Colin Kelly is up for the challenge with youthful Wicklow squad

THERE is a certain degree of adaptation required when a new manager comes in but, even with that in mind, preparations for the 2022 season have not been at all straightforward for Colin Kelly and his Wicklow men’s footballers.

heir opening O’Byrne Cup game against Meath had to be cancelled after an undisclosed number of Covid-19 cases were detected within the squad, while up to 17 players were missing due to a combination of reasons, ranging from Covid-19, injuries, and Sigerson Cup commitments.

Further to this, three players have been classified as close contacts, while Pat Burke will miss a significant chunk of the National League campaign after getting surgery on an injury.

With all of that borne in mind, Colin Kelly deployed an experimental side against Wexford in a challenge game during the week before the Meath match was cancelled, with just five of the team that started in Wicklow’s Leinster championship match against Wexford from last year featuring – Mark Jackson, Mark Kenny, Niall Donnelly, Dean Healy, and Andy Maher.

Kelly, though, opted to see the silver lining of it all.

“Some of the performances (vs Wexford)… I thought Tom (Moran), Zack (Cullen) did really well at the back, I thought Malachy Stone was really comfortable at full-back,” he said.

“I thought Kevin (Quinn), when he went inside, showed how potent he is. It was pleasing when you see someone like Paul Cunningham at the levels he is at and what he can bring to the table.”

Should the game go ahead, Wicklow will be hoping to avenge their challenge match loss to Wexford when they face the same side in the O’Byrne Cup on Wednesday night and riding the momentum into their National League opener against Westmeath at the end of January.

With the volume of absentees with which Colin and co. have had to contend, the Louth native has been able to have a good long look at some of the younger players coming through the ranks.

However, the challenge that those same players will have to overcome is making the transition from promising prospects in the underage grades, to being a reliable fixture with the seniors.

“With the age profile of the squad, it is very, very young and, look, the high-end players prove it throughout their underage careers. That transition into becoming a senior intercounty player is not something that just happens automatically,” said Kelly.

“It is smooth from minor to 20s, but from that 18s/20s bracket up to the Senior team is a huge step and we have some really good senior guys in there that are assisting these lads as they go along.

“You can’t gain experience without playing, and that is the ultimate, but having the senior guys in and around them, watching how they work, watching their behavioural traits, watching their commitment to actually playing when games happen. It is a great learning curve so, sometimes, the arm around the shoulder of a younger guy from a senior player is comforting

“I have been a player there, as well, coming in from a very early age and trying to make that breakthrough to becoming a senior intercounty player. It is anything but easy.”

At the time of writing, there is no news concerning any retirements/withdrawals for 2022, with Kelly saying that he had spoken to every player individually and had not been given any indication that that situation would change.

In addition, more numbers returning to the fold with the league emerging tantalisingly over the horizon, and Kelly hopes that the turmoil of last week has been put behind them.

“Last week was probably at the lowest point where we were very depleted, whereas now, we are starting to get numbers back up and, I suppose, with the interaction over Christmas and families and meeting up, it is inevitable.

“On top of that, we have Sigerson Cup, as well, so we have lads tied up with that. It will be similar in terms of bodies (vs Wexford) to see where we are at.

“The pleasing thing for me is that we have 14 of the under-20 team in the squad, which is a huge, huge number and that bodes well for Wicklow football going forward. People will just have to be patient and allow these kids to develop, and with the assistance of the senior players, I am sure, eventually, we will bridge that gap and get to where we need to be.”

Once the O’Byrne Cup clash is out of the way, assuming and hoping it goes ahead, they will next face Laois on January 15. From there, it will be full steam ahead to year two in Division 3 of the National Football League.

The opening game, on January 30, will see Wicklow travel to Kelly’s old stomping ground to take on Westmeath. In spite of the inherent narrative significance of the game, all Kelly is focused on is getting Wicklow in the best place possible to put it up against the side that will be fancied to rebound back up to Division Two come the end of the season.

“It is not about looking forward to any game with a view to where I have been in the past. It is about can I equip Wicklow to be the best I can to go up against those oppositions. Inevitably, in the National League, momentum is huge, and I think our start could have been kinder.

“Westmeath are probably going to be favourites to win the group out and it is a difficult journey to go to Cusack Park. They have some very good players, but it is also a great opportunity for ourselves to express ourselves and show what we can do, so with a view to me having been involved in the past, with either Westmeath or Louth, it’s not significant.

“My whole job is to prep the Wicklow team and as a management team and as a group of players, that is all we are trying to do.”

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