Niall Morgan aiming for shot at glory
The most prominent coaches might see it as bad practise. Dave Alred, the kicking coach of Jonny Wilkinson would be appalled. Pat McEnaney says it's fine by him.
When Tyrone's Niall Morgan is beckoned forward to take a free, he jogs up. He takes little time in setting the ball up and he takes a short run-up. Not for him the Seanie Johnston routine of hopping the ball or the Paddy Cunningham foot shuffle. He lines up the posts, and splits them — 18 times during the National League, to be precise.
Much of what he does would never make it into a coaching manual. A kicker is advised to return his heart-rate to a resting state, so they tend to walk to a free. Oisín McConville used to flex his knees, to loosen out the legs and ease the lactic acid.
Morgan does nothing like that but on Sunday, he will be the most important player on the Ballybofey pitch in deciding the outcome of the Donegal and Tyrone showdown.
“I will be focusing on every one as if it's the winning of the game,” he says breezily. If he's feeling pressure, he's not showing it.
“At the end of the day it doesn't matter what you score, if you score a point it could be the winning one.”
A fortnight ago, referee's chief Pat McEnaney revealed that his committee had assessed the amount of time it took for goalkeepers to leave their area and take free-kicks in scoreable positions.
They came to the conclusion that goalkeepers and outfield players were taking roughly the same aggregate time, such are the elaborate routines of some outfield free-takers.
Morgan won't complicate his processes, he claims.
“I don't like to stand over the ball for too long anyway,” he added. “We are sort of jogging or running to hit the free kick whereas outfield players are walking over. I have no issues over it but I will be taking the same amount of time as I normally do.”
Against Dublin in the league final, the Edendork man missed his first free. The Dubs on the Hill had a great old laugh for themselves but he soon drew their admiration with five points to his name by the final whistle.
The wider media tends to ignore the GAA season until it comes to Croke Park, so yeah, the reaction to his display kind of took him by surprise. He didn't expect to be the focus of columnists and commentators but the most pleasing thing for him was how he reacted to missing the first opportunity.
“That is the one that sets you up for the day,” he explains. “If you miss your first one it sets a tone for what is to come. I would be hoping that the first one is a bit easier than the rest to come after it.
“I suppose that's what you set out to do as well. If you miss one you have to make sure you score your second one, pay a bit more attention to the detail that you didn't pay attention to the one before.”
On Sunday, he is expecting a spot of gamesmanship.
It will be loud and boisterous and personal. He might even get the odd scud on his way down the pitch too. Playing for St Mary's in university football, he has come across it before.
“Against DIT in the Ryan Cup,” he recalls.
“It was the first time anyone ran alongside me from corner-forward, right to wherever the free-kick was. He talked very little, just ran alongside me to try and take my eye off the ball I suppose.”
Given how the league meeting went between these two, he is aware that Donegal may feel they have a score to settle with him. He stopped a Michael Murphy penalty and had a cut at the Donegal captain. Neil Gallagher came from behind and dragged him to the floor.
There will be taunts and catcalls as he lines the posts up. “Everybody has their wee mouthful when you are setting the ball up, that happens in club football too so I expect the same thing come Donegal,” he added.
“I just concentrate on hitting the free-kick. The best thing to do is hit it — keep my eye on the ball, line up the posts and do my best.”
A student of goalkeeping who has gone on record as saying that he is probably playing for Tyrone because of how Stephen Cluxton has changed the parameters for players in his position, Morgan also admires his opposite number, Donegal's Paul Durcan.
“I think he is probably the best in the game at disguising his kickout,” he notes. “He will line one up and you think it is going left and he will slice it with the outside of his boot straight to a man's chest.”
“He probably doesn't get the credit he deserves because all the focus is on Cluxton and his kickouts. Durcan is right up there with the rest of the goalkeepers with his shot-stopping ability too.”
One suspects that in time Morgan will be held in the same bracket as his heroes. In the meantime he continues to make astonishingly rapid progress. Underpinning it all — as he is aware — is patience.
“The first time I ever tried to hit free-kicks with the county was the under-21s and I missed the first two and wasn't allowed back up for the rest of the year,” he said. “I missed my first one this year, missed one after that, but lucky enough Mickey showed the confidence in me that if I missed a few he still was going to send me up for the one after that.”
Donegal and Tyrone. It's close enough to touch.
Belfast Telegraph Digital