Six footballers with a point to prove in this year's National League
Damian Lawlor puts the spotlight on six footballers aiming to return to the top
With the dawn of the Allianz Football League upon us, the six players we have highlighted below are more eager than most to nail down a marker for the year ahead.
Each of them has a different perspective as they enter this new season. Some have travelled the world and are now ready to put the shoulder to the wheel again for the county. Others have stayed at home while their team-mates were holidaying, trying to give themselves the best chance of impressing the manager.
For one of the players we have highlighted, it didn't even seem feasible even 12 months ago that he could ever get back onto a pitch again. For a counterpart of his, however, a dramatic return from a serious injury was made well in advance of expectations.
These players have different backgrounds and life stories but they come into the new season with one common goal: to get back to the levels they know they can reach, to show their managers and team-mates that they are still vital to the cause. And mostly to win something for their county. It all kicks off again on Saturday evening. For these guys, it's a time of promise and hope. For now that's enough.
For years it seemed Shane O'Rourke's injury problems stemmed from a troublesome groin complaint that niggled for ages before it turned out to be more serious. Further investigation proved that it was a hip injury which was was the source of this troubles. And boy has it set him back.
This time last year his career was very much up in the air. He couldn't even think about taking the field again. Instead, the gym was his only respite. He hit it with gusto almost every day. Being out of contention for a place on the Meath team, he cut an isolated figure and was confined to the margins for over two years. That's why the 2014 NFL is so important to O'Rourke, one of the most naturally gifted forwards to ever come out of the county.
It's a chance to resurrect what looked like being a glorious career. After a gruelling rehab programme, he finally made his return to the Meath team in the Fitzsimons Cup final against Offaly on December 15, 2013. It's hard to fathom but the last time he had kicked a ball for the county was in the All-Ireland qualifiers third-round defeat by Kildare in July 2011 at Navan.
The welcome back for the player was extremely warm and again when they played first competitive game of 2014 against DIT, the Meath fans awarded him a huge round of applause after he landed a first-half point. When he left the pitch in the 58th minute, they rose to their feet to show their appreciation.
Still only 25, O'Rourke has plenty of ground to make up, but he has the determination required. Renowned as one of their most gifted forwards when fully fit, he has thus far been reborn as a midfielder, forming a decent partnership with Andrew Tormey. He has managed to get a full 70 minutes under his belt and has been regularly chipping in with scores. After that hellish rehab, he will be hoping to finally kick on with his promising career. He deserves to.
Gareth Bradshaw is a player who followed his heart and thought long and hard about resigning from his job, leaving the Galway football squad and moving to the US last summer.
But with the football team in turmoil at the time, Bradshaw received serious abuse within his own county for jumping ship. There was no hiding, though, that he was fed up with football and needed change.
A few weeks ago, he made his return to the team when they played Sligo in the FBD League and there appeared to be no kick-back from the terraces. Indeed, with Kildare exile James Kavanagh lining out for Galway, and impressing, Bradshaw came back into the maroon jersey in under-the-radar fashion after his seven-month exile.
An amateur player, Bradshaw was surely permitted to go where he chose last year. The fact that they had been beaten by 17 points by Mayo, however, seemed to cloud the judgment of most supporters. Bradshaw was captain of the team and was sent off too. The fans saw him jumping off a sinking ship.
His departure was more a case of needing to clear his head than anything else but it didn't go down well. Yet, people forget that he also quit his job as a health and safety officer, so it wasn't a rash move.
Before he left, the 26-year-old had forged a reputation as an attacking and intelligent wing-back. He had trials with AFL club St Kilda in 2010 but over four successive seasons, Galway's championship hopes ended with one-point defeats. He was drained and struggled after a knee operation in 2013. Now a massive season lies ahead. He's got his break, cleared his head. Galway should reap the rewards.
It's hard to believe that 15 months had passed without Brian Kavanagh in a Longford shirt. But his return from America handed new manager Jack Sheedy a massive boost. Longford beat Carlow in his first game back but were then hammered by Kildare in the O'Byrne Cup. If they are to make any impact whatsoever in the NFL and championship, they'll need Kavanagh firing on all cylinders.
It will take him a while to get up to speed. While in the States the Dublin-based schoolteacher worked in a bar with Manhattan – alongside Armagh's Jamie Clarke – and took an almost total break from football, only togging out for the Longford junior 'B' team in New York and steering clear of all serious action. They did, mind you, win their championship.
Only 27, he had not played for the midlands side since their second-round qualifier defeat to Limerick in 2012. That said, Kavanagh was always going to come back. There is a sense of unfinished business at hand and he admits that he found it hard to watch his old team-mates on television last summer. The chance to stay put in Manhattan was a real, live one but since his return he has already resumed his teaching role at St Olaf's in Dundrum and gone back to Kilmacud Crokes.
Kavanagh is a powerful, yet nimble attacker who thrives on quick ball and is dynamic enough to make things happen with even limited possession. The pre-season games were a sharp reminder of what is needed to get back to the standard he was at. It's a massive year for both himself and Longford, but Kavanagh should be enthusiastic enough to make things happen again
While the rest of the Dublin team flew out on the holiday of a lifetime over the winter, Kevin Nolan remained behind, trying to gain an edge in his battle to win a starting place in 2014.
Nolan was a first-choice defender in 2011 but he has been on the periphery ever since. Each time he picked up his phone over the holidays a picture dropped of one of his team-mates enjoying themselves in Cancun after a season that delivered All-Ireland, Leinster and Division 1 NFL titles.
The truth is that 25-year-old teacher Nolan didn't really feel a part of those triumphs. After being named man of the match in the 2011 All-Ireland final and claiming an All Star, he has endured a tough time of it. He was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes and had to take time off last December. It left him playing catch-up for all of 2013 and had a devastating effect on his career. He managed only a few cameos last year and saw no championship action whatsoever.
Skipping the team holiday, staying at home and instead preparing for the 2014 campaign shows how serious he is about getting his place back. He has seen action in the past few weeks and Jim Gavin has indicated that places are up for grabs all over again. Nolan has already proven himself to be a warrior, now comes the fight to get back into the team. He's at a crucial juncture.
Niall Morgan was on top of his game when he was struck down with a cruciate ligament injury last season. Along with Stephen Cluxton, he looked to have redefined the role of a goalkeeper.
He was cocky and super-talented. He saved penalties and kicked long-range frees. When Tyrone played Donegal in the Ulster championship last year, he cupped his ears after landing one point to hear what the Donegal fans had to say – seeing as they had jeered him in the run-up to him scoring from that placed ball.
Then came the knee injury to shoot him down just as his colourful personality was taking the GAA by storm. Typically, he has returned to action a lot sooner than was thought. In fact, he came back against Donegal in the McKenna Cup, months ahead of schedule, and normal service was instantly resumed as he saved a penalty from Michael Murphy and then hit three points from placed balls. Strange as it sounds, his return adds sharpness to the Tyrone attack, in that he can again be relied upon to deliver at least two to three frees per game.
Morgan had always expressed his desire to return to the fold pre–Christmas and he made good on that promise. The Edendork clubman may comes across as a flashy sort, but look deeper and there is simply no doubting his commitment, work ethic and pedigree. When you add that to his natural talent and consider the young players that are emerging in the county – the likes of Ronan O'Neill – it's possible that they could be Dublin's biggest challengers this season.
Opposing teams are wise to Morgan's skills now – last May Donegal placed three players with arms raised in front of him and for once he had an off day. But he'll have learned from that and the injury will have given him an early perspective on his career. We sit back and look forward to what is yet to come.
BARRY JOHN KEANE
Keane was finally recalled to the Kerry squad after showing some great form with Kerins O'Rahillys this year. His pre-season form has also been impressive and if he can string a few decent performances together, Kerry may just have another top-notch forward on their hands.
He has always had the ability but lacked consistency. That resulted in him being dropped from the squad a couple of seasons back. However, he looks to have maintained his excellent club form and came off the bench against ITT to score 0-4 in the McGrath Cup. He managed a goal against Cork IT in the next game and he has quite quickly become another option for Eamonn Fitzmaurice up front.
He has all the attributes needed to succeed: physique and ability and now all he needs is a little more consistency. There is a place in the Kerry attack up for grabs and it would be fitting if one of their high hopes from his underage days finally claimed the shirt.