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5 players to watch in this year's Connacht U21 football championship

The provincial campaign out West gets underway this week and here are our five to watch

THE EIRGRID CONNACHT U21 football championship swings into action this week when Mayo host Leitrim in Castlebar tomorrow evening.

Here, we pick a player from each of the five competing counties to keep tabs on in the race for Western glory.

1. Enda Smith (Roscommon)

Roscommon appear to have an embarrassment of riches at their disposal as they aim to go one better this year by capturing the All-Ireland U21 crown.

Before they can even begin to dream about national glory, the Rossies are hoping to capture a fourth provincial title in six seasons, following previous successes in 2010, 2012 and 2014. Roscommon have already lifted this year’s Hastings Cup and in the final against Galway, Ultan Harney and Noel Gately were in free-scoring form.

And Roscommon’s hand will be strengthened greatly by the returns of Diarmuid Murtagh and Enda Smith, who were both influential in the county’s march to last year’s All-Ireland final.

Murtagh was Roscommon’s leading scorer but Smith, now firmly established at senior level, was a more than useful foil and the Boyle man was man-of-the-match in the 2014 Connacht final victory over Leitrim.

Enda Smith Former minor star Enda Smith is aiming for another stellar season at U21 level Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

2. James Rooney (Leitrim)

James Rooney is Leitrim’s captain for the 2015 campaign and will lead last year’s beaten provincial finalists into action against Mayo on Wednesday evening.

It’s a big ask for the Connacht minnows and while they did contest last year’s showpiece against Roscommon, they were mowed down by 13 points.

But Rooney, from the Glencar Manorhamilton club, will believe that anything is possible, as he was one of the players who shocked Galway in the 2014 Connacht semi-final. He’s represented Leitrim from all levels right through from U14 to U21 and the talented dual player was also named as Leitrim’s young hurler of the year in 2011.

Rooney’s pedigree as a born leader is beyond reproach as he has also captured a number of underage, junior, intermediate and senior titles at club level.

Kevin McDonald and James Rooney James Rooney (right) is Leitrim's U21 captain and a born leader Source: James Crombie/INPHO

3. Cian Breheny (Sligo)

Cian Breheny’s star is in the ascendancy as he prepares for another U21 campaign with Sligo. Having made his full senior debut at midfield against Clare in this year’s National League, Breheny will be one of the Yeats County’s key men as they go in search of provincial glory in the U21 grade.

Son of Tommy and nephew of Sligo senior star Mark, Cian has played the last two League matches at midfield for the county’s senior team. Fellow U21 stars Kevin McDonnell and Criostoir Davey have also featured in this year’s Allianz League campaign and Sligo will need them at their best if they are to have any hope of ending their Connacht U21 championship famine.

Of the five competing teams, Sligo are the only county never to have won the provincial title in this key grade but they were beaten finalists in 2009, 2010 and 2012. Breheny had a two-week trial with AFL side Hawthorn Hawks last year and he was a member of the St Mary’s team beaten by Tubbercurry in the 2014 Sligo SFC final.

Michael Plunkett and Cian Breheny Having made his mark at minor level with Sligo, Cian Breheny is now making waves in the U21 and senior grades Source: James Crombie/INPHO

4. Stephen Coen (Mayo)

Mayo’s Stephen Coen is fast becoming used to national success. In 2013, the Hollymount-Carramore player captained the county’s minors to All-Ireland glory and he was in excellent form for UCD in their recent All-Ireland Freshers final victory over UCC.

Coen made his senior League debut against Kerry last month and his display on that occasion drew rich praise from joint-manager Noel Connelly. Coen was drafted into the senior set-up by former boss James Horan and looks set to become a mainstay at the elite level for many years to come.

He’s one of a number of players to feature in the Allianz League this year who will now take a step back to concentrate on U21 commitments, beginning with a home fixture against Leitrim on Wednesday evening in Castlebar. Mayo believe they can reach a Connacht final but if they get there, Roscommon could prove a step too far.

Stephen Coen and Paul Geaney Stephen Coen (left) made his senior League debut for Mayo against Kerry last month Source: James Crombie/INPHO

5. Adrian Nolan (Galway)

Dreams of Sigerson Cup glory for Adrian Nolan died at the first hurdle this year when NUI Galway were dumped out of the competition by St Mary’s, Belfast. But Nolan still harbours high hopes of another All-Ireland U21 success with Galway in 2015.

Nolan was a member of the victorious U21 squad in 2013 and has now emerged from the fringes to become a key player. Along with his fellow survivors from last year’s shock semi-final defeat to Leitrim, Nolan will be anxious to atone for that this year.

Nolan was substitute against Leitrim last season and one of the standout memories from the tie was the sight of the Killererin clubman being surrounded by a posse of opponents and blocked down as he attempted to get a shot away.

Nolan, a talented defender who likes to get forward, was captain of the Galway team that claimed Ted Webb Cup glory in 2010.

Adrian Nolan and Gary Kelly Adrian Nolan (left) in action for NUI Galway against DCU in last year's Sigerson Cup Source: James Crombie/INPHO

This article was originally published on 10 March at 18.34pm

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About the author:

Jackie Cahill

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