Ulster U21 club football tournament preliminary round; Rossa v Ghaoth Dobhair (Creggan, Saturday, 12.30pm)

IT’S the beginning of another Ulster Club campaign for Rossa this Saturday as the club’s U21 footballers take on Donegal champions, Ghaoth Dobhair in the preliminary round of the Creggan Kickham’s-hosted U21 Football Tournament.

Just over two weeks ago on St Stephen’s Day, the club’s minor footballers exited their Ulster campaign with defeat to Ballinascreen at St Paul’s, but much of that panel will be back in action alongside the 2014 minor-winning players hoping to make amends and launch another provincial run.

Having won the Antrim U21 title for the first time in November, this will be Rossa’s first foray into the provincial tournament at this grade, so there is an element of the unknown going in, but that challenge is one that excites the Shaws Road club and manager, Paul Close says they are ready to test themselves against a seasoned Gweedore outfit.

“When you move into Ulster football, it’s always going to be a tough challenge no matter what team you come up against,” he said.

“Obviously, they will have had a good campaign in their own county and they are going to have some quality players at this level of the Ulster Championship.

“At this age group you’re always going to have three or four standout players and the rest will be fit, mobile and keen to impress.

“They have some quality players who are involved in the Donegal senior outfit so the majority of their squad will have participated in the U21 Championship last year ad they are going to come into it a little bit ahead of us experience-wise, but I think if our boys perform to their level, they will be able to compete.

“We aren’t underestimating the opponent, we’ll just give it everything we have and see where that takes us.”

Preparations haven’t been ideal for Rossa given most of their squad was involved in the minor tournament until two weeks ago while the poor weather left many pitches closed and therefore meant training venues became thin on the ground, but they have prepared as best they can ahead of Saturday’s preliminary round tie.

“We haven’t been able to train much over the Christmas period because the minors were involved in the Ulster Championship,” Close explained.

“Probably 70 per cent of our squad would have been involved in the minor team anyway and have been able to keep ticking over. We had training set for the (non minor) U21s beside that.

“One challenge we faced was trying to get access to a grass facility because all the pitches have been closed, but we managed to get the use of St Mary’s on the 3G. That isn’t ideal, but we made the best of what we had to get ourselves ready for this Ulster championship.”

Deaglan Murphy, Gerard Walsh and James Connolly are three Rossa U21s who have been involved in the Antrim hurling panels for the McGurk and Walsh Cups and with the Saffrons in the Conor McGurk final against Down on Saturday evening, there were doubts whether the trio would be available for their club, but Close expects to have a full hand to choose from.

“Everyone will be available for selection,” he confirmed.

“Those three have been with the county hurlers and they will be in decent shape.

“They would be some of our biggest players, but then there are some of the younger lads like Dominic McEnhill, Jack Morris, Eoghan McMenamin have stood out for the minors and hopefully they will step up to the plate also, but no doubt it’s going to be a massive challenge.

“Most of those lads won’t have come up against players of this calibre before, but you have to put yourself against the best players to see where exactly you’re at.

“Hopefully they have learnt from the Ballinascreen game in the minor championship and can bring that into this competition on Saturday.”

The U21 grade has always been viewed as the bridge between juvenile and senior and despite the ages set to change from U18 and U21 to U17 and U20, the pathway is still important when it comes to the development of players.

Close, who will continue to manage Rossa’s seniors in 2018, believes the nucleus of the U21 panel can go on to help form a strong senior outfit at the club and is hopeful their underage success can be the platform they can build upon going forward.

“I would expect the majority of our senior team to be filled with this U21 squad and then you have the likes of Stephen Beatty, Sean Pat Donnelly, Michael Armstrong and Christopher McGuinness to add to that. You put that together and that’s a strong outfit there,” he predicts.

“Again, it all boils down to commitment, work rate and dedication to be the best they can be. That has to come from the pathway we are creating for these players.

“Hopefully now they have a taste and hunger for success and we can bring that forward.

“If you look at Lámh Dhearg and St John’s, their success has come from them winning U21 Championships and maybe there is the changing of the guard now as there are teams coming through with new talent.

“Hopefully that will strengthen Antrim football and impact on the county team because you want the best players performing for the county and a conveyor belt of talent coming through which can only be good for Antrim.”