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Brendan McVeigh refining his role in Down's rearguard

By John Campbell

Stephen Cluxton has elevated goalkeeping to an art form – and now Ulster's leading custodians are hoping to follow in his footsteps.

The Dublin net-minder not only possesses superb reflexes, the ability to place kick-outs with pinpoint accuracy and the skill to continually prove his team's first line of attack but he is also proficient at converting long-range frees. His impressive CV is further enhanced by the fact that he is the team's inspirational captain.

It's hardly surprising that with Cluxton's high-profile enhanced role now seen as the benchmark, all goalkeepers are striving to follow in his footsteps.

Never in the history of a sport which has undergone a marked tactical facelift in recent seasons have goalkeepers had such an important role and when the Ulster Championship swings into action on Sunday, it will be the signal for custodians to step up to the mark.

And even though the first two to sample action will do so against remarkably contrasting championship backgrounds, adhering to the Cluxton mantra will still be a priority for them.

Brendan McVeigh, the vastly-experienced 32-year-old Down keeper, has over a decade of championship experience behind him while his Tyrone counterpart Niall Morgan will be playing just his second game in the Ulster series having made a losing debut against Donegal last year.

McVeigh is one of the elder statesmen of goalkeeping yet he is responding with enthusiasm to the new challenges that are being set for players in his position.

"There is a lot more to being a goalkeeper now. Much more is expected from you and you are not only the last line of defence but the catalyst for attacks. And with so much emphasis being placed on kick-outs, this can bring its own pressures," reveals McVeigh.

Tyrone custodian Morgan has already made a big impact, not least in his ability to convert long-range frees and '45's with the same ease and authority as Cluxton.

Indeed, Morgan clearly relished the attacking policy adopted by teams in the recent Allianz League and believes that if this is carried into the championship, it will prove a tremendous competition.

"You want to be as positive as you can without leaving yourself vulnerable at the back. Attack is the best form of defence, after all," maintains Morgan.

His penchant for figuring regularly on the scoresheet is matched by that of Monaghan's Rory Beggan, whose consistency between the posts and marksmanship from frees contributed much to his county's first provincial title win in 25 years last term.

Farney County manager Malachy O'Rourke sees Beggan as having a key role in his team's defence of their crown.

"There is no doubt that goalkeepers have a much bigger part to play now and we are fortunate to have someone like Rory in there," asserts O'Rourke.

For two goalkeepers in particular, Ulster Championship debuts loom. Thomas Mallon is ready to take his Derry career to a new level while Ronan Hanna is standing by to make his first start in the provincial series with Antrim.

Mallon showed impressive form in the Allianz League with the Oak Leaf side and has matured considerably since being brought into the panel by Brian McIver.

And for Hanna, a championship baptism in Antrim's colours would be a dream come true. Only a matter of weeks ago the Lamh Dhearg clubman was plying his trade at club level, a virtual unknown.

But a stunning performance in the Ulster U21 championship draw against Armagh impressed senior boss Liam Bradley to such an extent that he had no hesitation in summoning him.

Antrim spokesman Brendan Mulgrew is in no doubt that Hanna will rise to the occasion.

"He's cut out for the job. He is the complete goalkeeper from and we have every confidence in him," states Mulgrew.

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