports and pics from the weekend action in Tuesday's newspaper.