Belfast Telegraph

Michael McGovern is Northern Ireland's new hero

Dad of Euros star tells how family are bursting with pride

By Ivan Little

He's the darling of Darling Street. But in the pub which Michael McGovern's uncle runs on Enniskillen's most romantically named thoroughfare, the regulars aren't surprised that the football world has finally fallen in love with their long-time hero - dubbed "The McGovernor".

Goalkeeper Michael, who almost single-handedly repelled all but a single advance from the World Cup champions - and kept the Green and White Army fighting another day in the Euros - is like the squad number on his back, the number one for the football-daft patrons in the popular Devenish bar.

The little-known player from the lower reaches of Scottish football has managed to push the supposed superstars of the tournament, like Ronaldo and Rooney, out of the headlines.

The television pundits even voted him man of the match against Germany.

It was clear from their rave reviews that the shot-stopper, who has no club at the moment, would soon be signing on the dotted line for a top English or Scottish team, rather than signing on the dole.

Old video footage posted online yesterday proved that Michael's wonder-saves weren't flashes in the pan.

The Enniskillen man was displaying the exact same blocking skills 17 years ago that on Wednesday night at the Euros frustrated German's finest strikers, apart from Mario Gomez, who managed to scramble in a goal against him.

The online footage shows Michael playing in goal for a select side from the old Milk Cup (now known as Super Cup NI) at an invitational tournament in San Bernadino, California.

The final was deadlocked at the end of normal time and American-style shoot-outs, where players are given five seconds to beat the goalkeeper, were used to decide the winners.

But Fermanagh's opponents - an American side who called themselves Arsenal - were out-gunned by Michael McGovern, who stopped everything they could fire at him, earning him the accolade of man of the tournament.

His smile on receiving the award was just as wide as the one that spread across his face in Paris after the German game as he met golfer Rory McIlroy and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, who lauded his five-star heroics.

A post-match interview on television also endeared him to football fans across the world as the goalkeeper, who was bombarded with shots for 90 minutes, admitted, with no hint of irony, that he had had "a busy night".

For Jim Sandford, who was the leader of the delegation of the Milk Cup team at the Blast tournament in America in 1999, Michael's performance at the Euros brought back memories.

"It was a bit like deja vu," he said. "The Americans just couldn't get past him - even though Michael had never faced a shoot-out like that before.

"The Germans found it almost as difficult in Paris the other night - he was just inspired."

Michael played for Fermanagh's under-14 team at the old Milk Cup before graduating to the premier side and the competition's representative team.

Jim said: "He was - and still is - a great young guy. He's very level-headed and down-to-earth."

George Elliott, who was engaged in development work with Fermanagh's Milk Cup teams, said he was proud to have been associated with Michael, whom he described as a true gentleman. He also said he always believed that the youngster was destined for the top.

"I saw him in youth games and he caught the eye right from the start," added George. "At his first competition for the junior Fermanagh side, he was tremendous in a quarter-final against West Ham. It went to a penalty shoot-out and Michael saved three of the five penalties."

Michael may have been like the cat who got the cream at the Milk Cup, but his travels - and travails - in football involved taking a route to the Euros via the Fermanagh and Western League and Scottish football, from the top at Celtic to the lower leagues with Hamilton Academical, his most recent club.

He kicked off his career with his local club, Enniskillen Town, and has repeatedly credited coaches Gerry Connolly, Paul Keaveney and John Illand as having been massive influences on him.

Trials with English clubs proved fruitless, but Michael was signed at the age of 17 by Celtic, who farmed him out on loan to Stranraer, where he played 19 games, and then to St Johnstone, where he made one appearance.

He warmed the bench on a number of occasions for Celtic, including a European game against Barcelona in the Nou Camp, but did not make the first team. He later joined Dundee United, Ross County, Falkirk and then Hamilton Academical, where he was a regular.

Michael's brother, Joe, is also a goalkeeper in Scottish football, and his sister, Aine, is an international with Northern Ireland's ladies' team. In their uncle Martin's pub, the Devenish, where loyalties are shared between Northern Ireland and the Republic, a shirt autographed by Michael and his international colleagues has a place of honour behind the bar.

One regular said: "We're a neutral bar here, nut everyone is right behind Michael. He's a really modest young man."

The former chairman of Ballinamallard United, Desi Quinn, who was at the Germany game on Wednesday night, said Michael had given football in Enniskillen and Fermanagh an enormous boost.

He added: "He comes from an absolutely fabulous family. I used to employ two of Michael's sisters in my shoe shop in Enniskillen, and the family are all very talented people."

The Mallards' outgoing manager, Whitey Anderson, who was also in Paris on Wednesday evening, said he was sitting behind Michael's goal for part of the game.

"The Germans kept coming at him and I feared they were going to score, but he was very cool under pressure," he added. "He stood up and made himself big. We could have been three down if it hadn't been for him."

Remarkably, Michael, who made his international debut against Chile in 2010, is just one of 20 players in Michael O'Neill's 23-man squad in France who cut their teeth at the Milk Cup/Super Cup NI competition, with the only exceptions being Conor Washington, Jamie Ward and Lee Hodson. Michael O'Neill and one of his assistant coaches, Stephen Robinson, also played at the Milk Cup.

Five of the England squad, including Wayne Rooney and Marcus Rashford, also starred at the tournament, as did five Republic of Ireland players, including James McClean and Robbie Brady.

Other "old boys" include Christian Benteke of Belgium, Wayne Hennessey of Wales, Sergio Busquets of Spain, Renato Sanches of Portugal and Stephan Lichtsteiner of Switzerland - plus at least one Russian player.

"It's quite a record," said Jim Sandford. "We are extremely pleased to have been able to give so many great stars a first taste of competitive football in Northern Ireland."

Belfast Telegraph