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Old boy Niall Morgan is now taking aim at Saints

By Declan Bogue

It was the McKenna Cup of 2011 that Niall Morgan's name first shot into our consciousness.

Even nine months before Dublin goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton wrote himself into the history books with that last-minute free to secure the All-Ireland final against Kerry, Morgan's two converted '45s' for St Mary's - along with a string of fine stops - sank Paddy O'Rourke's Armagh side on a cloudy Wednesday evening, 1-16 to 2-7.

After making his name at St Mary's, Tyrone came knocking for the 2013 season. Since he has left higher education, 'The Ranch' have achieved a measure of progress, making it to the Ryan Cup final two months ago, only to be defeated by DCU.

He admits to a certain loyalty towards his alma mater, and will have mixed feelings as he looks to beat them when Paddy Tally's men arrive in Healy Park this Sunday afternoon (throw-in 2pm).

"A lot of the boys I played with are still there and it's good to see a lot of the county boys are playing for the universities, especially at the likes of St Mary's where there isn't a lot of players there," the 23-year-old said.

"With 23, 24 men in the squad, they need their five or six county men."

Talking about their progress, he said: "It's great to see and I always like to get playing in the McKenna Cup.

"My first year playing it was with St Mary's, because I wasn't with Tyrone. It would have been nice to get another rattle with them."

The season-opener was a lively affair with Armagh and Tyrone yielding a total of 19 cards altogether. Hailing from the east of the county, Morgan is aware of the fierce rivalry that endures between these two opponents.

"No matter who you are playing against, but especially when it is against the likes of Armagh, it is going to be competitive no matter what," he explained.

"Every time we are going to play Armagh, it is going to be intense, almost a Championship intensity.

"Nobody likes to lose between Armagh and Tyrone.

"People say that McKenna Cup games are friendlies, but I think if you got Armagh and Tyrone to play inside a stadium with nobody at it, it would still be a case of two teams wanting to get at each other.

"It's great to have the likes of that rivalry in a McKenna Cup game."

One thing that constantly emerges from player interviews in the early stages of the playing season is their relief that the games have finally arrived. Famously, Tyrone do not play friendlies or challenge matches.

Therefore, that leaves a lot of evenings spent running on the grass up at their base of Garvaghey, as well as the customary strength and conditioning sessions overseen by new team trainer, Peter Donnelly.

Nothing tries the patience of players quite like an interminable training period with no games in sight - just ask all the club players who end up going to America in the summer because of this malaise - and Morgan is no different.

"It's good to get the games started," he said with some understatement.

"It almost feels like an eternity from the start of December - just waiting and waiting for games to start.

"Now that they have started, and if we get to the McKenna Cup final - not saying that we will - then you could have five games played.

"Suddenly, you have almost the bulk of your games played and then it starts to decline from then on."

Having been five points down at one stage, Morgan believes that they showed big heart to win their opening fixture by a brace of points.

Every side are ultimate optimists on their first day, and he reflected that as he said: "I think that's what we are trying to build this year, something we have not had over the last couple of years.

"We need to just keep it going. At the end of the day it's a McKenna Cup game. We are not going to be taking it that we are better than Armagh in any way, shape or form.

"We know that they have a lot more to give and we would be expecting them to go far in Ulster."

Tyrone have won three McKenna Cups in a row, and will be going for their fourth this year.

Explaining the reason, Morgan said: "I think that it was down to the fact we took the McKenna Cup more serious than others."

And although that early-season success heralds the promise of bigger and better things, he believes that the hard work is only beginning.

"We just have to knuckle down a bit more and accept that other teams are working just as hard as us, not to take anything for granted," he concluded.

Belfast Telegraph

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