This Sunday, August 30th sees the Ulster Senior League’s return to a winter football season. Only time will tell if the return to a winter calendar will see an upturn in the fortunes of Donegal’s Intermediate league. There has been a lot of debate on social media forums in recent years on the best way forward to retain a strong Intermediate football league in Donegal but as of yet no obvious solutions.
Over the past two seasons the Ulster Senior League has won the Michael Ward Trophy (the Inter Provincial Cup) so that certainly points to a good standard of player and football within the league but at present there is a reluctance on the part of Junior clubs from both the Donegal League and Inishowen League to test the Intermediate waters.
This weekend sees the return of the USL to a season in sync with that of Junior football with just six teams slated to compete – the lowest ever since the inception of the league in 1986. Over recent seasons there has been a slew of transfers in and out of the league during transfer windows and the return to a winter season should at least see an end to that trend now that players will have to choose to play either Intermediate or Junior football.
The League Cup gets the season underway with one game each in Groups A & B. In Group A Kevin Mahon’s Derry City Res. side will host Eamon McConigley’s return to the managerial reins at Letterkenny Rovers while in Group B Peter Moran’s Bonagee Utd. will host double-double winners Cockhill Celtic, now under the stewardship of player / manager Gavin Cullen who ascended to the post vacated at season’s end by Donal O’Brien.
Last season’s League & League Cup winners Cockhill Celtic are coming fresh off an FAI Senior Cup clash last Saturday with Longford Town who currently occupy a mid -table spot in the League of Ireland Premier Division. Gavin Cullen will feel that his side are in a good place after giving a very good account of themselves against their Premier division opponents despite going down by two goals to nil and despite the loss of mainstay Malachy McDermott who is currently in Boston playing Gaelic football and the influential Gerry Gill, he will be hopeful that his charges will be at full speed after their FAI Cup match for their opening group match. Peter Moran’s Bonagee were the surprise package of the short season played out before the return to winter football when they snagged the runners-up spot in the league. Moran is in his second spell in charge at Dry Arch Park and has again assembled a squad with a nice blend of youth and experience, adding Ryan McFadden and Barry McGinley from Glenea Utd. and Darren Hunter stepping up from the Reserves. The holders will start as favourites for this one.
Derry City Res. are once again expected to field a young side and have won rave reviews over the past couple of seasons for the style of football that they play. It remains to be seen if these young players will adapt to the heavier playing conditions of the winter season as the weather deteriorates. The USL has proved a good breeding ground for graduating players into both the Derry City first team and indeed to making the move cross channel in recent seasons. Eamon McConigley has returned to the Letterkenny Rovers manager’s seat, replacing Trevor Scanlon who has moved on to Finn Harps to oversee the youth structures at Finn Park. McConigley has a track record second to none in USL management and has wasted no time in recruiting the returning Mark Forker, Terence Shiels and former captain Conal McGonagle to Leckview Park. He will hope that he has enough experience to get his second stint off to a winning start against the Candystripes.
League PRO Paul McGovern commented “It’ll be an interesting start to the campaign. Unfortunately with only 6 teams competing two teams will begin their season with a bye, Swilly Rovers and Fanad Utd. It’s great to see the name Fanad Utd. back in the league after their brief sabbatical and I’m sure Arthur Lynch will leave no stone unturned in his bid to put Fanad Utd. – our most successful ever club – back among the league’s elite. Jason Gibson is well settled in Ramelton now and will be aiming to bring a trophy of some description back to Swilly Park again this season. I’m sure both managers will be taking in the games in their respective groups this weekend before they swing into action next Wednesday evening themselves.” So how does he feel the league will go with just six teams taking part? “Obviously losing Drumkeen Utd. so close to the start of the season was a blow but hopefully they will rejoin us again in the future. Harps of course also opted out of our shortened season and perhaps with their structures beginning to take shape under Trevor they too will be in a position to compete again in the near future. Naturally we’d love to see more teams competing from both Inishowen and other parts of Donegal in our league and maybe the return to a winter season will facilitate that."
"We know we have a good league – our recent back-to-back winning of the Michael Ward Trophy is proof of that, but there are also a lot of good junior clubs out there and also good players that could and should be testing themselves at a higher level.” So who does he see being in the final shake up for honours? McGovern concluded “Despite the change of management I suppose Cockhill will once again start as favourites and rightly so as they bid for a three-in-a-row, but I’m sure they will be pushed all the way. With 3 rounds of fixtures the team that gets a good start could be the key to toppling the Inishowen men and I’m sure each one of the six teams is setting out to win the title but to do so they will at the very least have to beat the champions once in their 3 meetings. A lot of teams will probably look at the League Cup as a good opportunity to lift a trophy so those group games should be very competitive over the next couple of weeks before we get into league action on September 27th.”