GAA Football

Tyrone's Niall Morgan on lessons learned

Niall Morgan had a chastening Championship debut for Tyrone in Ballybofey but has become one of the country's best custodians since. Picture by Mark Marlow

NIALL Morgan's first step in championship football must have felt barefoot on to broken glass.

Ballybofey provided the most claustrophobic of afternoons on May 26, 2013.

A first National League campaign created hype. His long-range free-taking looked like an answer to an Achilles heel for Tyrone.

But he landed just one from six attempts that day, kicking four wide and dropping one short. The home crowd whipped themselves into a bigger frenzy with each miss.

His own reaction to the one he scored was a jumping, fist-pumping effort that only increased the wattage that shone on his subsequent efforts.

“I was thinking it would be the same as the League, I'd just go in and have the same mentality and play the same way.

"You go in to Ballybofey and they'll all screaming at you and booing you.

“It was hard to take. It was a steep learning curve but I was glad it happened in my first year and not my fifth or sixth year. At least I learned the lesson back then.”

Mickey Harte had first approached him the previous August, in Coalisland after a club championship game against Derrylaughan.

Morgan doesn't even start, the only time he hasn't started a championship game for Edendork, for whom he plays outfield.

”I came on and scored 1-3 so I was happy enough,” he smiles.

As a youngster, he dreamt of playing for Tyrone, but not as a goalkeeper.

His delivery into that path was more of a stumble borne of sheer desperation just to play football.

In fifth year and lower sixth he put himself forward for nets on the MacRory teams at St Patrick's Dungannon “because I didn't think I'd start outfield.”

He played outfield in upper sixth but he'd already crossed the eyes of Tyrone's under-17 academy squad, and was brought in as a ‘keeper. He stayed at it, wearing number one at minor and under-21 for the county, as well as St Mary's university.

Perpendicular was a blossoming soccer career. He was sub goalkeeper for Northern Ireland under-21s at a stage and had established himself as Dungannon Swifts' first choice in the Irish League.

He wasn't expecting Harte to approach him and, caught off guard, Morgan said no.

“I said to him I was going to stick to the soccer.

“I think it was because I didn't expect it to come about at that stage. I thought maybe when I was older. But I hadn't been doing goals and I didn't see myself doing goals for the county. I hoped I'd get a chance outfield but obviously that was never going to come.”

The resistance didn't last.

“The more I talked to people about it, my father especially, it was just the thought of getting to play for Tyrone, maybe play in front of 80,000 people and compete for Ulster titles and All-Ireland titles.

“I thought I was maybe past the point of getting a chance to go across the water in the soccer too.

“I'm just over 6'. Shay Given was the smallest ‘keeper in the Premiership at 6'1” at that stage and I was just thinking they were never going to pick a small lad from Northern Ireland to come over.

“When I thought about it, when I was a younger lad I wanted to play for the county and that convinced me to change eventually. I joined in January and I haven't looked back since.”

*

IF you're looking for him during the summer months, there are two places you'll find the Edendork Primary School teacher. The first is Garvaghey. The second is the tee-box.

Dungannon golf club is effectively a holiday home. Three times a week if he can, chiselling at a handicap of six.

Joe Timlin, a native of Derrylaughan, is his most regular playing partner.

But unlike most men from that part of the world, Joe has no real interest in football.

“He's golf on the brain.”

There are no questions about who's going well at training or who's injured or who'll start wing-half forward.

The golf is almost a form of escapism for Morgan who, not for the first time in his inter-county career, might have felt the walls closing in on him lately.

Moments before half-time in the Ulster final and a golden opportunity presents itself to Darragh O'Hanlon. Clean through, Morgan stands tall and closes the angle. O'Hanlon's shot flies past but as Morgan turns his head, he already knows it's going wide.

As he gathers himself, he leans into O'Hanlon and presents a few choice words in the Down man's ear.

The Twitterati instantly arm themselves for a self-righteous thumb war.

Every other shred of evidence about Morgan's career points to a growing maturity. But mud sticks.

And so instead of spending his 26th birthday on the Monday in a state of euphoric double celebration, Morgan spent half the day trying to defend himself on social media, where he revealed what he'd said to O'Hanlon:

[ITALICS] “I shouted ‘where's your chest now? Stick that big chest out now!' because he had done it against Armagh and Monaghan.” [ITALICS]

Now, three days after the comfortable All-Ireland quarter-final over Armagh, he admits: “I shouldn't have done it but I think I got a harder time for it than I deserved.

“It was actually quite ironic. Somebody wrote up on Twitter ‘that's typical of Morgan, he's always doing this sort of thing'. I was thinking I did it once in Ballybofey and once now.

“I'm not saying it's the last time I'll do something silly in my career because it's not. There'll be something somewhere along the line where you're in the heat of the moment and you react, or you say something you shouldn't have said, or react to the crowd. Everybody does at some point. That's just football.”

*

THE microscopic lens of the analysts will burn down again this weekend to a level he won't really have felt since Tyrone's last semi-final appearance against Kerry two years ago.

Éamonn Fitzmaurice implemented something they hadn't faced before. ‘Full-court press' entered the footballing lexicon that day. A green and gold shirt fearlessly paired every white one that went hunting inside their own 45.

A system built almost entirely on retention of short kickouts collapsed. With Anthony Maher and David Moran lording the skies, there was nowhere and nobody to kick to until Padraig McNulty came on, and by then the damage was done.

“Croke Park, as much as there are 70,000 people around you, it can become a very lonely place if you've lost two or three kickouts in a row,” he offers before the subject of that game is even brought up. Naturally, you delve in.

“Kerry had their homework done on us and realised we didn't want to go long too often. At one stage there was maybe eight or nine of them inside our 45'.

“No matter how big a pitch is, you're not going to find a short kickout if the other team's pressed up that much.”

That, far more than the events of MacCumhaill Park two years previous, has shaped a different approach.

Tyrone made minor adjustments to their kickout policy last year but this season has brought a whole new emphasis to the area of kickouts for the Red Hands.

On Tuesday nights, Morgan and Mickey O'Neill train with the rest of the squad. On Thursday nights, they work with three-time All-Ireland winner John Devine.

It's the first time the county has had a goalkeeping coach consistently involved with the senior setup.

As a team, they spent almost two full weeks after the end of the league working on their setup and positioning on restarts.

And the adaptability to go long when the short ball isn't on, the element that was so noticeably lacking two years ago, has already become a serious platform for attack.

“When you're trying to force a short kickout in Croke Park and you maybe lose one or two, there's a lot of pressure comes on you.

“Everybody knows what we're going to do if the short isn't on, and how to react to me so that I'm not standing there frantically waving my arms and shouting ‘get out, it's not any more'."

And as for the man at the other end tomorrow?

Stephen Cluxton has always shunned the limelight but a few chinks have forced through over the past six weeks amid celebrations of his breaking the all-time championship appearances record, last held by Tomás and Marc Ó Sé.

Morgan has always been a fan and, like all goalkeepers, a student.

“People keep saying it but there's no truer statement: he's completely revolutionised goalkeeping.

“Outfielders might get a bit of credit for the runs they're making but unless there's a ‘keeper there to pick out the runs…. And there's no better man. There'll never be a better man, I think, to pick a kickout out like him.”

Tomorrow will be Cluxton's 90th championship appearance for Dublin and Morgan's 21st for Tyrone. That's some chasm to try and bridge but the newly-married teacher sees no reason why he couldn't still be playing a decade from now.

“When you grow up as a young Gaelic footballer, you aspire to play for your county.

“People keep saying it's a young man's game and it's easy to play when you're single, but if Sean Cavanagh has a wife, two children and gone through a job change recently and can still commit, anyone can.

“It's easy for boys to find an excuse not to but if you want to commit, you'll find a way.

"I aim to find a way for as long as the Tyrone manager wants me in his plans.”

To still be playing in three weeks' time would do for now.

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