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Derry to face an early Red Hands test in Ulster Senior Football Championship bid

By John Campbell

New Derry manager Damian Barton and the as yet unnamed successor to Jim McCorry in Down were handed major assignments when the draw for the 2016 Ulster Senior Football Championship was made last night.

Derry, without a provincial title since 1998, have been paired with this year's beaten All-Ireland semi-finalists Tyrone in the quarter-finals while Down, whose last Ulster crown came in 1994, will meet reigning champions Monaghan at the same stage.

It will certainly be a tough Championship baptism for the two new bosses, particularly as Mickey Harte's side are being touted as favourites to lift the Anglo-Celt Cup and Monaghan have already indicated their desire to retain their crown.

Malachy O'Rourke's team may be shorn of some of their more experienced foot soldiers for next year's campaign but the wily Fermanagh native is likely to cast his selection net far and wide well in advance of the Championship season.

And for the third year in a row, Fermanagh, the surprise packet of this year's All-Ireland series, will cross swords with struggling Antrim, still wallowing in Division Four, in the early stages of the flagship Ulster competition.

The sides will meet in the preliminary round with the winners due to confront a Donegal side desperately anxious to atone for their tame exit from this year's All-Ireland Championship at the hands of Mayo.

And there will be a definite touch of deja vu surrounding the Cavan-Armagh quarter-final clash.

In 2013, Cavan triumphed in the preliminary round tie between the sides at Kingspan Breffni Park when Armagh were under the baton of Paul Grimley and last year, in what was Kieran McGeeney's first Championship match at the helm, the teams renewed their rivalry at the Athletic Grounds when a pre-match fracas marred the home outfit's victory.

Long before a ball is thrown in, though, the teams will have adequate opportunity to familiarise themselves with each other as no less than five - Tyrone, Derry, Cavan, Armagh and Fermanagh - will be bracketed together in Division Two of the Allianz League.

Red Hands midfield powerhouse Mattie Donnelly, currently preparing for Trillick's Ulster Club Championship meeting with the winners of Sunday's Donegal final between Naomh Conaill and St Eunan's, hit the nail on the head when he said: "This Division will be akin to a mini early-season Ulster Championship."

Fermanagh manager Peter McGrath views his team's elevation to Division Two as a stepping stone to even better things and has already predicted that Championship success could become a reality.

And while they will be favourites to get the better of Antrim, it's nonetheless a Fermanagh man who could halt their progress in Ulster as former Erne County star Rory Gallagher will be particularly keen to see Donegal reclaim the Ulster crown.

Cork and Kerry are on course to meet in the Munster final - again - while All-Ireland champions Dublin will begin what should be a mundane stroll to another Leinster title by meeting either Laois or Wicklow.

And Mayo, despite the unedifying scenario surrounding the appointment of a new manager, look capable of landing yet another Connacht title as they will meet London in their first game.

Former Kerry All-Ireland winner Pat Spillane perhaps best summed up the Ulster Championship when he declared: "It's the most competitive by far."

Belfast Telegraph


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