GAA Football

Derry defender Niall Keenan is ready to take on mighty Tyrone

Derry defender Niall Keenan at Owenbeg.
Picture Margaret McLaughlin

IF you judge a man by the company he keeps then Niall Keenan is a top player.

You’d know that anyway if you ever watched the Castledawson clubman in action.

The Slaughtneil players in the Derry defence – certainly Chrissy and Karl McKaigue and Brendan Rogers – may be better known, but pound-for-pound Keenan is the best of them.

OK, physique is a factor in that calculation, but Keenan has been building himself up, in a purely physical sense.

Derry’s loss last summer may be their gain this year.

Keenan went to the USA, to Donegal Boston, and played alongside Diarmuid Connolly of Dublin, Donegal’s Eoin McHugh, Galway’s Liam Silke and a couple more Corofin men, among others.

“It was some team – we had [fellow Derryman] Ciaran McFaul, Oisin O’Neill from Crossmaglen, Eoin McHugh, Conor Small, Dylan Wall, Jason Leonard, Brendan Murphy from Carlow – I don’t want to forget anyone, there was definitely a lot of quality.”

There were lessons on and off the pitch for Keenan.

“Obviously it was a very enjoyable summer, we were playing a high quality of football as well, it wasn’t much of a step down. It was good to get away and playing with players of that quality, it’s a good, free-flowing game out there too, enjoyable football.”

Keenan was a corner-back in the 13-a-side games, but even though Connolly sometimes operated at corner-forward, the Derry lad laughed when asked if he’d marked him in training:

“Nah – I backed away. Looked for someone a wee bit smaller, usually. I’d have been the smaller of the two in the full-back line, Liam Silke was the other corner-back, he was well fit for him.”

There were still lessons learned, though: “It definitely is always good to be talking to players from other counties and getting their input on how things are going in their county and how things are going here. They bring a serious level of professionalism and they’re very experienced, so you do feed off that.”

Although America may be perceived as ‘fun in the sun’, Keenan insists there was serious effort put in too: “We worked five days a week, doing a bit of labouring, so you don’t really get much time off. It’s not much different from the club season here. Training is tough and there’s good quality coaching out there as well.

“You ‘re not going out there and getting things easy; you might think that before you get out there - and then you get out there and you’re working just as hard as you were at home.

“It was pretty scary, the first few days. I remember me and Conor Small were in a house carrying in boards of plasterboard up the stairs, two at a time! We were trying to prove a point on our first day that we were hard workers.

“It gets enjoyable in a way. It’s good to be exposed to that kind of work in a way too. Out in the heat, it can be difficult at times.”

Still, he was glad to return home, and to representing his county: “Being away, you do miss it quite a lot – I love playing for Derry. It was great to get back. I was watching Championship games and it was tough not being on the pitch, you just want to be out there. You do come back hungry and you want a wee bit more.”

Keenan might have made it in another code, impressing at rugby in his teens with Rainey Old Boys from Magherafelt: “We won an Ulster League in Under-17s on the club scene. We were beaten in three finals in under-18s, the same team beat us in the three finals.”

A good enough out-half to be called to the Ulster Academy, Keenan recalls: “I loved rugby but it came to the stage where it was rugby or Gaelic so I went with Gaelic.

“They [Rainey OB] were promoted at the weekend. I couldn’t go to them now, training three times a week. They would be expecting a bit of commitment too.”

Modestly, he says his rugby game wasn’t without flaws: “Me being a corner-back, kicking wouldn’t be the best aspect! I had to do bits of both, running and kicking, depending on the situation.”

However, he continues to display an admirable versatility, and an appetite for the physical aspects of Gaelic football:

“Rugby is obviously a very physical game and you have to be able to step up to the mark and deal with the bigger, stronger players. I am sure that helped me.”

Having made his name as a man-marker, Keenan played as a wing-back in this year’s league, and such flexibility may be required this weekend against Tyrone:

“It really depends on the game. We have a panel that can change depending on who we are coming up against. Primarily for me, I’m usually put out to mark someone. Whatever role I’m given I’ll happily do it, and hopefully do it to the best of my ability.

“I’ve been playing more half-back this year, which has given me more freedom to push forward, which I enjoy. I play a similar role at club level. It’s obviously nice to get forward, put the [opposition] forward on the back foot and push on from there.

“The way football is now, your half-backs need to be pushing forward an awful lot, especially on the counter-attack. I’ve had to improve my fitness and speed to, hopefully, be able to compete at that level and push on, wherever I am on the field.

“But whatever role I’m given… I enjoy man-marking, I enjoy that challenge too, so I’ll happily take that, if it comes to that.”

Pushing on applies to Derry as a whole, he concludes: “I wasn’t actually part of McKenna Cup panel, I go to Queen’s so I had to play with them.

“I know Derry had a couple of good performances against them and I’m sure that’ll stand by us. Tyrone always put out a good team in the McKenna Cup.

“We want to be doing more than competing as well, but we played some good football in those games and we’ve definitely pushed on since then.”

When push comes to shove, Niall Keenan is ready to take on Tyrone.

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