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Rising star McKinless eager to ensure Oak Leafs' future is in safe hands

By Declan Bogue

Ben McKinless belongs to one of those curious clubs that the GAA tends to throw up now and again - the Derry goalkeeper hasn't played in the Championship for his club.

In Antrim, Chris Kerr was on the football panel for years before he could dislodge Fermanagh's Ronan Gallagher from between the St Gall's sticks. Staying in the same county, Loughgiel's Chrissy O'Connell has been tending goals for the Antrim hurlers for years, but within his own club, DD Quinn held his place.

Tonight in Newry, McKinless will fill the nets for Derry in the Dr McKenna Cup final. Later this summer, he will hope to play his first Championship game for his club, Ballinderry Shamrocks.

There is a reason, however. McKinless, a student Irish teacher at St Mary's College, turns 19 in April. As a fresher, he is not even permitted to play Sigerson football.

Being ahead of his time is now second nature. By the time he was 16, he was already the Derry Under-21 goalkeeper.

Oak Leaf manager Damian Barton recognises the need to groom a young goalkeeper. He has the very capable Thomas Mallon, but they were stuck last year for cover when Glenullin's Eoin McNicholl dropped off the panel.

With Mallon injured for the backdoor game against Louth, goalkeeping coach and former county goalie Michael Conlon stepped into the breach. 'Mickey C' as he is known is the man standing in McKinless' way as the Ballinderry keeper.

Such is his aptitude for goals, McKinless - a second cousin of club and county team-mates Daniel and Gareth McKinless - almost found himself playing under-age international soccer with Northern Ireland after experimenting with the Sky Blues club in Magherafelt.

"I had trials with Northern Ireland before," he revealed.

"I used to play it when I was younger but it was just something to do on a Saturday morning but I think that helped me in different sports. I was Under-15 and Under-16 at the time but that all stopped when the county minors started."

After that, he was called up for Northern Ireland Under-18 trials but he just wasn't feeling the love for soccer.

"I just went to see how I would get on," he recalled. "But in my mind I said to myself that I was not really interested in going further because I had aspirations to play senior for Derry.

"If I made that team I would have had to leave the minors and I felt that there was a trophy in us even though we ended up losing in the Ulster final. I just went for the experience and to see what it would be like.

"It was on in Magherafelt and I just went along but I was not playing soccer at the time so I just went along and they asked me what club I was playing for and I said, 'Ballinderry'. They were fairly puzzled by that!"

He played in two Ulster finals with the Derry minors, winning in 2015 and losing the decider against Donegal last year.

"It was a great experience," McKinless recalled about Damian McErlean's minors.

"We got to two Ulster finals and got to Croke Park two years in a row so it was a great experience. We were a force to be reckoned with so I think that helped me a lot to be prepared for senior level too."

After a few games of senior inter-county action, he recognises the step up. Just over a week ago, he had to be extremely vigilant with the goal-hungry Kieran Hughes and Conor McManus close by.

Tonight, he faces a Tyrone forward line containing Mark Bradley, Ronan O'Neill and Conor Meyler, with Peter Harte and Matthew Donnelly breaking forward, overlapping from the half back line. All big game hunters, all with a taste for goals.

Last year, Tyrone beat Derry five times in the O'Fiaich Cup, Dr McKenna Cup, the National League and the Ulster Championship. This will be their first meeting in 2017, and McKinless feels the Oak Leafs can do it.

"Belief and confidence are the key," he maintained.

"You can't go into any match at this level doubting yourself.

"That is half the battle, if you go in with doubts you are not going to put much up to the opposition. You have to believe that you are the better team, to go on and win."

Belfast Telegraph

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