Although we had yet another night’s hard frost last night (and more of the same is forecast for the next few nights), the winter is at last behind us. Well, that’s what Met Office man Gerald Fleming said on Morning Ireland earlier on, where he confirmed that it was the coldest winter we’d had since 1963. It sure felt like it.
With spring now hopefully starting to take hold (April showers, anyone?), we’ve a hectic month of football ahead of us. Just like last year, in fact. The three-week break in the NFL schedule now gives way to four straight weekends of league games and, just in case that wasn’t enough for you, the Connacht U21 championship has been interleaved into the month’s programme as well.
The action gets going next Sunday down at McHale Park, where we entertain the Dubs in what should be a rather interesting top-of-the-table clash. Civil war is already on the point of breaking out Chez WJ ahead of that one, with the little lad insisting that he’s sticking with his county of birth for Sunday’s match. I’ve tried my best to persuade him that this policy is not, perhaps, all that well aligned with his normal match-day desire to back the winning outfit but, you know, these are the kind of hard knocks one can only learn from bitter personal experience. More on the Dubs match as the week progresses.
Next up after that is a trip to Cloone, in lovely Leitrim, for the U21s where, against the Ridge County on Wednesday March 10th, we open our defence of the Connacht title we’ve held for the last four years at this grade. That one will be under lights and so too will our next NFL match which takes place just three nights later up at Celtic Park in Derry. PJ is threatening to head north to this one and the lads could sure do with the support, as it’s been a very tough venue for us in recent times.
If we win our opening Connacht U21 match, we then face a tough semi-final against the Rossies on Paddy’s Day and four days after that the seniors travel to either Tralee or Killarney (I’m not sure which it is yet) to take on the Kingdom in our fifth league match of the year. The month’s action ends the following Sunday with our final home match in this NFL campaign, against Monaghan at McHale Park.
Last year, this fixture pile-up caused us a bit of a headache due to the fact that we had a number of players featuring concurrently on both the senior and U21 teams. This year, we don’t seem to be so badly affected, with Kevin McLoughlin and Aidan O’Shea the only two first fifteen players on the senior team who are also eligible to play at U21 level. Aside from this pair, though, Alan Freeman and Neil Douglas – both of whom have featured for us in the NFL this year – will also surely be on Ray Dempsey’s U21 list as too will Shane Nally, Lee Keegan and Ger McDonagh, all of whom are also on the senior panel for the league.
If Kevin and Aidan are given a furlough from senior duties in order to concentrate on the Connacht U21 campaign (which, in my view, they should be) then we need to start thinking about likely replacements. Chris Barrett is the obvious alternative to Kevin in the half-backs but there are other possibilities too, which include shifting Keith Higgins out of the corner or bringing someone like Ciaran Conroy into the first fifteen.
If Aidan is unavailable and Mark Ronaldson is suspended (which I assume he is but there’s been no public confirmation as yet about how his appeal went) then how we rejig the forward line will need a bit more thought, not least because Alan Freeman and Neil Douglas might not be available either. Trevor Mortimer is likely to come back into the side for the Dubs game and if Barry Moran were to have recovered from his gazillionth injury, I suppose he could start up top instead of Aidan, although I suspect that Johnno might want to keep Aidan in the team, at least for the Dubs match. All will be revealed on that front later in the week when we see the team sheet for Sunday.