Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 24 September 2014

Number one hit is Tyrone goalkeeper Morgan’s goal

Niall Morgan has switched codes leaving soccer and Dungannon behind to team up with Tyrone's gaelic footballers

It was the 37th minute of Tyrone's season-opening clash against Derry on Sunday, and they were awarded a free-kick roughly 55 metres from the opposition goal.

Up came debutant goalkeeper Niall Morgan to place the ball and strike, sending it wide but at the same time, stimulating a wealth of thought and possibilities.

Since Dublin's Stephen Cluxton redefined the role of the goalkeeper in football, following Donal Óg Cusack's innovations in hurling, inter-county managers have been studying how they can maximise the talents of their own netminders.

Cluxton of course nailed that nerveless late free in the 2011 All-Ireland final that brought Dublin's first Sam Maguire in 16 years, and other managers sat up and noticed.

Donegal manager Jim McGuinness toyed with the idea of Paul Durcan as a free-taker early last year, noting his prolific returns as an outfield player for his club Four Masters. The experiment was scrapped however once dead-ball specialist Colm McFadden returned.

Morgan himself operates as a midfielder for his own club Edendork, who make a profitable return on his abilities from free-kicks. It's something extra in his locker as he bids to establish himself as Tyrone keeper.

“I think it's a bit of an advantage,” he explained after the game.

Reflecting on the chance he put wide on Sunday, he commented, “Maybe it was a bit too far out for me, it's hard to see from the goal net where it's at, but I am happy if they are giving me a chance to hit them — I am willing to take them.

“When you run up that far it's hard to know how far out it is. You don't really want to set it up and run back. But I was happy that he [Mickey Harte] gave me the chance today and hopefully I get more chances throughout the year and maybe one a bit closer.”

Just the previous day, Morgan completed his last appearance for Dungannon Swifts in their hard-fought win over Lisburn Distillery. It was to be his swan-song in the Irish League as he has committed himself fully to trying to nail down a place as the Tyrone number one.

Despite finding it hard to leave the soccer team for whom he has played for since he was an eight-year-old, he revealed that the club will still welcome him back if everything does not go to plan.

“Everybody has wished me well and they gave me a great send-off. I thought it was going to be a whole lot harder to leave it for now, but they have kept the door open and if it doesn't work out, I can come back.”

When asked if he would miss the regular income of part-time soccer, he replied, “It's not all about the money, I suppose it's about the love of the game.”

Morgan becomes the latest soccer player to switch codes and devote themselves entirely to Gaelic football. Last season, some Portadown fans along with manager Ronnie McFall were left angered by Shane McCabe's decision to leave them and join Peter Canavan at Fermanagh, with the player himself citing a desire to test himself at county football on a permanent basis after juggling commitments while at Ballinamallard United, Dungannon Swifts and Glentoran.

Given the level of commitment required in Gaelic football now, the days of players combining the two codes are long gone. Previously, the likes of Sean McGreevey and Liam Watson of Antrim football and hurling could combine their GAA commitments with holding down a place with Donegal Celtic and Ballymena respectively.

But for a goalkeeper, the level of involvement in soccer is much higher than that of Gaelic football. Morgan appreciates that, adding, “It's more about staying focused and you have a lot of kickouts to hit. It's about being accurate in Gaelic, whereas in soccer it's just lumping it down the pitch.

“I need to work on them [kickouts] a bit more after today, but everything about it is a challenge. If there is a ball coming in it is a challenge, if the ball is not coming in you still have to be focused.”

Ever since Mickey Harte took the reins in Tyrone over a decade ago, he has used the McKenna Cup and league campaigns to rotate goalkeepers. None have become a sustained threat to the duopoly of John Devine and Pascal McConnell.

Morgan added: “I'm not taking it for granted. I hope I have done enough when I have got my chance and hopefully more chances come my way.”

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