Gearing up for McKenna Cup showdowns
It's the start of the McKenna Cup this weekend and our man in the know, Declan Bogue, gives his views on the strengths and weaknesses of all the teams
TYRONE: Mickey Harte's insistence on having his students is borne out of a measure of necessity and not simply a demonstration of stubbornness. He will be without the Cavanagh and McMahon brothers, Stephen O'Neill, Aidan Cassidy, Conor Gormley, Mark Donnelly and Martin Penrose, all of whom will be absent for a variety of reasons.
In their place comes exciting young talent such as Shay McGuigan and Danny McNulty, while Niall McKenna will get ample opportunity to re-establish himself on the panel, and Niall Morgan can sew up the free-taking goalkeeper's role.
DONEGAL: Donegal have been diligently preparing, performing well in a number of challenge matches over recent weeks.
However, an already-thin panel could be hurt further with the departure of Ross Wherity and Ryan Bradley. Manager Jim McGuinness has brought in others, but apart from the electrifying, goal-hungry Darach O'Connor, they tend to be old faces who have been around the panel before, such as Ciaran Bonner and Leon Thompson.
ARMAGH: The presence of Kieran McGeeney in the backroom has given the feeling of a fresh start. Paul Grimley's recent remarks suggesting he could be the manager next year says everything about Grimley's lack of ego, and the nature of McGeeney's role in 2014.
Ciaran and Oisin MacÍomhair served notice of their potential in the O'Fiaich Cup and they only have one absentee as Kevin Dyas takes a year out. However, the change in mindset and attitude will be crucial.
QUEEN'S: Re-entered with the promise of getting more of their players to line out for them, but it appears that the Ulster Council's course of action was ineffective, with Mickey Harte pulling rank of Sean Warnock and Niall McKenna, and Pete McGrath appearing to get his way with Ryan Jones.
The likes of Ryan Mallon, Martin McElhinney, Conor Maginn and Owen Costello will give the side an inter-county flavour, but they will do well to amass points in this group.
Prediction: Donegal to top the table, Tyrone qualifying for semi-finals as the best-placed runner-up.
MONAGHAN: It says something about the nature of their Ulster Championship smash-and-grab that they can maintain a low-profile while targeting further success.
During the winter it was expected that Tommy Freeman and captain Eoin Lennon were on the brink of retiring, but it appears that the benefit of a break has whetted their appetite for another season.
O'Rourke will introduce fresh talent with Shane Smyth and Daniel McKenna coming into the squad, while they have to do without Darren Hughes and Colin Walshe who are rehabbing from injury.
DERRY: Brian McIver certainly strengthened his midfield options with Fergal Doherty emerging from a spell out of the inter-county scene, and Damian Cassidy's son Peter popping up impressively over the O'Fiaich Cup.
Will have to cope with the Ballinderry absences early on, while Eoin Bradley is still giving soccer his first preference and Barry McGoldrick is out through injury. McIver has also generously allowed players to play for their university teams so we can expect an experimental period in January.
FERMANAGH: Already behind other teams in preparations due to the late appointment of Pete McGrath as Peter Canavan's successor, Fermanagh have had to cope with a massive player turnover.
Niall Bogue, James Sherry, Marty McGrath, goalkeepers Chris Breen and Ronan Gallagher, Daryl Keenan, Damian Kelly, Shane Lyons, Shane McCabe, Barry Owens and Ryan McCluskey are all unavailable, while the recruits are all wide-eyed innocents to the world of county football. It could be a hard month in store for them.
ST MARY'S: Have lost Conor Clarke, Niall Morgan and Danny McBride from their squad to Tyrone alone, while Down duo Niall McParland and Jerome Johnston are currently getting over injuries.
They have one major addition, Down's Kevin McKernan, who will provide some much-needed experience.
Prediction: Monaghan to top the group.
DOWN: The trend for players to leave for foreign shores has been arrested with the return of Arthur McConville and Darren O'Hagan from America, and midfielder Peter Fitzpatrick from Australia.
Danny Savage will want to make a big push for inclusion at the start of the year and Down have already laid solid foundations with their participation in the O'Fiaich Cup.
Nobody has retired from the Down squad, although Danny Hughes has hinted at the possibility.
CAVAN: A recent challenge match victory over Meath would have done no harm for the spirits of those from the heartland of south Cavan and everything about Terry Hyland and Anthony Forde's astute management continues to impress.
They have brought Mickey Lyng back in from the cold just when it seemed he had left a promising career behind him and the return of the nippy Niall Smyth has the making of a serious half-forward line with Cian Mackey also present.
ANTRIM: Draw a line under 2013, it was an awful time for all involved and for Antrim football. This season the Saffrons will be bringing teams to the altogether more intimate venue of Creggan, which should at least garner some atmosphere that was always absent from Casement Park.
Mick and Tomas McCann along with Tony Scullion have returned and they will be heartened that Niall McKeever is resuming his football career after four years spent with the Brisbane Lions, although he will be with Jordanstown for January.
The loss of Kevin Niblock to a soccer contract with Cliftonville, however, was one they could have done without.
JORDANSTOWN: A few months ago, the potential Jordanstown had was unlimited, but injury and defections to their county have cost them dearly.
With Darren Hughes, Gearoid McKiernan and Colin Walshe all recovering from injury as well as Rory Beggan having opted to play for Monaghan, their options are limited. Still have the bones of a good team with Leo McLoone, Killian Clarke and the McKaigue brothers from Derry.
Prediction: Cavan to top group.