GAA Football

Growing up fast: Ciaran McFaul on football, life and a summer in Boston

Ciaran McFaul first joined a Derry panel in 2012 and has been a regular since, but he's still only 24. He's packed a lot into those years, including last summer playing alongside Diarmuid Connolly in Boston, but as he tells Cahair O'Kane, he's ready to settle in and drive Derry forward…

Derry forward Ciaran McFaul. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

CIARAN McFaul will celebrate his 25th birthday on Sunday. He’s had to do a lot of growing up already.

The Glen man was earmarked early as a talent from no age, one of the key components in the first two of the club’s four consecutive Ulster minor club titles at the beginning of this decade.

Brian McIver called him into the Derry setup as a teenager in 2012. McFaul, by then, was on the books at Specialist Joinery having left St Patrick’s Maghera at the end of fifth year and initially gone down the sporting route at the Northern Regional College.

He was only 21 when he became a father to Darragh. Priorities changed.

It was football on the brain until there was a family to support. When the call came for the sixth year running about playing a summer’s football in America, he saw a delayed club championship coming down the track. He bit.

McAnespie’s had been first on but when Donegal Boston came looking and he heard who he’d playing alongside, it removed the element of choice.

Diarmuid Connolly. Liam Silke. Brendan Murphy. Michael Carroll. Eoin McHugh. Shane Carthy. Oisin O’Neill. This was a club on a mission. With eyes on buying a house with girlfriend Claire and their son, the offer was simply too good for McFaul to turn down.

All eyes were on Connolly following his demotion from the Dublin panel and his decision to travel. McFaul would steal the limelight on his debut, hitting 3-2 against Connemara Gaels, and the Derry man had a huge impact on their success.

McFaul didn’t know what to expect of the St Vincent’s man but McFaul says he brought a culture with him that showed why his graceful talents are so widely regarded.

“He went to yoga every morning. A lot of boys there were eating whatever, but we all signed up to the gym, he was there every day, doing his yoga, eating right.

“You knew by his lifestyle, it’s no wonder he’s so good. He took leadership, we were doing all Dublin’s drill-based stuff.

“It was all football, big into kicking and moving the ball quickly. I was out two weeks before he came out, all we did was fist-passing the Donegal way.

“Connolly came out and said ‘no, I’m not used to playing that way, we’re not doing that’. After that our coach, Barney Curran brought in a lot of kicking.

“I enjoyed it out there, the 13-a-side was free-flowing. The pressure was off you, a good lifestyle, good weather. Just completely different.

“There were a couple of teams played defensive football against us but they couldn’t really do it because there was that much space. It was free-flowing, fast. We were kicking, the movement and all was unreal, I started enjoying football again.”

The game had begun to weigh on him at home. McFaul opted out during the league campaign in 2016 but returned for championship. He planned to take 2017 out as well but ended up getting drawn back in.

“I just couldn’t get the time more than anything. It was nearly stressful and I wasn’t putting in as much effort as I should have been, because I wasn’t getting to the gym, I was just wasting my time nearly going up to Derry. That’s when I did come off and then it settled down and I said I did want to go at it again.

“Even the weekends away, the time in 2014 [when Derry reached the Division One final] we were away to Cork and Kerry, it’s a lot with a wean that age, it’s hard to get time.

“The last couple of years [prior to McErlain’s reign] I wasn’t really enjoying it, you’re nearly going up to Owenbeg for the sake of it. Not that you’re going nowhere, it’s just that there’s that many changes we didn’t have a solid panel.

“I felt like I’d too much at home to worry about when boys are coming and going and missing training.

“I just needed that break, because I don’t like committing half-hearted. You’re only wasting your time and the panel’s time. I want to give it a good go for the next couple of years.”

Boston helped with the house, into which they will move next week. He’d spent 18 months looking for a place at home in Maghera, at one stage almost giving up and conceding that he might have to move to Claire’s hometown, Dungiven.

But the phone call came on Christmas Day that a new build had become available, and they viewed it on Boxing Day. It’s another step into maturity.

He admits his game had to turn. The talent’s hanging out of him. Physically, he loves it. But there was always the “cheap stuff”, as he calls it, which would lead him into trouble with referees.

“The last couple of years I’ve taken it out of my game. I still play on the edge but the cheap stuff, I’m trying to cut it out as much as possible.”

He was still in the country for Derry’s two championship games last year. Some of the faces were new but the issues were old.

Defensive fragilities have undermined the Oak Leafers in recent seasons. McFaul feels that the introduction of former Tyrone player Ciaran Meenagh to the setup this year will go a long way towards solidifying things.

The Red Hands will be their first championship opponent in May, and while Donegal are the reigning Ulster champions, it’s still Mickey Harte’s side that set the benchmark for McFaul.

“Playing Tyrone, it’s night and day from the weaker teams because of their setup, their communication, their system of play.

“They’ve been together five or six years and that’s the big point, they all know their roles. That’s what we’re aiming to be.

“We’ve been getting numbers behind the ball but we haven’t had a structure in place.

“We went into the Tyrone games the last couple of years [2016 and 2017] thinking we were well setup but really we weren’t, we didn’t know our roles. I think Ciaran will make a big difference in that sense.”

Tyrone’s on-field cohesion can be traced directly to their off-field togetherness. With a revolving door bringing widespread change in personnel on almost an annual basis at Owenbeg, that’s something Derry haven’t been able to build in recent years.

McFaul sees improving the team’s bond off the pitch is the key ingredient in helping them achieve on it.

“I mind someone saying the first year I was there that Derry never gels together socially off the pitch. That’s massive for this current group, that so many of them are around the same age group and the boys do know each other. We’re trying to get everyone together.

“I read an article with Aidan O’Shea saying that the Mayo players never see their club team-mates at all, it’s all about the Mayo players and that’s maybe why they’ve got so far.”

Through sports psychologist Dr Noel Brick, Derry are trying to rectify that. It’s all one big circle. The smiles will come back with wins. The cycle has to start against Antrim, or it could become a whirlpool instead.

Ciaran McFaul’s done a lot of his growing up. Derry have a bit of it to do now.

**

HOW WILL DERRY DO?
SUNDAY will tell the tale. The reality is that Division Four is likely to be a very definite three-horse race between Derry, Antrim and Wexford. Win the games against those two – the second of which is at home – and Damian McErlain’s side would go back into Division Three. His hand is bereft of experience, with Mark Lynch and Sean Leo McGoldrick retired and James Kielt opting out. Benny Heron is due back next month, while Liam McGoldrick is set to return towards the end of the league when his travels finish.

Only Chrissy McKaigue and Enda Lynn would fall under the bracket of experienced, with the likes of Karl McKaigue (26), Ciaran McFaul and Emmett Bradley – both just 25 this year – left to pick up the tab.

Their defence will be boosted by Gareth McKinless’ return and the full-time availability of the Slaughtneil troupe. The absence of Brendan Rogers, Karl McKaigue and Chrissy McKaigue for recent league campaigns has left a gaping chasm in the defence that has been at the heart of their tumble. The latter may well end up playing in a holding midfield role this year, as he did in the McKenna Cup semi-final loss to Tyrone.

There are four options for the goalkeeping slot that has had no regular incumbent. Odhran Lynch is the latest to join in and with the biggest range of kick, the most comfort on the ball and all the usual set skills, the Magherafelt man – and cousin of Mark – could well be the man.

Much stock will be placed on Shane McGuigan in attack, and there may be a temptation to loosen the strings on Emmett Bradley and allow him to play further forward than midfield, from where he so impressed last year.

The materials at hand are very young, with the likes of Sean Francis Quinn, Eoghan Concannon, Ben McCarron and Jason Rocks doing well in January.

There is plenty to do but they should still win the division.

ONES TO WATCH
AFTER a run of four consecutive Ulster finals, two of them ending in success, there is hope that the blooms are starting to show above ground. They went into the McKenna Cup with an exceptionally young defence, most notably the full-back line, yet they held up superbly well. Out of that, Eoghan Concannon (Steelstown), Conor Mulholland (Lavey) and Sean Francis Quinn (Swatragh) all propelled themselves into serious contention.

Patrick Coney has played championship football but this could be a big year for him, while his Loup clubmate Jason Rocks – who plays a similar type of game – is another option to provide the energy on the wings. Ryan Dougan had a big season with Glen last year, and although now in his mid-20s, he could prove a useful addition.

Ben McCarron’s name was the one on everyone’s lips after his hat-trick against Fermanagh, but he may be held for under-20 duty. Odhrán Lynch isn’t far removed from an historic MacRory Cup success with St Mary’s Magherafelt two years ago, but he will be serious contender for the number one shirt alongside Thomas Mallon, Ben McKinless and Oran Hartin.

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