Group A: Glen have eight points followed by Lavey, Bellaghy and Ballinascreen on six (though ‘Screen have played five games), Dungiven and Swatragh two with Eoghan Rua still without a point.
Swatragh v Bellaghy (Saturday, 5.30pm, Gavin Dixon)
Bellaghy are four points ahead of Swatragh but could come unstuck at Davitt Park if Swatragh play as well as they did in a narrow defeat at Glen, and a defeat for Damian Cassidy’s team could knock them out as their last game is against the unbeaten champions.
Bellaghy won their last game at home to Eoghan Rua but it took until the final 10 minutes to put the Coleraine men away. Bellaghy are a fast and cohesive unit so the big Swatragh pitch will suit but they may struggle at midfield against Conor McAtamney and Patrick Kearney. Derry player Paul Cassidy has not hit his best form for Bellaghy yet but if he does it will not be good news for the hosts. Swatragh have been missing the injured Oisin McWilliams all season. His twin brother Lorcan has been prominent and is well capable of leading the way to a shock result.
Lavey v Dungiven (Sunday, 5.30pm, Martin McErlaine)
An expected Lavey win would put them into the quarter finals. They face a Dungiven team that has been struggling for scores. The new look Lavey team is full of grit and determination but they’ll be hoping to find their goal touch. Defensively they’ve been excellent and they’re as good as any in the middle of the field but the lack of major scores will be a concern to manager Gary Cushenan.
Dungiven have not built on the promise of last year and the task of rebuilding the team has fallen into the hands of former player James McNicholl. Lavey have won away to Coleraine and Ballinascreen and have had a home victory over Bellaghy. Their only defeat was by four points at Glen. Dungiven have only managed 1-36 in four games while Lavey are 15 points better off. On form it has to be Lavey.
Ballinascreen v Glen (Sunday, 5.30pm, Damian Harkin)
A tough one for ‘Screen who are on the fringes of a quarter final spot and did their chances no harm with Wednesday’s 1-08 to 0-08 victory over Eoghan Rua. With four straight victories, champions Glen are already in the knockout stages. They have an even more formidable panel than last year with the McDermott brothers coming through and Ciaran McFaul back. This will be a difficult task for Ballinascreen. For most of their players it will be a third game in a week.
Glen are raging hot favourites to win the county title for a third successive year and it’s difficult to see who will stop them. They did struggle a bit against Lavey and Swatragh but were not at full strength on either occasion. Glen look good for another victory.
Group B: Magherafelt lead on full points but there’s a behind between Newbridge, Steelstown, Slaughtneil and Kilrea. Slaughtneil. The bottom two spots are occupied by The Loup and Ballinderry.
Ballinderry v The Loup (Sunday, 3.30pm, Richie Donoghue)
There was the time when these two teams would’ve been battling for the title; now they’re battling relegation. While neither has a point, The Loup have shown the better form, running Steelstown and Slaughtneil close.
Ballinderry, who last won the title 10 years ago, have gradually slipped down the ladder. They’ve lost so many key players to retirement but they do have some bright young players now filtering in. Niall O’Donnell was a star of the Derry minor team that won the 2020 All Ireland and Ruairi Forbes is another who will make his mark. The Loup look to have a better attack. The two Devlin brothers, Ciaran and Caolan, have been their main scorers. They’ve also been conceding less than Ballinderry who still rely heavily on Ryan Bell. Home advantage may not be enough for Ballinderry.
Steelstown v Magherafelt (Sunday, 3.30pm, Ref: Brendan Quinn)
This will fully test the improving Brian Og’s as they welcome unbeaten Magherafelt to Pairc Brid. In a previous stint in senior football Steelstown scored a shock championship win over the Rossas but much has changed since then.
Magherafet have gone on to win a county title while Steelstown have virtually the same team that won the 2021 All Ireland intermediate title. Both have had close games against Slaughtneil, Steelstown drawing and Magherafelt winning by two points. Steelstown’s only blip was at home to Newbridge in a game they could easily have won. Away wins over Kilrea and The Loup has given them a confidence that had been missing in senior football until this year.
Magherafelt features Derry seniors Odhran Lynch, potential All Star Conor McCluskey and full back Eoin McEvoy. Pencil in former county players at all levels and the Rossas are the team most likely to give Glen a run for the county title. The experience of the Heavron brothers, Daniel and Shane, has been central to the rise of Damian Barton’s team who will be around for a few years yet.
The Steelstown defence will have to be wary of corner forward Cormac Murphy who hit two goals in their last outing. Magherafelt will be favourites but this Steelstown team is improving.
Slaughtneil v Newbridge(Sunday, 5.30pm, Barry Cassidy).
There will be some tired legs in the Slaughtneil squad as quite a few of them line out for a third game in a week. Newbridge come with three wins from four games. Their only defeat came at Kilrea when they had Nathan Rocks wrongly sent off early in the game. Slaughtneil, with a new management set up, have looked below their best so far but looking at the quality players they have improvement is just around the corner.
Newbridge powered by Conor Doherty and Padraig McGrogan have been impressive but victories are never easily gained at Emmett Park.