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Tyrone must begin Ulster U20 title defence without ace Canavan



Right road: Tyrone’s Darragh Canavan (right) is battling back to full fitness after injury

Right road: Tyrone’s Darragh Canavan (right) is battling back to full fitness after injury

Right road: Tyrone’s Darragh Canavan (right) is battling back to full fitness after injury

Ulster Under-20s champions Tyrone get their defence of the title underway today when they face Armagh in the Athletic Grounds.

Four quarter-finals are taking place after the numbers were whittled back last weekend when Derry - finalists last year and winners the year before under manager Mickey Donnelly - came out the other side of a dogged battle in extra-time against Fermanagh in a Celtic Park monsoon.

Tyrone are competition favourites, having won the Under-17 All-Ireland competition three years ago. At that time, however, they could call on the talents of Darragh Canavan, who at present is out with injury.

While previously he was expected back in late March, manager Paul Devlin - who played on the same Tyrone team as Canavan's father Peter in the 1995 All-Ireland final - said this week: "Darragh's back training, he's getting plenty of stuff fitted in. The wee break won't do him any harm - he's been running this past three or four years."

Devlin has drafted in some experienced coaching help in the form of former senior county team trainer Fergal McCann and 2005 Footballer of the Year Stephen O'Neill. They recently went to Gaoth Dobhair in Donegal and availed of a training weekend through Kevin Cassidy's facilities.

Armagh are under the tutelage of Peter McDonnell, a man who is intimately familiar with Tyrone football stretching back to his period in charge of Errigal Ciaran in the early '90s.

McDonnell was in charge back in 2018 at this level when both sides became involved in an ugly on-pitch skirmish that led to multiple suspensions, and last year they lost out to eventual champions Derry.

Home advantage could work in their favour, especially with the talent they have at their disposal, including the jinking Cian McConville from Crossmaglen Rangers.

If anyone has a helicopter view of how the underage and college competitions are sandwiched into the early months of the year, it is Down manager Conor Deegan. The two-time All-Ireland winner was also manager of Queen's University over the winter and saw how players were pulled from pillar to post.

"Players are sometimes asked to play three games in five days," notes Deegan.

"My argument is that we don't ask senior inter-county players to play that many games. They have the best panels, the best medical care, are looked after in terms of nutrition, and we wouldn't ask them to play as many games as young players. If it's not okay for them, it's not okay for the kids."

Deegan's side meet Cavan in Breffni Park, and have shown signs under his management that they are heading in the right direction.

The first round proper for Derry will come at Antrim's training complex at Dunsilly.

Oak Leaf manager Mickey Donnelly will still not have the use of players from St Patrick's Maghera or St Mary's Magherafelt as both are involved in MacRory Cup football and their games were postponed from last Tuesday night.

Donnelly has a slight advantage here in that there are a number of the Antrim players who formed part of his panel when St Ronan's won the MacRory and Hogan Cups in 2018.

Antrim are managed by Hugh McGettigan, and they have some top talent within their ranks, including captain Ruairí Brolly, who plays uncannily like his father Joe.

The final game of the first round is between Donegal and Monaghan.

The Farney lads are able to call upon a number of players who have been playing senior inter-county football this season already, including the impressive Aaron Mulligan, Andrew Woods and Scotstown's emerging Ryan O'Toole.

Donegal could be understrength for this one however, with long-term injury ruling out both Oisin Gallen and Conor Donnell.

Belfast Telegraph