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6 players to watch in the Munster U21 football championship

The action gets underway down south this week, with Cork chasing a fifth successive title.

IT’S ALMOST SHOWTIME in Munster as the EirGrid provincial U21 football championship begins this week.

Here, we pick a player from each of the six competing counties to keep a close eye on in the race for Southern honours.

1. Ian Maguire (Cork)

The Rebels are going for a fifth successive Munster U21 crown and midfielder Ian Maguire will have a big say in whether or not they achieve that goal. Maguire has thankfully recovered from a back problem and has been picked in the team to play Limerick in Wednesday’s quarter-final.

Maguire’s injury saw him miss out on the bulk of UCC’s Sigerson Cup campaign and his presence was sorely missed on finals weekend. But the St Finbarr’s man is now fully recovered and will partner Darragh Murphy in the Cork engine room.

Maguire is one of six survivors from last year’s set-up, along with Michael Martin, Jamie Davis, Kevin White, Stephen Cronin and Kevin Crowley, who have been named in the starting line-up to face the Shannonsiders at the Gaelic Grounds.

Ian Maguire Ian Maguire will play a key role for Cork as they aim for a fifth straight Munster title Source: James Crombie/INPHO

2. Steven O’Brien (Tipperary)

A former dual All-Ireland minor medallist, O’Brien has been concentrating on the big ball at intercounty level in recent times. He made his senior championship debut against Galway at Pearse Stadium in 2013 and has gone from strength to strength since, forging a powerful midfield partnership with fellow young gun Colin O’Riordan.

O’Brien was a member of the county’s U21 football and hurling panels for the previous two seasons and he emulated the feat of Tipperary teammate Michael Quinlivan (UCC 2014) by claiming a Sigerson Cup medal this year, in the colours of DCU.

O’Brien is a high-fielding ball winner with a keen eye for a score, as evidenced by two points from play for Tipp against Clare in last Saturday’s Allianz Football League Division 3 tie.

Steven OÕBrien Steven O'Brien brings power and a scoring touch to the Tipperary team Source: James Crombie/INPHO

3. Conor Gleeson (Waterford)

Gleeson is Waterford’s main scoring threat as they look to upset hosts Clare in Milltown-Malbay on Wednesday evening. In the colours of The Nire, Gleeson claimed a county senior football championship medal last year and also netted the only goal of the game in the Munster championship victory against Limerick opponents Ballylanders.

Gleeson finished with 1-2 from play in that game and he had also impressed in the county final victory over Stradbally, scoring five points from play as an 18-year-old in the Déise showpiece.

Dual star Gleeson was centre back on the Waterford minor hurling team last year and while he’s expected to throw in his lot with the hurlers when the time comes to choose, fans of the big ball can appreciate his exceptional talent for now.

Conor Gleeson in action against John Galvin Conor Gleeson (right) is a gifted Waterford dual star Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

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4. Conor Keane (Kerry)

Conor Keane, from the Legion club in Killarney, was a prodigious minor and scored a total of 2-27 in championship fare in that grade. The ace forward captured a provincial minor championship medal in 2013 and is now hoping to add an U21 title to his collection.

Kerry haven’t won a Munster U21 crown since 2008 but with players of Keane’s calibre coming to the fore, surely it’s only a matter of time before the Kingdom end that drought. Ironically, Keane starred against his native county in the colours of IT Tralee in this year’s McGrath Cup, scoring 2-5 as the students shocked the admittedly depleted All-Ireland champions at the quarter-final stage.

Kerry senior boss Eamonn Fitzmaurice is keeping a close eye on Keane’s progress and at club level, he’s learning from one of the very best in teammate James O’Donoghue. Keane was sub against Cork in the 2013 and 2014 U21 championships but is now ready to make his mark.

Conor Keane Conor Keane's Kerry radar is usually in full working order Source: James Crombie/INPHO

5. Martin O’Leary (Clare)

Martin O’Leary will be hoping to kickstart his 2015 season during the Munster U21 championship. The Kilmihil hitman announced himself on the big stage with a string of impressive performances at senior level during last year’s Allianz League Division 4 campaign but has struggled to force his way into the Banner County’s starting line-up this season.

O’Leary is one of a number of senior panellists included in the Clare line-up for the visit of Waterford to Milltown-Malbay, along with Jamie Malone, Darren Nagle, Jack O’Dea and Keelan Sexton. Indeed, Malone was the only one of the quintet to start against Tipperary in Division 3 of the Allianz League last Saturday.

O’Leary made his senior championship debut against Waterford last summer and was one of just two Clare scorers when they were hammered by Tipperary in the 2014 U21 championship.

Martin O'Leary scelebrates scoring Martin O'Leary is one of five Clare seniors in the starting line-up to face Waterford Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

6. Gearoid Hegarty (Limerick)

Towering midfielder Gearoid Hegarty has been named as captain of the Limerick team for the 2015 U21 championship. And the Shannonsiders will need the St Patrick’s clubman at his very best if they are to have any chance of springing a surprise against visitors Cork at the Gaelic Grounds.

Hegarty is already used to mixing it with the big boys and while his club lost to Ballylanders in last year’s county final, he still emerged with real credit from a four-point defeat. Hegarty scored a point, created the St Patrick’s goal and smashed a shot off the upright in the early minutes.

Hegarty scored two goals for University of Limerick in their McGrath Cup defeat to Waterford earlier in the year but he was black-carded in UL’s Sigerson Cup quarter-final loss to IT Carlow.

Mark Sweeney and Gearoid Hegarty Gearoid Hegarty (right) is Limerick's captain for the 2015 U21 campaign Source: James Crombie/INPHO

This article was originally published on 10 March at 9.15pm

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About the author:

Jackie Cahill

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