Morgan a class above in a year when netminders stepped up

Mayo's  Bryan Walsh has his goal chance blocked by Tyrone's Niall Morgan during the  GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship final between Tyrone and Mayo at Croke Park Dublin on 09-11-2021. Pic Philip Walsh
Mayo's Bryan Walsh has his goal chance blocked by Tyrone's Niall Morgan during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship final between Tyrone and Mayo at Croke Park Dublin on 09-11-2021. Pic Philip Walsh

IN the year that goalkeeping truly went mainstream, it was fitting that the best ‘keeper in Ireland was one of the bravest exponents of all the position’s suddenly-fashionable idiosyncrasies.

Niall Morgan has been in the conversation for years, but never quite directing it.

‘He’s one of the best.’

‘Cluxton, Beggan, Morgan, etc’. Always on the list but never first.

That changes this summer.

The purpose of this piece was supposed to be to argue a case for all the various contenders for the number one spot on the Irish News’ Ulster Allstar team.

And in any other year you could do that.

You could take Rory Beggan’s form finding an upward trajectory again, with his presence as an extra ball-carrier when Monaghan are attacking becoming ever more central to how they play.

His fingerprints were on Monaghan’s massive second-half improvement in the Ulster final.

That was the day goalkeeping became the star attraction. That game will always be best remembered for how both goalkeepers played so much of the afternoon around the middle of the field.

Beggan’s presence helped swing the tide and his late goal-saving tackle on Mattie Donnelly almost salvaged a provincial crown. If it had, this would all be a very different conversation.

Ordinarily you could make a case for Shaun Patton as easily as he strikes a football 70 yards off a tee.

What he lacks in comfort on the ball he more than makes up for with a kicking ability that no other goalkeeper in the land can match.

When Derry tried to outfox Donegal in Ballybofey with a pseudo-press that involved six forwards right up in his face, but Gareth McKinless still sitting back sweeping, Patton picked it apart with ease.

His ability to find the spare man and hit him was his team’s best counter-attacking weapon that day.

And even when Tyrone made use of their spare man to make life difficult for him in the Ulster semi-final, there were still big saves in his locker to deny Darren McCurry and Kieran McGeary.

On the opposite end for Derry in Ballybofey was a young goalkeeper with all the raw materials but who is still learning his trade in an unforgiving environment.

Odhran Lynch will be Derry’s number one for a decade and more if he wants. The physical, aerial presence, the shot-stopping ability and the ability to hammer the ball a big distance off the tee, it’s all there.

But it’s only three years since he won a MacRory Cup and this is a game that allows enormous pressure to be placed on goalkeepers’ kickouts. Lynch is still learning to deal with that.

Raymond Galligan was last year’s national and Ulster Allstar winner but had fewer chances to impress this year.

Cavan’s league campaign was fairly disastrous and in the same knockout format that aided their remarkable success in 2020, they were undone by Tyrone on a day when Galligan still scored and was crisp on his kickouts.

Down’s Rory Burns was the ultimate victim of the abridged championship. He always had to vie for his spot under Paddy Tally, coming in and out of the team, but he was almost single-handedly responsible for keeping them in Division Two.

The Castlewellan man denied John Heslin from a late penalty in a one-point victory over Westmeath, and then made save after save in their relegation playoff against Laois.

His strength is in the old-school ability to keep the ball out of the net, but perhaps he and Marc Reid have both been hamstrung by the county’s crazy lack of a kickout strategy that far predates their own inter-county careers.

Blaine Hughes’ season was a case of not knowing what you have until it’s gone. The Armagh goalkeeper has been steady since a fine breakthrough year in 2017, but when he was struck down by the Covid curse before the Ulster semi-final, Kieran McGeeney was forced to throw in a complete rookie.

Shea Magill was fresh meat to Monaghan’s insatiable appetite to pressurise him. You can’t criticise a debutant thrown into that environment, but it showed how important Hughes has become to Armagh.

Luke Mulholland became Antrim’s latest custodian while Sean McNally has taken a grip on Fermanagh’s number one jersey, but both are very much in the fledgling stage of their careers.

On the 2021 season, there’s a big gap between any of them and Niall Morgan.

His imperfections are what they are. There will always be moments and days when a kickout gets shanked. That’s no different to anyone, but Morgan’s have always been subject to greater scrutiny.

This year he stood up to the scrutiny. His displays from start to finish were hugely influential in terms of what Tyrone are under Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher.

The Edendork midfielder was helped by having the other Edendork midfielder, Conn Kilpatrick, and Brian Kennedy of Derrylaughan to kick it at.

Morgan’s performances in the Ulster final and the All-Ireland final were the big-game performances that offset any criticism.

Aside from his kickouts, even beyond the forays to midfield on the opposition kickout, it was how he would act so often as their sweeper. Cutting out a ball and driving it 80 yards right over the top for Darren McCurry’s goal chance early in the final was almost as memorable as the free he kicked from near the halfway line against Kerry.

It has been Niall Morgan’s best season by the same comfortable margin by which he has been the best goalkeeper in Ireland, never mind Ulster, this year.

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