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Summer over in America has brought me on leaps and bounds, says Keenan

 

Well travelled: Derry ace Niall Keenan
Well travelled: Derry ace Niall Keenan
Tackling Tyrone's Peter Harte
Declan Bogue

By Declan Bogue

Late last August in Boston, an unprecedented crowd of over 2,000 gathered in the Canton district a few miles south of the city centre to watch Donegal Boston eke out a 'county final' win over Wolfe Tones.

Demand for media reports were high and sports photography company Sportsfile even commissioned a photographer to go along and capture many images, surely a first for a North American final.

The victorious team picture was the money shot. There he was, all rippling biceps and wide grins after kicking 12 of Donegal's 17 points in the final, Diarmuid Connolly, Banquo's ghost in the wider story of Dublin, the Lost Boy of the five-in-a-row bid.

While all the reports had Connolly naturally mentioned as man of the match, his nearest challenger was the corner-back from Derry, Niall Keenan.

Never mind that he had played in the Ulster Senior Football Championship, that he had captained his county in an Ulster Under-21 final alongside the likes of fellow countyman Ciaran McFaul, Donegal's Eoin McHugh and Michael Carroll, Brendan Murphy of Carlow and Liam Silke of Galway, he was small-fry in the States before he landed.

How good was the team? Well, Oisin O'Neill of Crossmaglen and Armagh, along with McHugh, were substitutes introduced off the bench in the decider.

While Connolly kept the scoreboard ticking at one end, Keenan's interventions and organisation of the backline made the difference.

"It was a very enjoyable summer," reflected Keenan ahead of tomorrow's meeting with Tyrone in the Ulster Championship preliminary round.

"We were playing a high quality of football as well, it wasn't much of a step down. It was good to get away and play with players of that quality. It's a good, free-flowing game out there too."

Having been in the Derry football system since his teenage years, Keenan has found that his career has been mapped out for him. A summer in America was one of those things to tick off before his studies in Chemical Engineering at Queen's University became real heavy-duty stuff.

But when training came around in the evening, he was happy to let Silke take over as one of the most gifted footballers of any generation. For Keenan, the summer gifted other life lessons.

"We worked five days a week doing a bit of labouring, so you don't really get much time off," he reflected.

"It's not much different from the club season here. Training is tough and there's good quality coaching out there as well. You're not going out there and getting things easy.

"You might think that before you get out there, but then you get out there and you're working just as hard as you were at home."

One morning, he and Antrim player Conor Small were sent for a day's labour on a site. They were shown a pile of stacked sheets of plasterboard and told to get them up the stairs.

"Two at a time!" he winced at the recollection.

"We were trying to prove a point on our first day that we were hard workers. It was pretty scary, the first few days.

"It gets enjoyable in a way. It's good to be exposed to that kind of work in a way too. Out in the heat, it can be difficult at times."

Despite his slight stature, he, like many other Gaelic footballers in that tract of mid-Ulster, had made quite a name for himself on the rugby field instead of the Gaelic pitch.

Playing for Rainey Old Boys as an out-half, they won an Ulster Under-17 title before being beaten in three Under-18 finals.

A senior career in the code was never likely. His father Barney is an ex-Chairman and current vice-Treasurer of Castledawson, along with uncles Seamus and John, who was Derry county board Chairman in recent times and is now Derry delegate to the Ulster Council.

Derry have a Tyrone man in their own corner in the form of coach Ciaran Meenagh.

The Loughmacrory man was drafted into the backroom team by manager Damian McErlain, feeling the side needed more defensive stability. In 2018, they conceded the third-highest points tally in the National League and an average of 25 points in their two Championship games.

Meenagh's task may well have received a boost with the early Championship exit of Slaughtneil - granting pre-season and league access to four of their defensive players in Brendan Rogers, Paul McNeill, Karl McKaigue and captain Chrissy McKaigue.

Still, his high-energy coaching and ideas have met with buy-in from the current crop of players who, when you omit the rather obvious outlier of a dead-rubber against Wexford in this year's league, conceded an average of 1-9 per game.

"(He's a) huge influence, the knowledge and experience he has at a high level can't be overstated," said Keenan.

The spread is set for a Tyrone win by seven points. The games in 2016 and 2017 ended with 11-point defeats.

Derry, and Keenan, couldn't possibly take another afternoon like that.

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