The curtain rises on the North West cricket season with four Tyrone sides taking their place in the Premier Division and two more in the race to join them next year from the Championship.
As always Donemana set the standard- the reigning champions starting out in search of a record 7th senior cup win and also trying to become the first team to win three consecutive “doubles” in the Union’s history.
Former Ireland International Jordan McGonigle knows a thing or two about what it takes to win the major honours and he feels that his side are totally focused ahead of what could be an historic summer.
“Ironically, we’ve been caught out a bit with the early start this year- Dwayne McGerrigle, Andrew Riddles and myself will all miss Saturday’s opening game at Bready as we’re away on Richard Hepburn’s stag weekend, albeit “Aggie” would have missed the match anyway through suspension.
“That said we have the benefit of a strong squad and we won the title last year in my opinion on the back of a couple of wins when we had key players missing- most notably at Coleraine when we went minus four first team regulars. I think that was the day we got real momentum in our season.”
As far as the squad is concerned there are only two changes from last year- a new overseas player in the form of Malith Cooray, a 28-year old Sri Lankan all-rounder who replaces Imran Butt, and Graham Boyd who returns “home” after a couple of seasons at Bonds Glen.
“Malith’s stats seem fairly impressive so we’re looking forward to his arrival and “Boydo” is one of our own and we know how capable he is. As I say we will need a squad of 14 or 15 players throughout the season and we’re fairly comfortable with how we’re looking going into the summer.”
As for priorities the former skipper said that while it was an old cliché, they would focus solely on matters at hand on any given day.
“We want to win both competitions and we’d love a good run in the Irish Senior Cup as well” he suggested.
“Obviously there will be a lot of focus on the senior cup now that we’ve given ourselves a chance of winning seven in a row- something that has never been done before and possibly never will again. I find that the cup takes care of itself however- the players know that there is no room for error and everyone is totally switched on when cup games come around.” And even after so many winners medals “Jordy” wasn’t amused at the suggestion that he may be getting tired of senior finals.
“You must be joking! Every senior final feels the same as the first or second- the buzz around the club and the village generally is amazing. If we didn’t make the final I couldn’t bear to go and watch it.”
As for the league title race the left arm spinner felt that Brigade would again be their biggest threat.
“They’re never far away and although we’ve had the better of it for a while now I have no doubt they’ll be pushing hard again this season. Coleraine have had a change of approach this time but they’ll still be tough to beat too although I honestly believe we’ll see a surprise package emerge over the season. I don’t know who it might be- it could realistically be any of the others, but I expect to see at least one new name in the title hunt this time.”
Elsewhere Bready will fancy their chances of a decent run with no changes in or out of the squad from 2017. Irosh Samarasooriya returns as overseas player after a solid campaign, however teenager Reece Kelly will be missing for most of the year having opted to play in England where he has a work placement.
Bready have under-performed regularly over the past five seasons but could quite easily emerge as that surprise package that Jordan McGonigle referred to. Skipper David Scanlon, Craig Young, Irosh and David Rankin are all potential match-winners on their day and if they find a bit of consistency then you never know where that might take them.
Further south along the A5, both Fox Lodge and Strabane are likely to have slightly more modest ambition ahead of what will be their second and first consecutive Premiership seasons respectively. The Foxies are pretty much unchanged from last summer as Brian Allen welcomes back overseas man Cebo Tshiki who found a solid level of form in the second half of 2017.
There are also a trio of former Sion Mills players joining the squad while Brian Devine returns after emigrating to Burndennett for a year. All in all it’s much the same options available to the North West Development Officer as before albeit he is likely to keep faith with several of his younger players who didn’t let themselves down when they got their chance in the first team last time.
Things could be a little tighter at the Park after another difficult close season for the Red Caps. Tommy Barr’s men have as yet to identify their overseas player for 2018 and on top of that they have just lost Mark Snodgrass and Andy Barr to Burndennett. Strabane have struggled since their title winning season of 2014 although the spectre of a first ever relegation has long since gone.
Aaron Gillespie was in excellent form in the Championship last time and he will have to bring that up a level with him if they are to compete this summer. Peter Gillespie, Ryan Gallagher and their new Sri Lankan will all need to be on the money as well although the club have already indicated that if they have to find their level occasionally over the next couple of seasons then that’s what they’ll do.
In the Championship, Burndennett looked to be struggling before they tempted Snodgrass and Barr away from Strabane. Eddie McGettigan’s men have the players to make a mark on the promotion race but have habitually struggled to find any consistency. The new men will be a help, but only time will tell if they can propel them into the top three or four.
Killyclooney will feel that they have a real shot this time after setting off like a scalded cat in 2017. They ran out of steam mid-season but Darren Moan has a solid looking squad at his disposal, particularly with the return of Andre Henry. The West Indian is an absolute handful at this level and if he hits his straps early on they should be in the mix. It all kicks off at 1pm on Saturday and the best of luck to all for an enjoyable campaign.
OPENING DAY FIXTURES NW PREMIER