We are shrouded in gloom and doom just now. Normally the advent of a new season fires the imagination and stokes optimism.
But rather than burst into the 2011 campaign, I feel that teams will tip-toe into the Barrett Sports Lighting Dr McKenna Cup.
Yet I have every reason to believe that a number of young Ulster players will spring to the fore as the season unfolds and that the sport in the province will be all the better for this.
A few years ago the concept of Development Squads evoked a mixed reaction, some people even suggesting that younger players were being given elite treatment.
They could not have been further from the truth. Development Squads have been instrumental in unearthing some of the most exciting talent we have here in Ulster and I have no doubt that this will flourish even more in the months ahead.
Virtually every county has a player or players who have progressed through a Development Squad to Minor level before becoming a fully-fledged senior player.
These are players who I feel are capable of enhancing their careers in the months ahead – players who have the attitude, ability and application to go a long way.
A prime example is Tyrone’s Peter Harte. Two years ago he was helping the Red Hands win an All Ireland Minor title — today he is challenging strongly to become a regular in Mickey Harte’s senior line-up.
Capable of playing at half-back, midfield or wing-forward, the Errigal Ciaran youngster clearly has immense talent and I feel he will prove an invaluable member of the Tyrone side for several years to come.
He can both create and take scores yet he does not shirk his defensive duties and he is very much a team player – something that his manager fully appreciates.
Last year he provided telling evidence that he is more than capable of coping with the challenge of playing senior championship football and I expect that he will supplement this in the months ahead.
Derry’s Declan Mullan is another player whom I expect to hit the high spots in 2011. Possessed of blistering pace, capable of taking scores from anywhere and a tireless worker, the Coleraine dynamo can emerge as a key figure in the Oak Leaf set-up.
He gave a strong indication last year that he has a lot to offer and I imagine that new Derry boss John Brennan will be more than anxious to deploy his skills to the full.
If Mark Poland deservedly claimed his share of the plaudits when Down reached the All Ireland final last year, then keep an eye out for his younger brother Conor this year.
The Longstone youngster is bursting with talent and I will be surprised if he does not make a pitch for a place on the Down side although obviously competition for places will be more than keen given the resources that James McCartan currently has.
Nevertheless Conor’s talent must be given free rein and I feel that he could blossom alongside his brother.
Jamie Clarke may have only played a few times for Paddy O’Rourke’s Armagh side but he has created a tremendous impact.
Last year he scored two goals against Donegal in the first eight minutes of an All Ireland qualifier and the confidence, flair and style he exhibits are captivating.
He served a two-month suspension before resuming with Crossmaglen Rangers in December and may not be seen in Armagh’s colours for a little while because of his club’s involvement in the All Ireland Club series. But I can promise you he will be worth waiting for.
And keep an eye out for Donegal’s versatile Leo McLoone. He was very impressive for Naomh Conaill in the Ulster Club Championship and I expect him to hit the high spots with Jim McGuinness’s team this year. The fact that he can play at centrethreeequarters and midfield will give Donegal a valuable option.
These are just some of the young guns that I feel will fire out a defiant message this year. They have already shown that they are ready for big-time football and the more of this they experience, the better they will become. Indeed, no group of people will be more aware of this than their respective managers.