Once again, the third tier of the Tyrone All County League looks set to be hugely competitive as the participating clubs prepare to commence their 2014 campaigns.
With Loughmacrory, Killeeshil and Newtownstewart having been replaced by Clann na nGael, Rock and Derrytresk, Division Three has certainly got no easier for those teams with aspirations of pushing upwards and aiming for those precious play-off places.
One side hoping they can kick on from last year and finally bridge the gap to promotion are Castlederg. A bright start last season put them in a strong position, but their challenge lost momentum and they eventually finished sixth in the table, missing out on the elevator to Division Two.
Despite the disappointment, 2013 marked a significant step forward for the St Eugene’s, and according to veteran attacker Aiden Lynch, the injection of youth which enthused the side last year has made them even more determined to succeed.
“We definitely had an ageing team. We needed that freshness that comes from bringing in younger players. For the older lads, it’s easy to be set in your ways, but the young boys have brought a new and positive approach. The tempo has been upped at training, it’s sharper and it’s faster and you can definitely see it in our play.
“There’s so much more emphasis put on your preparation outside of collective training, and the young boys are certainly buying into that… they’re showing us boys what should have been done!”
Eamon Friel is once again the man at the Castlederg helm, but they have added Des O’Connor to their management team, drawing on his previous experience with Strabane Sigersons. Lynch admits that they fell short of their target last time out, and this season the ‘Derg men are aiming high.
“At the start of last season, the play-offs was our aim. After the first few games, when we realised that we had a strong, competitive team, we decided that promotion should be a realistic goal. We faded badly as the year went on, tiredness due to the length of the season, the uncertainty surrounding fixtures, and also players having to leave us in search of jobs.
“We were in a strong position, but we let it slip. We weren’t able to finish the job, and we have to try to ensure that this season we’re there for the duration.”
Lynch, an All-Ireland minor winner with the Red Hands in 1998, has been around the block enough times to know that nothing will come easy though in such an ultra-competitive Junior grade, and in particular one with such a north Tyrone influence with Castlederg, Owen Roes, Glenelly and Clann na nGael all involved.
“The fact that there are so many neighbouring teams down there certainly adds to it.
“The thing about Division Three is that on any given day, any team can beat any other. With derbies coming thick and fast this year, it will be hard to pick up points.”