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Ulster's new bosses aim to get off to festive flyer

 

Tough tasks: New Monaghan boss Seamus McEnaney
Tough tasks: New Monaghan boss Seamus McEnaney
Erne chief Ryan McMenamin
John Campbell

By John Campbell

Not so many years ago the Bank of Ireland Dr McKenna Cup was regarded as nothing more than a leisurely preamble to the new season, a competition in which team managers tended to field largely experimental line-ups.

But with the Allianz League having assumed huge status now that it has suddenly become a defining route to Championship status, the forthcoming McKenna Cup - starting on December 29 - will be a vital stepping stone for teams as they look that little bit further down the line.

And for Ulster's three new county bosses in particular - Ryan McMenamin (Fermanagh), Rory Gallagher (Derry) and Seamus McEnaney (Monaghan) - the seasonal opener will be fully-fledged warfare rather than preliminary sparring.

While McMenamin will bid to keep Fermanagh in Division Two thus ensuring their involvement in the All-Ireland Championship proper, Gallagher is tasked with orchestrating promotion from Division Three for Derry that would also see his side in the elite championship bracket.

And while Monaghan have been resident in Division One over recent years, they just managed to survive this year with Cavan and Roscommon making the drop.

Now manager McEnaney, who will face an early battle of wits with Gallagher in the opening series of McKenna Cup fixtures, makes it quite clear what his priority will be.

"I am particularly keen on building on the great work done by my predecessor Malachy O'Rourke over seven years and obviously I want to ensure that Monaghan continue to compete at the highest level in both league and championship," insists McEnaney.

With Peter Donnelly and Conor Laverty as part of his backroom team, McEnaney is particularly keen to hit the ground running.

"We know how difficult the league is going to be and it's important that we are ready for what will be a huge challenge," he adds.

Gallagher, meanwhile, has already garnered considerable support in Derry since taking over from Damian McErlain.

He conducted an intensive trawl of talent before finalising his squad which is an amalgam of experienced players and young guns who have come through the minor and under 20 ranks.

Derry have to go back 22 years for their last Ulster title success but Gallagher is prepared to take one step at a time as he seeks to build on the headway made in the league this year.

They have been bracketed with Monaghan and neighbours Donegal in Section A of the McKenna Cup which means they will be facing two Division One sides - something that Gallagher hopes will elicit the best from his players.

And meanwhile his former Erne lieutenant McMenamin has already set out his stall in the county with which he has enjoyed a close affiliation over the past two years.

"I wanted to take my time and get the squad I sought together and I'm happy about that," says McMenamin.

"Now it's up to us as a team and management to go out there and perform.

"Obviously we would like to get off on the right foot as the pressure is rather higher now because of what the league means in championship terms."

During Gallagher's watch, Fermanagh won promotion to Division Two and reached the Ulster final in 2018, and while McMenamin has inherited many of the players who helped to achieve that progress he is already putting his own stamp on the squad.

His team's opening McKenna Cup Section B fixture against Down will be followed by a clash with Antrim and McMenamin is hopeful that these two matches will offer his side the opportunity to perhaps make it into the semi-finals.

This would ensure that his side would get at least three competitive games before the onset of the league - something which he feels would be extremely beneficial at this particular juncture.

McMenamin can look to several members of the Derrygonnelly Harps team who have now won five Fermanagh championship titles on the trot to underpin his line-up.

He is not averse to experimentation, however, and this means opportunity could knock for a number of players who are keen to make a breakthrough.

Belfast Telegraph

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