Every day is a school day for Tyrone goalkeeper Niall Morgan

Off to a tee... Niall Morgan picks out a Tyrone jersey from a kick-out. Pic Philip Walsh.
Off to a tee... Niall Morgan picks out a Tyrone jersey from a kick-out. Pic Philip Walsh. Off to a tee... Niall Morgan picks out a Tyrone jersey from a kick-out. Pic Philip Walsh.

A DECADE ago, 2013, Niall Morgan burst onto the inter-county scene as part of the first wave of free-kick-taking goalkeepers who were comfortable outside the safety of their square.

They’re more-or-less the norm now but 10 years’ ago (and where did that time go?) they were a new breed. Morgan begins his 11th season as Tyrone’s trusted custodian with three Ulster titles and an All-Ireland medal in his impressive collection but the Edendork PS teacher admits he’s still learning.

Last year was a massive lesson for the Red Hands on how, if and when you think you’ve made it, your rivals will invariably bring you back to earth – everybody wants to take a cut at the All-Ireland champions.

But if last season was a disappointment, it was only so because of the remarkable feats of the previous summer when Tyrone won Ulster and All-Ireland titles at Croke Park and Morgan’s form was nothing short of superb.

It reached a peak in the final against Mayo when the Edendork clubman gave a commanding performance that ticked every box of the goalkeeping art. He scored three points (two frees and a 45), made a crucial save from Brian Walsh in the first half. Alongside that, his kick-outs and general distribution were of the highest standard and he provided the assist of the season for Darren McCurry’s goal chance which was well saved by his opposite number Rob Hennelly.

Last year’s collective loss of form wasn’t a conscious decision. There were a number of retirements which destabilised the dressing room and they didn’t help but Morgan admits that Tyrone did begin 2022 resting on their laurels.

As the season wore on and one unconvincing performance was followed by another scrappy display, it became clear that, at their best, Tyrone were up there with the best – anything less and they were beatable. 

“Last year we were riding the crest of a wave really and we were thinking it was just a case of doing it all again,” said Morgan.

“We probably took our eye off some of the things that we were doing really well and tried to do things differently instead of keeping it very similar. When you’re winning it’s probably easier for other teams to work out what you’re doing right and how to go against that.

“We all wanted to get better in areas we needed to improve on so we maybe neglected the other areas. We all felt we were working hard but we suffered because we neglected the stuff that was serving us well.

“So it was a very stark lesson for us that you’re never the finished article and you have to be constantly changing and evolving and making your own game better.”

2022 is history now and Tyrone’s players have begun 2023 with a familiar bounce back in their step.

Last Saturday night’s impressively solid performance (apart from their finishing in difficult conditions) at Kingspan Breffni booked them a place in tomorrow’s Dr McKenna Cup and another joust with Ulster champions Derry.

The first meeting was enough to fire up both sets of players’, management and supporters on a cold night at Owenbeg but whatever happens at the Athletic Grounds tomorrow, Morgan says the “back to basics” approach Tyrone have reverted to since pre-season training began has served them well.  

“It’s back to hard work and focussing on our hand-passing, our kick-passing, carrying the ball well, trying to be more efficient in our tackling,” he said

“If you look back to the games last year, we didn’t become a bad team overnight, but we just weren’t as efficient as we had been the previous year.

“In 2021 we didn’t need as many shots to score, we were turning teams over quicker and last year we just weren’t working hard enough basically during games. So it’s back to basics, trying to get turnovers quicker and being more structurally sound.

“We all have the attitude that we need to prove ourselves again. Last year we maybe felt that we had proved ourselves. You don’t say it out loud and you don’t mean for it to happen but it is in the subconscious a wee bit that you’ve got an All-Ireland medal, you’ve got over that hurdle.

“Now we’re back to square-one. There’s new men in the squad who don’t have an All-Ireland medal and they have something to prove.”

THE new recruits include several of the stars of last year’s All-Ireland U20 championship-winning team. Nothing shakes a tried-and-tested regular out of the comfort zone like the arrival of an ambitious youngster and Morgan urged the new batch of hopefuls to grab their chance at senior level.

“We always say in Tyrone about our competitive club championship and there are boys who have been performing well for their clubs for the last number of years and they definitely deserve their opportunity,” he said.

“It’s one thing looking good on the training pitch, it’s another grabbing a jersey on match-day at county level because it’s a massive step-up. I always say there’s club players, there’s county players and then there’s the in-between group who are good enough to be there but don’t make the ultimate step and we have had a number of them in Tyrone over the last number of years.

“It’s up to the new crop not to fall into that category and make their mark as a county player and not an in-betweener.

Of course he’s right about the Tyrone senior championship – it is Ireland’s most competitive county series. The O’Neill Cup has had seven winners in the last seven seasons. You have to go back to 2004/2005 for the last back-to-back winners (Carrickmore).

Errigal Ciaran’s exertions in 2022 probably counted against them in the Ulster series but Galbally (at intermediate level) and Stewartstown Harps (junior) both reached All-Ireland finals.

“It’s something that we pride ourselves on – on any given day, one club can beat any other,” said Morgan.

“Errigal came up against a very experienced Glen side and the experience Glen gained (from playing in Ulster last year) obviously stood by them.

“If a team in Tyrone could do a back-to-back in the county I think it would stand to them going into Ulster for a second year in-a-row. The last back-to-back in Tyrone was nearly 20 years’ ago and that just shows you how cut-throat our championship really is.”

MORGAN has some serious county business to attend to before the club championship starts again. There’s the McKenna Cup final tomorrow and then Division One starts against pumped-up new boys Roscommon at the Hyde.

“There’s no point in entering the McKenna Cup if you don’t want to compete and you don’t want to win it,” he said.

“We’ve got our four games and we’ve got plenty of minutes’ in the legs before we go down to Roscommon to start the League which is what it’s all about.

“Roscommon is a massive game for us. You always want to start the League off with a win because, if you don’t, it’s hard to make up the ground. The teams are all so competitive, you’re playing against the best teams in the country.

“I know Dublin have slipped down to Division Two but the teams that are there are all there on merit.”

Morgan referenced the “hard slog” at Tyrone’s Garvaghy training base which was missing last year. On these dark, cold winter nights, the players putting in the graft motivate and cheer themselves with thoughts of the challenges on the field that lie ahead.

“When you start back training, the matches always seem far away,” says Morgan.

“But we’ve got there and the Tyrone people have turned out to support us. We’re very fortunate in our county that no matter who we play there’s going to be a crowd and we’re very well supported no matter how well we’re doing.

“You’re always excited when you’re out playing games, the McKenna Cup gave Feargal and Brian the opportunity to have a look at some new lads and see how they coped with the pressure of wearing the Tyrone jersey.

“So we’re all looking forward to getting started in the League and getting the games coming every week.”


TYRONE bade farewell to two more of the class of 2021 in the closed season. Conor McKenna returned to Aussie Rules and Rory Brennan retired from the inter-county game.

Before the start of last season, Ronan O’Neill, Mark Bradley, Hugh Pat McGeary, Tiernan McCann and Michael Cassidy all stepped away from the Red Hand fold and then Paul Donaghy pulled the pin midway through the 2022 campaign.

In all, eight quality players have gone and their experience will be missed but the Red Hand conveyor belt is churning out talented alternatives.

Tyrone were All-Ireland U20 champions last year and senior managers Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher have drafted in several of the stars from that team including Ruairi Canavan, Eoin Corry, Conor Cush and Niall Devlin.

Also in the squad this year are Ryan and Dalaigh Jones, Nathan McCarron, Aidan Clarke, Peter Óg McCartan, Liam Nugent and Niall Devlin.

Of the men who’ve retired, Eglish native McKenna was the only one who started the 2021 All-Ireland final and whether this season is or is not a success depends to a large extent on the survivors from that Sam Maguire-winning side.

Niall Morgan remains a fixture in goal. In defence, Paudie Hampsey and Michael McKernan are in their prime and, although Ronan McNamee has had his fair share of injury problems, he remains a reliable full-back.

The half-back line – anchored by Peter Harte who is now in his 14th county season – is still full of running and, in midfield, Brian Kennedy and Conn Kilpatrick will most likely be the first-choice starting pair with Ben McDonnell and Richie Donnelly very handy options in reserve.

In the half-forward engine room, Kieran McGeary, Niall Sludden and Conor Meyler are all primed to kick on again and, up front, Mattie Donnelly may not get as many minutes as he did nowadays but the early form of Cathal McShane and Darragh Canavan augurs well for what lies ahead for the Red Hands.

Four competitive games were exactly what was required from the Dr McKenna Cup and Tyrone have a pair of winnable games in their first two League outings.

First up is a trip to Dr Hyde Park to take on a Roscommon side that was promoted from Division Two last year. The result of that game will tell a lot about Tyrone’s prospects this season and the following week the Red Hands host a Donegal side that is rebuilding under new manager Paddy Carr after the retirement of their totemic former skipper Michael Murphy.

The Hyde first, then Healy Park against Donegal – two wins and the Red Hands will be up-and-running again.