GAA Football

Niall Keenan glad to have followed Oak path

Derry's Niall Keenan and Donegal's Lorcan Connor are both hoping to get their hands on the Ulster U21 FC trophy, The Irish News Cup.
Cahair O'Kane

HAD he carried on down a different path, Niall Keenan could still have ended up in a white and red jersey, but in very different circumstances.

The Derry defender will be assigned a key man-marking job as always in tonight’s EirGrid Ulster under-21 final with Donegal, but as a youngster he showed also great talent on the rugby field.

His performances at out-half for Rainey Old Boys’ youth teams saw the Castledawson man drafted into Ulster’s under-17 academy. But that was the beginning of the end for him and the oval ball.

“I was on the Derry minors and Ulster would do Saturday sessions, which would have been all day. I never went to any of them, and you could tell they were a bit frustrated with it.

“Especially as out-half, they’d be going through all these moves and it would come a match and I wouldn’t have a clue.

“It came to under-18, I got a call once but I said no at the start of the year. There was a wee thing about maybe getting me back near the inter-provincials but it never would have worked. I would have been coming in with no idea how the team plays.

“With Rainey after that, it was either commit to it fully or you were playing IVs every Saturday, which wasn’t ideal with your [Gaelic] matches on Sundays.”

His final season with the Magherafelt club saw them reach three finals at under-18, but they lost all of them to Dromore. And for Keenan, that was that.

Rugby’s loss is most definitely Derry’s gain. With a composure and confidence far beyond his years, the 20-year-old has been always a feature on the county’s underage teams a year ahead.

He was a starting corner-back at 17 when they stunned Donegal in an Ulster minor semi-final at Clones, with Declan Bonner’s Tír Chonaill charges having been tipped for All-Ireland success in that summer of 2015.

The same expectation and hype is beginning to build around this under-21 crop that will turn out for the last ever provincial final at the grade before it changes to under-20 next year.

“I know going into that game, we were massive underdogs, they were being tipped for the All-Ireland that year,” he recalls.

“Same thing today, we’ll need a similar type of performance on Monday night. It definitely helps that we know we have it in us.”

The under-21s’ run to this Ulster final, through a path that contained reigning champions Monaghan and a fancied Armagh side, was just the fillip the county needed.

He was among a handful of youngsters thrown in at the deep end at senior level during the National League, where Derry’s defence had a fresh-faced look about it.

Too fresh-faced, as the statistics bore out, conceding 11 goals and suffering relegation to the third tier.

But in the long run, Keenan sees the experience as having a positive impact on those that went through it.

“I know I was one of the inexperienced players. We did concede a lot in the League this year and it’s something we definitely need to work on.

“A lot of it’s been put down to inexperience and how open we were at the back, but then you can see runners coming through.

”A lot of the basis of the senior teams was the under-21 team and I know they were struggling but it’ll only make them better. They were playing against the best players. It’s definitely helped us with the under-21s.

“When you’re playing games week in, week out at inter-county against some of the best forwards about, that’s practice in itself.”

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