Bell tolling for Derry bid
It will be a midfield clash of giants at Celtic Park on Sunday but for one of the youngest players on the field it will be the most inviting challenge of his sporting career.
Ryan Bell had hardly turned 19 on New Year's Day than he was the recipient of effusive praise from his Derry boss Brian McIver and Ulster supremo Joe Kernan.
Now the tall, lean Ballinderry clubman, still a relative novice in inter-county terms but harbouring a burning zeal to prove himself in the intimidating environment that is the Championship, is ready to pit his strength, skill and work-rate against Kalum King and Kevin McKernan who manned the central area for the Mourne outfit for the greater part of the league.
Down may have been relegated but the input of their physically imposing engine-room partnership was not lost on Bell.
"Down were consistently playing against top-class sides so they have a head start on us in that respect," maintains Bell. "But the fact that we won the Division Two final against Westmeath will stand to us on Sunday. We said to ourselves that when we got that length we wanted to go on and win it and we did.
"Last year, we were not winning games but we developed a winning mentality this year and that breeds confidence."
Bell perhaps best epitomises the belief and buoyancy within the Derry side. When an injury to P J McCloskey opened the door to a new world to him, he was only too happy to step through and suddenly the plaudits started flowing.
McIver's enthusiastic reaction to Bell's midfield authority was echoed by Kernan who labelled the youngster "a great talent" when he saw him in action at first hand.
McIver had intimated at the outset of his tenure that a player's youth would not necessarily be a barrier to his progress and he has been as good as his word by showing faith in a number of young guns with the multi-talented Bell perhaps the most impressive of these.
And when Kernan took in a Dr McKenna Cup tie in which the youngster was involved he immediately marked him down as "one for the future", as he put it.
On Sunday, it will be Bell's brief not only to attempt to curtail the influence of the King-McKernan pairing but to ensure that a steady supply of possession is directed the way of Eoin Bradley and James Kielt in particular in the Derry attack.
Indeed, Bell is eager to fuel his team's attacking furnace given the level of support he has received from this duo and from other players since making huge step-up from club football.
"I was nervous at first and also when we going into Croke Park but when you have boys like Eoin, James, Charlie Kielt, Mark Lynch and Gerard O'Kane encouraging you and willing you to do well you could hardly want for more," states Bell.
"This gave me great heart and shows the bond that there is within this Derry side. The spirit is fantastic."
Having played in numerous positions including full-forward, he has grown accustomed to the extra demands made by a pivotal midfield role.
"I don't mind being in the middle. I'm prepared to work hard for the team. I thought initially that I might get a little more space at midfield but I have since learned that at this level you don't get a lot of space because the football is a lot faster," admits Bell.
But he believes that Derry's daunting training regime now has him in the best shape of his life.
"We have put in a massive effort and hopefully this will pay dividends on Sunday," adds Bell. "To be playing Ulster Championship football for Derry is a dream come true for me and while I am truly sorry that other players will miss out because of unfortunate injuries, I will just try and do my level best for the team.
"I owe our manager a debt of gratitude for the faith he has shown in me and I intend to repay him if at all possible."