Drogs kick off their defence of the cross-border trophy at home to Cliftonville tonight at United Park (8.05pm, live on Setanta Ireland) while Cork go to Dungannon, where they’ll be starting their campaign for the second year running (Stangmore Park, 7.45pm) The Leesiders, here by virtue of their FAI Cup win in December, are missing key players Colin Healy and Neal Horgan but are boosted by the news yesterday that fan favourite
Danny Murphy agreed a deal to return to the club he left in late 2006 to join Motherwell.
Cork are still in pre-season mode but it has been successful time with four wins and a draw, two of those victories coming during a training camp in the south of Spain against German side Unterhaching (3-2) and Swiss outfit FC Laufen (6-1).
New boss Alan Mathews is anticipating a tough encounter at a venue where City drew 0-0 last season.
“The past means absolutely nothing. We go into this game on its own merits and we’ll be doing that positively. We know it’s a difficult assignment and will need to work hard to get a result.”
Veterans Colin O’Brien and Billy Woods miss out with groin injuries while Sean Kelly is similarly injured, making it even more likely that Cillian Lordan will partner captain Dan Murray in defence. New signing Murphy won’t shore up the gaps though with the Cork squad having flown north yesterday evening.
It’s Dungannon manager Harry Fay’s second Setanta Cup as boss however most of his players have yet to face City despite this being the fifth game between the sides since 2006.
“We’re pretty inexperienced as regards the Setanta Cup,” said Fay. “It’s a young squad and there’s a big transition going on for us.”
A brace from Mark McAllister ensured Dungannon claimed a weekend win over Ballymena Utd at Stangmore Park, where they are unbeaten since the turn of the year.
“2008 has been good,” admitted Fay. “We’re coming off a few wins and we were the first team to beat Cliftonville in the league which was a fair scalp. The lads are confident about having a good bash off Cork. I haven’t decided but the team should be fairly similar to the one that beat Ballymena. Only (defender) Terry Fitzpatrick is a slight doubt with a rib injury.”
It’s a first ever Setanta Cup for Cliftonville but manager Eddie Patterson feels tonight’s opener has come at the wrong time for his team.
“We’ve had a long season and it’s starting to really take its toll on us. It’ll be very difficult. We’re up against a full-time operation in Drogheda and they have quality throughout.”
North Belfast-based and the oldest football club on the land, Cliftonville are best placed to dethrone Premier League champions Linfield, lying just a point behind their rivals. But at the weekend they had to come from behind to beat Institute 2-1 after losing at Dungannon seven days previously.
“We had a good win Saturday and (Linfield) dropped points against Donegal Celtic so we’re back in the hunt. But injuries aren’t helping.”
Saturday’s match winner, Stephen O’Neill, was stretched off with a foot injury while fellow strikers Shea Campbell and Mark Holland are also major doubts. Another forward, Chris Scannell, only returned from a business trip last night but Patterson is hopeful that he will be ready.
Doolin has a few injury problems of his own ahead of tonight’s game, with long-term absentees Declan O’Brien and Shane Barrett joined on the sidelines by ‘keeper Dan Connor, Jason Gavin, who has a medial knee injury, and Shaun Maher who is suffering from tendonitis.
“Cliftonville look a decent side,” said Doolin. We saw them recently and they played some nice football, you can tell they’re hungry. But so are we. We want to be the first side to win this trophy three times in a row.”
With Guy Bates and Aidan O’Keeffe back from injury, Doolin will have plenty of options, though new 6’6” signing Ibrahima Thiam, formerly of PSG and a Senegalese U-23 international, will not be available due to international clearance.