Preview: EirGrid Ulster U21 Final - Donegal v Derry
EirGrid Ulster Under 21 Championship Final
Donegal v Derry, Athletic Grounds, 8pm
By Cian O'Connell
Buoyed up following two encouraging Semi-Final victories, this tussle between Donegal and Derry promises to be interesting.
Donegal were clinical throughout a commanding win over Cavan, while Derry eventually shrugged off Armagh's spirited resistance in a match that went the distance.
It means both teams believe that silverware can be attained with Donegal's Lorcan Connor acknowledging the significant work that has been carried out in the underage ranks in the county during the past decade.
"I think that is something they did take a look at maybe six or eight years ago thinking things had to change if Donegal football was to pick up," Connor admits.
"Gladly they have got things together, putting huge emphasis on the underage system, bringing up players with the best of everything. You really then have the best chance to progress."
With a raft of high profile retirements at senior inter-county level several of Declan Bonner's Under 21 panel have sampled Allianz League action with Donegal over the last 18 months.
"Yes there is encouragement there as a youngster to try to put your name forward to get on the senior panel and then to try to make it on to the senior team with all them boys retiring," Connor says. "There are places up for grabs and young boys are putting their names forward at the minute."
Derry are contesting their first Ulster Under 21 decider since 2008 but Donegal will treat their challenge with the utmost respect according to Connor.
"A lot of people are claiming us to be favourites, but I wouldn't be putting an underdog tag on Derry," Connor remarks.
"They have been around the block, a lot of players won an Ulster minor in 2015, some of their clubs for example Slaughtneil. Some of their boys have played in an All Ireland Club Final, not too many can say that.
"Then they have boys from Watty Grahams, who have won three Ulster Under 21 club titles in a row and then they have boys that won Hogan Cups. They have talent in the county, it is something to be feared and you have to be wary of them."
Derry's panel is sprinkled with footballers, who have sampled action at senior level in Division Two of the Allianz Football League. While Derry were relegated Niall Keenan believes that valuable experience has been acquired.
"Yeah, definitely, I know me, Oisin Duffin, Ben McKinless, Michael McEvoy, Danny Tallon, Peter Hagan, Barry Grant, and Conor McGrogan have all made appearances in the League," Keenan states. "It is coming together now for the Under 21s. There is no better experience than playing at senior level, it picks up the speed of your reaction times, you know you are playing against the best players in Ireland. You can't beat experience like that."
Derry's strength in the schools and club games ensures that talented players continue to be developed. "We definitely have the players to be competing if you look at St Pat's, Maghera and other schools and then the likes of Slaughtneil," Keenan says.
Nobody will remember you for getting into an Ulster Final. A few will remember you if you win it.
The last three Ulster minor titles have been won by Donegal (two) and Derry. That means significant expectation surrounds these crop of players in the respective counties.
Donegal's Connor wants Donegal to add a provincial Under 21 crown to the collection. "It is something you look to achieve at the start of the year, but you don't really look to be in it, you look to win it. There is a big difference, nobody will remember you for getting into an Ulster Final. A few will remember you if you win it.
"There is talent in abudance, there is fierce competition within the panel itself. We are all just looking to win for the team, there is a good competitive spirit within the team. Everyone is pushing the whole thing forward."
Derry are investing heavily in youth too, and despite being relegated Keenan feels that good days await. "It can only help for the future, the fact that so many young boys got experience, it can only bring them on. I know we were unlucky, fair play to Down for getting that draw away to Cork. What can you do? We didn't perform earlier in the League.
"You can definitely see there is potential, with such a young team playing it can only do them good."