Down U20 star John McGovern hoping to impress with Northern Ireland U21s in European Championship qualifiers

Down's John McGovern tangles with Roscommon's Dylan Gaughan during the All-Ireland U20 Football Championship semi-final. Pic Philip Walsh.
Down's John McGovern tangles with Roscommon's Dylan Gaughan during the All-Ireland U20 Football Championship semi-final. Pic Philip Walsh.

THE latest chapter in John McGovern’s unforgettable sporting year began when he was named in the Northern Ireland U21 squad for the European Championship qualifiers against Russia and Spain.

The “out of the blue” call-up came after the 18-year-old Ballyholland native had played a crucial role in Down’s Ulster U20 Championship success in July and he’s nailed down a place in Darren Mullen’s Newry City side since then.

His form in Newry’s bright start to the season obviously didn‘t go unnoticed and Linfield manager David Healy was watching from the stands at the Showgrounds when McGovern starred in City’s comeback win against Ards last month. Already an U19 international, he hopes to make his U21 debut in the double-header which begins in Moscow on Friday and continues in Seville next Tuesday.

“I got a call to say I was on the stand-by list,” explained McGovern, who made his senior debut for City at the start of this season.

“That was a big achievement for me and I just got prepared and tried to get everything ready as if I was going and then I got a bit of good karma when I got a phonecall to say I was in the squad.”

He’s in the squad with promising youngsters from cross channel clubs like Manchester United’s Ethan Galbraith, Alfie McCalmont (Leeds) and Chelsea’s Sam McClelland – all full internationals already.

“I’m just trying to learn off them so when I come back to Newry I can bring things with me,” says McGovern.

“I was very nervous at the start but when you get your head around it and play your own game you fit in with everyone and you start playing well, moving the ball quicker and doing everything that everyone else is doing.

“You step up your game because of the quality of people you’re playing with. It improves you a lot.”

Off the pitch, the former Abbey CBS student is in the first year of a Business and IT degree at Queen’s. It’s fair to say that he has plenty on his plate and McGovern says soccer and his education are his two main objectives at present.

Who knows what lies ahead, but if he doesn’t go on to wear the red and black jersey at senior level Down’s U20 success last summer will live long in his memory.

“It was one of the most professional set-ups I’ve been in in terms of GAA,” he says.

“Conor (Laverty), Marty (Clarke) and the rest of the management all chipped in together and from the very start there was a spark there and everyone knew we could definitely achieve something.”

Blessed with pace and reserves of stamina, McGovern buzzed around the field throughout Down’s run to the Ulster title. The campaign began with victory over Cavan and McGovern contributed three fine points in the semi-final win against Fermanagh. Monaghan proved a tough nut to crack in the provincial decider but Down got over the line after extra-time to clinch their first-ever title at U20 level and their first Ulster title since the U21 success in 2009.

“For Down to win an Ulster Championship at any grade was a big lift for everyone in the county,” says McGovern who landed a point in the All-Ireland semi against Roscommon before a Rossies’ fightback meant they progressed to the final.

“I’ve watched that game back three or four times and I’ve been kicking myself,” he says.

“The amount of opportunities that we gave away and missed chances and the silly mistakes that we made. We didn’t really turn up on the day.

“But if somebody had said at the start of the season: ‘You are going to win Ulster and get to the All-Ireland semi-final’ you would have given your right arm for it.

“The calibre of the players we had probably hadn’t been seen in Down for a long time and as long as that group sticks together and pushes on then Down should have a quality senior panel in the next few years.”

Unfortunately for the Down faithful, at this stage it doesn’t look like McGovern will be among the senior graduates. He won’t be back from international duty until October 13 so he’ll miss Ballyholland’s Down SFC quarter-final against Glenn next Monday. If the Harps come through it, he’ll do his best to be available for the semi-final but it isn’t easy battling away on multiple fronts.

“At the minute, I’m leaning towards soccer, or trying to lean towards it, as a career,” he says.

“At the minute I’m playing soccer and I’m at university so they’re my main focus. Ballyholland are still in the championship and I try to play whenever I can but it’s very hard to balance it all and keep yourself right.

“I know boys that play soccer and Gaelic and they’re out of the house nearly every night of the week, I tried to do it for a while but you pick up wee niggles and knocks and you think you can play through it but inevitably you need to look after yourself just for longevity purposes.

“I’m trying to balance it out – obviously if an offer (from a soccer club) came along I would happily go but I have to think: ‘If I was to get an offer, would it be worth leaving my studies’ and ‘If I finished my university degree, what options I would have?’ So it’s a mixed bag deciding what I would like to do.

“When I was younger there was some interest from clubs but my da told me to get my GCSEs and my A-Levels and get to university and see where it went. That advice has kept me right so far.”