THE 'new’ curtailed season will make its first ‘mark’ with the earlier than usual start to the season in a very early ‘McKenna Cup’ competition.
Effectively, the season starts on Wednesday, January 3, with Round 1 of the McKenna Cup – a daunting start weatherwise for teams and supporters.
Last week, the fixtures were announced for the round-robin sectional games (to be played off in eight days), and are as follows:
Round One: Wednesday, January 3 (8pm)
Tyrone v Antrim (Healy Park), Cavan v St Mary’s (Kingspan Breffni), Down v Armagh (Pairc Esler), Derry v UU (Owenbeg), Donegal v QUB (Pairc MacCumhaill), Fermanagh v Monaghan (Brewster Park).
Round Two: Sunday, January 7 (2pm)
Antrim v Cavan (Glenavy), Tyrone v St Mary’s (Healy Park), Armagh v Derry (Athletic Grounds), Down v UU (Downpatrick), Fermanagh v UU (Brewster Park), Monaghan v Donegal (Clones).
Round Three: Wednesday, January 10 (8pm)
Cavan v Tyrone (Kingspan Breffni), Antrim v St Mary's (Woodlands, Belfast), Derry v Down (Owenbeg), Armagh v UU (Athletic Grounds), Monaghan v QUB (Castleblayney), Donegal v Fermanagh (Pairc MacCumhaill).
Semi-finals: Sunday, January 14 (2pm)
Section C winner v Section A winner
Section B winner v Best runner-up
Final: Saturday, January 20 (8pm).
Armagh have three ‘tricky’ fixtures in Section C which will test their largely fledgling squad. First up on January 3 (8pm) is a tie to ‘steel and energise’ Armagh as they meet near neighbours and bitter rivals Down in Pairc Esler, Newry, where games between the teams are often ultra competitive and explosive, especially after the Mournemen knocked the Orchard out of the first round Ulster Championship last season and making the All-Ireland quarter-finals later on in the year did little to dampen Armagh’s mood.
Their second tie involves the long trip to Owenbeg (Dungiven), thankfully in daylight given the time of year, where they’ll meet a strong Derry side out to impress new manager, Damian McErlain, with the throw-in down for 2pm, January 7.
Their third and final group tie is a mere three days later against the usually more strong and always difficult of the university teams competing, that of the Ulster University, Jordanstown. (Wednesday, January 10, 8pm). The game will be played at the Athletic Grounds, Armagh.
Across the groups A, B, C over the course of the ‘round-robin’ series there will be several ‘stand out games’. New boss of Fermanagh, Rory Gallagher, will travel to Donegal, the team that until recently Rory was assistant manager to with Jim McGuinness (Group C Round 3). Monaghan and Donegal, both under new management, will battle it out at Clones, in Round 2.
Round 3 will see the most competitive game of Section A played out with Cavan under Tyrone native Mattie McGleenan taking on current ‘multi-holders’ of the McKenna Cup, Tyrone under Mickey Harte, Mattie’s former boss in his playing days. In Section B in Owenbeg, the teams who see themselves as the aristocrats of Ulster gaelic football, Derry and Down will, I’m sure, be fighting for a place in the semi-final which could be the prize for the winner in this final Section C game.
The four teams who qualify for the semi-finals will have only five days to prepare for those two penultimate competition games. These semi-finals will be decided on Sunday, January 14 at 2pm,with venues yet to be confirmed.
The pairings for those two semi-finals are as follows:
Section C winner v Section A winner; and Section B winner v Best runner-up.
The two finalists then will have the luxury of six days rest between the decider and the semi-finals. The final has been set for Saturday, January 20, with throw-in down for 8pm.
The ‘new’ condensed season will then add pressure on team preparation by a gap of just eight days between the McKenna Cup final and the opening games of the 2018 National League campaign, which begins for Ulster teams on Sunday, January 28.