A NEW era for the Minor grade begins for Tyrone when they open the defence of their memorable All-Ireland U-17 title from last year with a tough clash against Donegal in Ballybofey tonight. The competition is changing from being eligible to players aged U-18 to those in the U-17 category. It also follows the Red Hand county’s historic inaugural national triumph over Roscommon in Croke Park.
Just five of the panel which enjoyed that great success in 2017 remain on board this year. They are Kevin Barker, Mark Hayes, Oisin McHugh, Carl Quinn and Ronan Dunne, although the county’s hopes have been setback by the absence through injury for this opening clash of Carrickmore’s Stephen Grugan. Nevertheless, team manager, Colin Holmes, is looking forward to the clash against a Donegal side that they also met in the Ulster Minor League earlier this year.
“The fact that there’s only five of last year’s panel still on board for this new campaign means that the squad is understandably almost completely new. We had 40 players out training last October when the preparations began and the past six months have been spent trying to develop the team,” he said.
“A number of gym sessions were held at the start of the training and then the players got out on the field. The fact that we’ve had six games in the Ulster Minor League and then a further four challenges matches has definitely helped. Obviously the All-Ireland success last year was a major boost for the whole county and the players involved. But this is a new team, new players and they’ll be going out and try and make their own mark at this level.
“Nobody knows where this campaign will lead and you have to be realistic and take things one match at a time. There are six or seven U-16 players in the panel, but when you pull on the white Tyrone jersey it’s always a case of doing your best to try and make the most of the opportunity.
“There’s a totally different dynamic involved in the squad this year compared to last season. But the players have made a very committed effort and are ready and really looking forward to this match against Donegal,” he added.
Tyrone reached the semi-final of the Ulster League which was eventually won by a Monaghan side that subsequently lost out to Derry in the championship last weekend. Among their games was a topsy-turvy encounter against Donegal. They trailed by 10 points at one stage in that tie, before battling back and more of the same qualities are expected to be required when they make the trip to Ballybofey.
Colin Holmes and the players will also hope that their challenge matches against Armagh, Mayo, Wexford and Meath will provide an assistance. However, no matter what happens on Saturday night, the team will have a second chance due to the introduction of a provincial back-door system for the defeated counties.
So, whether it’s Donegal or Tyrone who eventually lose, the fact that there is a qualifier in place is being welcomed by all involved, including the former Red Hand All-Ireland winner.
“The back-door now gives us equality with counties in the other provinces which is good. But we’re not thinking about that at all,” he added.
“The likelihood is that Donegal will start strongly and it’s a case of us trying to stay with them during those early stages and then try and concentrate on playing our own game as much as possible. They’re a very strong side which can play one-touch football very effectively so it’s definitely going to be a tough challenge.”