McDonnell aiming to learn valuable lessons from Students showdown
Offaly boss expecting competitive O'Byrne Cup clash with star-studded UCD, writes Liam Kelly
JANUARY has opened with storms and floods, but barring total weather chaos overnight, Offaly footballers will embark on their 2014 campaign with an O'Byrne Cup tie against UCD at Tullamore tomorrow.
The inclusion of the college teams in the pre-season competitions has caused plenty of debate over the years, but they're here to stay and, for the county sides, the likes of UCD present a double threat.
First and foremost, they are opposition that must be overcome if a county team is to make an early mark in the various provincial competitions.
And then there's the pride factor. Everyone knows the colleges are gearing up for their own priority, which is the Sigerson Cup in football, so what county manager or set of players wants to be beaten by a group of students who aren't, in theory, fully engaged in the relevant provincial event?
All of which makes UCD a tricky prospect for Offaly as the Faithful County seek a morale boosting start to the new season.
There are deep-rooted links between the Dublin college and Offaly that go back a long way.
Back in the 1970s, Longford native Eugene McGee cut his teeth on team management with UCD, and did it very successfully as he helped them to win Dublin, Leinster and All-Ireland club titles in '74 and '75.
During that decade, UCD were a huge force in third-level football, and claimed the Sigerson Cup six times in seven years.
Kevin Kilmurray, later to win a renowned All-Ireland in 1982 with Offaly under McGee's management, was involved in that UCD run of success of the mid-70s.
Much later, Offaly star Ciaran McManus helped the Belfield class of '96 to win the college's 33rd Sigerson Cup and also the Dublin club title in 2002. In 2006, current Faithful County captain Niall McNamee was on the UCD squad that once again won the Dublin Senior football title.
Ironically, McNamee went on to compete in the Leinster club championship that year with his own club Rhode and they knocked out UCD in the Leinster semi-final, only to lose in turn to Kildare's Moorefield.
In terms of the present, McNamee, confirmed once again by manager Emmet McDonnell as skipper for this season, is looking forward to the match.
"You'll always get a good match from UCD and, personally, I can't wait to get the season going," said McNamee. "Thankfully, I've no injury worries and I'm enjoying getting back into the training routine."
Manager McDonnell guided Offaly to promotion from Division 4 last year and is demanding a big performance.
It did no harm that Offaly won the pre-Christmas Fitzsimons Cup, beating Meath in the decider and since then they've trained hard, before getting some time off just before the holidays.
"We're expecting a difficult game," said McDonnell. "Looking at the calibre of players they have, such as Jack McCaffrey, Paul Mannion and Ciaran Lenehan, it's clear that they're a very strong outfit. They were playing league games throughout the winter, so they should have greater match fitness than we have at this stage.
"UCD are always strong in any competition. For ourselves, we want to be competitive. We don't want to be playing games just for the sake of it.
"We want to give lads an opportunity and to get fitness and match sharpness over the next few weeks."
McDonnell will include UCD students Johnny Moloney and Luke Kelly in the Offaly panel for the O'Byrne Cup, which has been agreed with new UCD manager John Divilly.
The former Galway All-Ireland winner and manager of the Kildare Ladies team was on the last UCD team to win the Sigerson in 1996.
Divilly has a strong contingent of county panellists on his roster, but will carefully manage game time for the squad over the three O'Byrne Cup matches they face against Offaly, Wexford and Laois.
Dublin's Mannion and Westmeath's John Heslin, who is the UCD skipper, will be in action at Tullamore, but McCaffrey suffered a slight injury in Dublin's New Year's Eve match against the Dub Stars, so he will be rested for the Offaly game. Kildare's Niall Kelly is out of action for three months and will miss all the O'Byrne and Sigerson competitions.
Wexford's Matthew O'Hanlon is the only dual player in the UCD panel. He is in the football squad tomorrow and will then be rested in midweek as he will be involved in UCD's Walsh Cup hurling match against Carlow tomorrow week.