Friel feeling heat as final looms
Derry star is ready to step up and deliver title glory
When Derry won the Ulster and All Ireland football championship titles in 1993, Swatragh clubman Anthony Tohill proved the springboard of their successes from midfield.
On Sunday, Michael Friel hopes to take a leaf from the book of his illustrious club colleague when he makes only his third championship appearance for the Oak Leaf county in the provincial decider against Donegal at Clones.
Friel’s consistency during the National League saw him take his championship baptism against Fermanagh and he then played an important role in helping to overcome Armagh in the semi-final.
Now the strapping Friel, a shop fitter, is gearing up for the biggest challenge of his playing career and is hoping to take his inspiration from the legendary Tohill.
“Anthony obviously set the highest possible standards and is someone to whom everyone looks up to. He was a great servant to Swatragh and Derry and is certainly the ideal role model for players like myself,” says Friel.
Tohill is an iconic figure in Ulster GAA. He took Derry to great heights and played for Ireland in the International Rules series before becoming team manager.
Friel himself can boast a strong family sporting pedigree. His uncle Henry Diamond was an outstanding full-back with Derry in the 1960s while his father Colm played at Minor level for the county.
While the Friels have had a long association with Swatragh, the club has not always been strongly represented in the county squad.
However, the unavailability of experienced trio James Conway, Fergal Doherty and Patsy Bradley at the outset of the Ulster championship had threatened to dilute Derry’s chances of making significant headway in the competition.
But Friel’s form and the return of Joe Diver from injury presented manager John Brennan with what he felt was his ideal pairing and his judgment has been well-founded with the duo blossoming to date.
Friel, though, is aware of the pressures confronting Derry as they go into Sunday’s game.
“I think we have to win the Ulster title for the sake of the Derry fans. They have had to be very patient over all the lean times and indeed you could not blame them for not going to see Derry in action in recent years because the team has had no championship success,” admits Friel.
“The fans feel it is time that the county got some silverware and we are hoping to deliver this on Sunday but it is a big ask when you consider how hungry Donegal themselves will be for the title.”
Even though he is now seen as representing the heartbeat of the Oak Leaf side Friel is taking nothing for granted in terms of his selection.
“There is a lot of competition for places. A number of players have been in the squad for several years and not everyone can get a place in the starting line-up. All the boys are on their toes — when you get to a final, you want to win it,” insists Friel.
“Our trainers Conal Sheridan and Barry Dillon work us hard and when we were training in the snow, bitter cold and heavy rain earlier in the year it was anything but pleasant but it has certainly been worth all the effort now that we are in the Ulster decider.”
Friel’s aerial ability, work-rate and penchant for driving forward have helped to underpin Derry’s strategy to date. But he acknowledges that Donegal will be tough opponents.
“Both sides have injury worries as things stand so it’s going to be touch and go. The managers will probably have a better overall picture of things later in the week but whatever starting teams take the field they will be expected to make a big play for the silverware,” adds Friel.