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Niall Sludden: My injury nightmare made me stronger

By Declan Bogue

Published 13/07/2016

Loving every second: Niall Sludden says being sidelined for two years has made him appreciate his football more
Loving every second: Niall Sludden says being sidelined for two years has made him appreciate his football more

Sitting in the auditorium of the Tyrone GAA Centre on a blowy day in Garvaghey is Niall Sludden, the Red Hands footballer delivering his first group interview like a pro ahead of Sunday's Ulster football final against Donegal.

Confident. Articulate. Pleasant. Impressive. You almost feel bad bringing it up, but duty calls. In the last play of the drawn Tyrone-Cavan semi-final, he had a chance 25 yards out.

As someone who has scored regularly for his club Dromore as a forward, the ball was in good hands. Sludden took aim, but caught it with too much shin rather than boot.

It didn't fall just short. It didn't even come close to reaching the Cavan goals, dropping into the arms of a grateful Breffni defender before referee David Gough called time.

Sludden held his head in his hands. The Red Hands, of course, came through in the replay, but how disappointed was he at the time?

"I'm very much a person of high self-belief," he said. "At that stage the chance was gone and I was really disappointed, but I was already focusing on the next day and knew that if a chance came the next day that I'd be fit to take it.

"Lucky enough another chance came and I got the first point in the replay, so you can't rest on your laurels.

"Some people would let that affect them but it's certainly not a problem for me because I know I'm confident to go out the next day and get a score."

Sludden is a surprise package - not only for the people interviewing him, but because of the way he has announced himself this season as a county player with composure and intelligence.

He admits his progress has taken him somewhat by surprise - his first Championship appearance came in this year's opener against Derry, while his first few outings were very much off-Broadway in the pre-Christmas O'Fiaich Cup played in blustery Crossmaglen.

Asked about boss Mickey Harte's faith in him, he said: "The fact that he's putting me in the team and putting me in at six, where some people might feel is a place where greater responsibility lies, gives me extra confidence.

"As a younger player it's great to have the confidence of the manager and the backroom set-up, that's very important."

A primary school teacher in St Malachy's, Coleraine, Sludden has been lumped in by some of the lazier analysts as part of Feargal Logan's successful 2015 Under-21 side.

In fact, he is now 24 and, along with Ronan O'Neill, has an All-Ireland minor medal from 2010. He is only coming to the fore now because a double leg break (tibula and fibula) sustained three years ago in a league fixture against Cookstown hindered his progress.

He lost two full seasons, but gained a greater understanding of dealing with adversity and developing his character.

"It was just one of those things, a total accidental collision, but I do think it's made me a lot stronger," he explained. "I appreciate my football a lot more.

"There were challenging times when I thought, 'am I going to get there?' Moments like this don't happen very often and it's just great personally for me to be here."

When his leg healed and he returned to fitness, his club manager Paul McIver converted the wing-forward to centre-back and he soon developed a talent for timing late runs through the middle to give himself scoring chances.

Perhaps that skill came down to watching his mentor, one Ryan McMenamin, in Dromore blue.

"Ryan took me in the Under-8s and Under-10s and I learned a number of things - even poetry was something he mentioned to us that you wouldn't associate with him!" Sludden revealed to general astonishment.

"He was a fantastic role model for me around that time. It was great to look at someone like that and then getting an opportunity to play with him at senior (club) level I thought, 'this is where I want to be, following his example'."

While McMenamin had a great sense of adventure to dash upfield for a score, he could also do a job as a man-marker.

On Sunday, Sludden might just be a good fit for Donegal's perpetual motion machine, Ryan McHugh. Monaghan habitually sacrifice players to go on McHugh duty.

Would Sludden be happy to place his game to one side for the greater good of the team if that is his task?

"Personally I'd like to be bringing my game," he maintained.

"I don't like to be going out and deflecting a player. If you're asked to go out and do that then of course, but I like to be going forward and trying to bring my game.

"That's very important because it's not going out to blot a player. It's about going out to bring something to the game. But whatever role Mickey has for me, I'll be ready for it."

There are two ways of looking at Tyrone and Donegal's respective fortunes since 2011. While the Red Hands only have a few players who have experienced an Ulster final, they also have fewer players who have featured in more than one or two of those games. They carry lighter baggage.

Sludden himself is completely unburdened by the sense of past failures, but insists they will have the bases covered when it comes to strategy.

"That is the modern game now, not to worry. We will be well prepared for that and whatever eventuality happens, it's not just down to the people on the sideline," he said.

"We're very much thinking players so we have to think for ourselves when we are out on the field.

"When you have a number of leaders with the amount of experience we have, we feel it's very easy to do that."

Whatever happens, he gives the impression of a slightly unusual modern footballer - and not just because he remains to talk and laugh with some reporters after the tapes have finished rolling.

"The tougher times have made me appreciate my football a lot more," he says in anticipation of Sunday. "What do you train for? You want to train for days like this. I personally don't put myself under that much pressure going out. I just go out and enjoy it, but I know there is a lot of heavy competition around the squad and things can change quite easily.

"Sport, and football, as we know is a very fickle world so I just focus on the next game."

And it's a biggie.

Belfast Telegraph

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