INTO THE BATTLE
Fermanagh To present a stern examination
NFL Division 3
Wicklow v Fermanagh Aughrim - Sunday - 2pm Wicklow make their debut in Division 3 of the National Football league on Sunday when they take on Fermanagh in a first round match at a Wicklow's county grounds in Aughrim.
The fact that Harry's men are playing against the team they beat in the Division 4 final a year ago may help to cushion their debut in the higher grade a little but it should also be remembered that when the sides met in the league last year it was Fermanagh that came out on top, so anyone thinking of a soft landing should think again.
The win over the Dubs in their own Parnell Park in our last match in the 0'Byrne cup was the one bright spot in Harry's team building programme at the start of this year.
The display that day gave the Wicklow supporters present a great boost and should have had the same effect on team spirit. Since then Harry and his selectors have been getting on with another very important part of their team building programme and that is cutting down a big and unwieldy panel to the required size.
Following friendlies against Laois and college teams the axe had fallen and the panel has been cut back considerably. The big question is has the team building exercise produced the desired results? Have they for example found replacements for players like Seanie Furlong, Leighton Glynn and top scorer Tony Hannon up front?
Selector Gavin Wynne was only prepared to talk about the players that were on the panel at this point in time. He put poor performances in a couple of challenge matches down to the fact that they were trying to get their panel into shape.
'We needed to give the lads as much match time as possible before coming to any decision and that sometimes involved putting out different teams in both half of the same match,' he said.
'The only players on the current panel that we expect to be short of on Sunday is Leighton Glynn and Stephen (Chester) Kelly. Leighton is recovering well but we will not have him back for a while longer,' added Wynne.
Everything else is going well in the camp apparently, the fitness levels are improving all the time and the spirit is top class. The panel is now down to 32 players and all are in good condition.
Nicky Mernagh is back in full training but Sunday could be a bit too soon to put him in. Ciaran Hyland and Alan Byrne, who missed some of the action in the O'Byrne Cup, are back to full fitness and available for selection. Mick McLoughlin, who pulled up in the warm up for the Dublin match is also expected to be available.
A few things to ponder on for people who like to pick their own starting 15 - Footballer of year 2012 John Flynn has no real challengers for the goal keeping position and it is quite possible that the selectors will settle for utility player Robert Lambert as the only cover needed.
Damien Power is back in training and making a strong bid to win back his place in defence. Would you have him at corner back where he played against the Dubs or in his old full back position?
James Kelly has been doing well at full back; will he hold his place? - and if he does, that would leave Ciaran Hyland and Alan Byrne to fight it out for the one remaining spot in the line. How would you solve that one?
Patrick McWalter has being doing well at centre half back and most people will expect to see him line out there. The two Pauls - Cunningham, until he fell foul of the referee and McLoughlin did well against the Dubs - agreed? However Stephen Byrne was selected in that line for both games but had to cry off.
Mick McLoughlin, who never fails to be selected
when available is also very much in the reckoning - and then there could be Darren Hayden if available. Solve that one.
At this stage most people believe that Harry has found a partner for Stafford at midfield. Anthony McLoughlin has being doing so well that it is hard to see him moved. So far James Sheerin looked the best of the challengers.
The selectors made two interesting experiments in the half forward line, and both worked well in the O'Byrne Cup matches - but this is another step up. Dean Healy has looked good
enough at number 10 after making his name at number seven.
Rory Finn may not be the finished article on the 40 but so far he has looked good. Paddy Dalton certainly wintered well and was just flying in every match (is there another year in the great hearted Coolkenna lad?).
The challengers there would include club footballer of 2012 Darragh O'Sullivan; Kevin Murphy, Baltinglass, or someone like Paul McLoughlin, should he not make it in defence. What do you think?
With the three top strikers of 2012, Seanie Furlong, Leighton Glynn and Tony Hannon now missing it would be reasonable to expect gaps appearing up front.
However you could still have a full forward line with 'find of the year' Brendan McCrea in one corner and Austin O'Malley who had a great game against the Dubs in the other.
Paul Earls surly posted a message to the selectors with his vital goals in our own championship last year and looks good for the 14 jersey.
Should the up and coming Conor McGraynor come in there somewhere? A lad of his talents must be given as much match time as possible.
I am not sure if the colleges have still got a hold on county players still but if they don't John McGrath, Darren Hayden as well as McGraynor will be available for selection and that would change the look of the forward set up drastically. McGrath was one of our most consistent players last year and if available is sure of a place on the team.
To sum up, from the team that played Fermanagh in the League final last April the only two not now on the panel are Tony Hannon and Seanie Furlong.
Newcomers to the panel include Brendan McCrea, James Kelly, Patrick McWalter, Paul McLoughlin, Kevin Murphy Daniel Woods, Luke Benson, James Sheerin
We cannot afford to take this Fermanagh team lightly. Peter Canavan is almost certain to have learned from the league final and will be better prepared this time. We are going in to this Division as champions of Division 4 and will be there to be shot down.
We are the ones that must be on our guard - remember it is a higher division and we have to be prepared to step up our game. We can win this one but only every player gives it all for the full 70 minutes.
Kehoe Cup semi-final
Wicklow v Meath Trim - Sunday - 2pm The first clash of fixtures in 2013 occurs on Sunday when the Wicklow hurlers must travel to a Meath venue to play Meath in the semi-final of the Kehoe Cup.
The first big question about this match is will Casey and his selectors continue to experiment and team build or will they field their best available 15 in a bid to collect some early season silver ware?
Casey is definitely pleased enough with what he has saw so far and in particular with how the young players are shaping up. However he has a big panel and has still to give match time to at least half a dozen other young players. So will we see an all out bid to get closer to some to that cup on Sunday?
Or will we see other young players like John Henderson, Harry Stephenson, John Manley, Shane Nolan or Patrick Farrell get their chance to prove their worth or well being? Others who need more time to recover from injury and make a bid for permanent places on the team include Stephen Kelly, Eamonn Kearns and Joe Murphy.
Murphy had his operation last week and is already back in light training. Ronan Byrne is another member of the panel that Casey will be taking a look at but he is still tied up with Trinity Collage and by all accounts doing well. He will not be available until the league starts up.
Meath, on their home turf in Trim will be no push over. They have a free scoring midfielder in John Myler and an ace free taker in Stephen Clynch and will be anxious to give the home supporters something to cheer about.
Verdict - a very big test for Casey's men but they could answer the call again.
Wicklow manager Harry Murphy will be hoping for a big result on Sunday against Fermanagh. Home wins will be vital as the Garden County strut their stuff in Division 3 for 2013.