GAA Football

Tyrone's undisputed number one Niall Morgan and his ruthless pursuit of excellence

Niall Morgan says he still has plenty to learn as he prepares for today's Ulster final against Monaghan at Croke Park Picture: Seamus Loughran

As Niall Morgan prepares for this afternoon's Ulster final showdown with Monaghan, the Edendork clubman discusses with Brendan Crossan the scarring effects of Ballybofey 2013, his harrowing All-Ireland final preparations in 2018, pressure kicks and his reflections on the departure of Mickey Harte last year. 

 

NIALL Morgan remembers Pascal McConnell sitting on the team bus to Ballybofey cautioning him about what lay ahead for Tyrone’s Championship debutant.

‘Are you ready for this, Niall? This is going to be different.’

Morgan politely nodded to McConnell, a wise sage, but he still thought the elder goalkeeper was overstating it.

“We played Donegal at home that first year in the League,” Morgan recalls.

“I saved Michael Murphy’s penalty, I scored three points and got man-of-the-match and things started to take off. I went down and did the press day for the League final.

“We lost the League final [to Dublin by a point], but I thought: ‘This is it.’ Here was me coming in, 21-years-of-age, first choice goalkeeper for Tyrone. Everybody did a lying year under Mickey [Harte] unless you were really special. I went straight in thinking: 'I’m really special' - but I was wrong!"

As the team bus rolled into town McConnell, who kept goal in Tyrone's All-Ireland final wins in '05 and '08, sounded like a broken down record-player: ‘The League’s behind you. You have to be ready for this.'

“I remember thinking: How can it be different? There were 36,000 in the League final – there’s going to be 18,000 in Ballybofey. That’s half the crowd...

“I can still picture Packie on the bus saying all this and I was sitting going to myself: ‘Nah.’"

Edendork’s bright young thing, who couldn’t put a foot wrong after leaving Irish League club Dungannon Swifts to play for Tyrone at the start of 2013, was guzzled up by the sheer magnitude of the day.

With each long-range free that breezed wide of Donegal’s goalposts the Ballybofey crowd roared with approval.

At the height of summer, a panto villain was unveiled.

“First round of the Championship, five missed free-kicks, the whole thing went to pot. I cupped my ears for the one that I did score and I made a fool out of myself.”

The Tyrone dug-out was absolutely jammed, so McConnell decided to grab a pew a few rows back in the main stand of MacCumhaill Park, and watched through clasped hands as Morgan and Tyrone’s nightmare unfolded.

For McConnell, the rookie goalkeeper should have been taken off the frees.

“With each missed free Mickey kept flagging Niall up and it garnered greater noise from the Donegal crowd, it was greater pressure on him and I’m thinking to myself: ‘Mickey, we need to kind of protect this lad here. Could we not go short for one of these? Is there another option?'

“Of course, Niall has gone on to do what he has done for Tyrone but I thought at that stage he should have been afforded greater protection from management.”

A week after the humiliation Morgan hit eight frees for Edendork – where he plays outfield – and scored eight.

He suffered a lateral knee ligament injury a week after that and never got the chance to redeem himself in a Tyrone jersey for the rest of the year.

Upon his return to club and college action, he converted 17 consecutive frees before missing one.

But Ballybofey would niggle him forever and a day.

“We’ve had bad team days – the Kerry game a few of weeks ago where we conceded six goals was probably the most embarrassing I’ve ever had but, as an individual, Ballybofey was the worst experience imaginable.”

The scars remain from May 26 2013, but the psychological wounds of the day helped mould him into the goalkeeper he is today.

“I’d bought into everything that was being written about me. I know I was asked down to do that press day but I shouldn’t have been sent.

“I was allowed to be built up. I hate saying ‘regret’ but it’s something that I look back on and say that was a mistake.”

It took him three years to find redemption. In the 2016 Ulster final against Donegal in Clones, an early free was awarded to Tyrone approximately 45 metres from goal.

“I remember feeling the ball before I hit it - it was kind of flat and I was thinking: ‘Whatever you do, don’t change this ball because if you change it and miss, it’s going to be a disaster.’ [laughing]

“I went for absolute safety and curled it. I felt hitting that free and winning the final put it to bed and, of course, winning in Ballybofey in 2018 was the ultimate retribution.”

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APPROACHING two hours, this interview is drawing to a close. A late-morning sun mercilessly beats off the back of Niall Morgan’s house in Cookstown.

The colliding chunks of ice in the large jug of diluted orange on the glass table beside us melted a long time ago.

His wife Ciara and kids Críostaí and Maisie are due home after a few days away.

With an eerily quiet house to himself, the primary school teacher managed two rounds of golf (he plays off a handicap of six) and he stitched a few thousand words onto his dissertation based around the impact of COVID lockdown on children’s fitness.

Before we finish, I scan my notes. A scribbled heading says: ‘Games that niggle you’.

Kerry 2015? Mayo 2016? Most certainly.

The 2018 All-Ireland final?

Just turned 30, Morgan leans back on his chair and shrugs his shoulders.

Rated 6/1 underdogs to topple Jim Gavin’s Dublin in the final, Tyrone produced 18 majestic minutes of football.

Morgan’s first kick-out floats beautifully into Cathal McShane’s arms on the Cusack Stand side. He finds Kieran McGeary with an almost identical one moments later.

Ronan McNamee springs out of defence and Morgan locates him with what feels like a perfect five-iron. For his fourth, he switches to the left flank and pops one into the out-stretched arms of Rory Brennan.

It's an exhibition of placed kicking. He tries one down the centre and McGeary wins the break.

He fist-passes to Conor Meyler, accepts a return and cuts across the ball with the outside of his right boot. The ball spins on a smooth upward trajectory into the arms of Peter Harte.

Tyrone lead the All-Ireland champions 0-5 to 0-1. The Red Hand faithful are roused by their side's brilliant start.

Then the wheels come off in spectacular fashion. Morgan drills one down the centre of the pitch and down the throat of a Dublin player.

Moments later, he's picking the ball out of the back of the net after Paul Mannion thumps an unstoppable penalty into the top corner at the Canal End.

After a stuttering start, Dublin are purring.

A couple of hours earlier in the interview, Morgan revealed how he availed of some media-training hosted by the Gaelic Players Association, where he's now an executive member.

The training prepared him to deal with any tricky questions emanating from his collision with Paddy Andrews in a League game in March 2019, which resulted in the Dublin player suffering an unfortunate fractured jaw.

But no amount of media training helps when Morgan, quite openly, reveals the harrowing backdrop to his All-Ireland final preparations three years ago.

“I mis-hit the kick-out that led to the penalty that day,” he says matter-of-factly.

“We were 5-1 up, I looked up at the clock and there were 18 minutes gone. The next thing, two goals – bang, bang – and we lost.

“People were saying to me about being gutted but I wasn’t because Ciara and me lost a child that week. That was actually the second child we lost that year.

“The first child we lost was on the week of our first anniversary. After 11 weeks…. We were supposed to have our 12-week scan and Ciara woke up one morning…”

Morgan’s voice tails off.

“Everything that happened that week, was losing an All-Ireland final really the biggest deal?”

Several weeks before the final, a pregnancy test had revealed Ciara was pregnant.

But on the Monday before the final, the couple's worst fears came to pass. There was no sign of a baby.

“It was extremely tough. That’s why I never look back on the 2018 final with any regret.”

When Ciara got pregnant again less than a year later, naturally, the couple feared the worst.

Críostaí Morgan came into the world on the 5th of January 2020. For Niall and Ciara, lockdown wasn’t so bad as they got to spend every waking hour with their son.

Four months ago, Críostaí was joined by baby sister Maisie.

Before Tyrone's semi-final with Donegal earlier this month, their father scanned the Brewster Park stand and immediately spotted Ciara, Críostaí and Maisie.

“You’re always being told you’re a role model for other kids; but now you have your own kids, you want to be a role model for them,” he says.

“I know when Ciara pulls up here in a couple of hours and gets out of the car there’ll be a big smile on Críostaí's face when he sees me. Because they're that young, they think you’re gone if they don’t see you.

“After the Donegal match at Brewster, Ciara set him on the pitch and he just runs over to you. And that’s at 18 months! I don’t think Ciara knows how grateful I am to her, but I am.”

***************

MORGAN was slightly miffed when he heard two local sports journalists – this reporter and Declan Bogue – knew that Mickey Harte was stepping down before the players did.

On the morning of Friday November 13, 2020, Harte granted two one-to-one interviews at his Glencull home and it was agreed with them to break the news later that evening with the outgoing manager dropping a message into the players’ WhatsApp group explaining his decision to step down after 18 years in charge of the senior team.

“Whenever the change happened the biggest disappointment was that we then heard that yourself and Declan Bogue found out before us. That still doesn’t sit right with me.

“Put it like this: if I rang you to tell you I’m quitting Tyrone before I told Mickey, how would he have felt about that? Mickey might say some of the players pre-empted it… but, listen, with Feargal [Logan] and Brian [Dooher] coming in and the backroom team that's there, they’ve rejuvenated things...

“Mickey gave me an opportunity to play for Tyrone. It would have been easy to overlook me at that time because I wasn’t playing nets for the club.

“I did goals for Tyrone minors and U21s but at that stage I was playing soccer and wing half-forward for Edendork. When I was first approached I didn’t see it as something I wanted to do just yet and was happy to stay at the soccer but Mickey changed my mind within a couple of months.

“Mickey is a master of being able to get things his own way and I mean that in the nicest way possible…

“But sometimes you can die a hero or live long enough to see yourself as a villain – and maybe that was becoming the case with Mickey with Tyrone fans. That’s how I felt.

“We were running out of time. I was coming 30 this year [he reached the milestone on July 17]. Did I think the approach we had was going to get us over the line? I’m not quite sure if I’m honest. Things would have to change and things weren’t changing as quickly as I maybe would have liked.”

Despite a truncated League campaign and one bite at the Championship cherry this year, Morgan feels the side are more attack-minded and “freer” under Logan and Dooher. He enjoys everything about the new management's fresh approach and tweaks they've made on and off the field.

It helps too that the county has finally unearthed a couple of big men around the middle of the field in Brian Kennedy and Conn Kilpatrick.

Always conceding an aerial advantage to the elite teams meant that Morgan often had very little to aim at, which goes some way to explaining Tyrone’s penchant for the short kick-out.

For Morgan, the 2015 All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Kerry was one that got away and perhaps illustrated the team’s over-reliance on going short.

“We had to play players in midfield who are probably better in different positions simply because their [lack of] size.

“You were maybe going out against Kerry’s David Moran and Anthony Maher or Jack Barry who are 6ft 4in or 6ft 5in who are good in the air as well.

“Our game-plan against Kerry in 2015 was ‘go short, go short, go short - don’t kick it out to Maher and Moran...’

“But the thing was Kerry pressed up hard. It was probably 25 degrees but it was a wet day and it was so hard to get the kick-outs away.

“I remember lifting the paper on the Monday and I got slated; it was basically the kick-outs were my fault and I was thinking: ‘This is ridiculous’ because I was told to go short.

“Kerry put maybe eight men up and I was trying to squeeze it out to six of our men. We tried to get Collie [Cavanagh] to come and sit short on the wing to take Moran and Maher out of the game and I got a few away to him in the first half but in the second half they learned from it and broke it.

“Then we brought on Padraig McNulty and I drove two or three kick-outs right out to him and we actually won them; the word came round from the sideline: ‘Go short’, and I said: ‘We’re not winning it short’, but I was told: ‘Go short’.

“That was it. Looking back now I regret not making the call myself. And I suppose that’s one of the great things about the water break because you can sort things out then…

“Now, we’ve got Brian [Kennedy] who is 6ft 5in or 6ft 6in, we’ve Conn [Kilpatrick] who is 6ft 5in, we’ve got Ben McDonnell, we’ve now got options – and I think that’s what caught out Donegal last week.

“Last year, whenever we played them, we didn’t have that option and it means you’re not forcing the short kick-out. The relief of that pressure knowing I have an out-ball actually opens up more short options because you’re not thinking about squeezing a short kick-out and pushing through that gap.”

***************

MORGAN, who still coaches Edendork's U13s, has been Tyrone’s undisputed number one for the last nine years and has no intentions of giving up the jersey just yet.

“Unfinished,” is how he deems his tumultuous inter-county career.

During the two hours out his back, Morgan makes for easy company.

Perhaps it’s part of the ruthless pursuit of excellence, but he rarely talks about his good days keeping goal for Tyrone.

He obsesses over the ones that got away – even games within games.

“Even though I’m talked about as one of the top keepers in Ireland I’ve still a lot to prove because a lot of people will go back to that day in Ballybofey. It still lingers with me. That’s the truth of it.

“I’d like to think I’m continually learning. There was an article about the goal [Stephen] Cluxton conceded in the final two years ago and how he went in the next day and worked on this. But, like, we all do that.

“After that goal against Donegal last week, I’m watching the video and trying to work out what I could do differently.

“If I miss a free from a certain position I’ll try and work on it at training. Does that mean I’m going to score every free-kick I hit? Definitely not.

“But I do want to get better and whenever I’m talked about in that bracket I want to make sure it’s warranted.” 

He’s experienced the full gamut of emotions with Tyrone, and learned how fickle playing at elite level can be.

“When things are going well people are wanting to talk to you, they maybe want a signed jersey, or a pair of gloves, your WhatsApps are going crazy - and then you get hammered by Kerry and you’ve two aunties texting you and your mum saying ‘hard luck...’ (laughing)

If he could, what piece of advice would he offer to his 21-year-old self before entering the cauldron of Ballybofey back in 2013? 

“I’d probably say to him don’t get too high with the highs and too low with the lows, and listen to Packie on the bus and in the weeks leading up to the game.”

The scars of Ballybofey 2013 still linger for Niall Morgan Picture: Mark Marlow

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