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Free role allows Morgan to capitalise on swift elevation

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3 March 2013; Niall Morgan, Tyrone. Allianz Football League, Division 1, Tyrone v Donegal, Healy Park, Omagh, Co. Tyrone. Picture credit: Oliver McVeigh / SPORTSFILE

3 March 2013; Niall Morgan, Tyrone. Allianz Football League, Division 1, Tyrone v Donegal, Healy Park, Omagh, Co. Tyrone. Picture credit: Oliver McVeigh / SPORTSFILE

SPORTSFILE

3 March 2013; Niall Morgan, Tyrone. Allianz Football League, Division 1, Tyrone v Donegal, Healy Park, Omagh, Co. Tyrone. Picture credit: Oliver McVeigh / SPORTSFILE

IT'S a little harsh that any 21-year-old should find himself at a crossroads in life, but that's exactly where Niall Morgan was five months ago.

Having developed a soccer career with Dungannon United Youths, he progressed to make the Dungannon Swifts first team. This season, following years of underage representation for Northern Ireland, he was handed the role of back-up 'keeper for the under 21 squad.

Then Mickey Harte called, said he saw him as a possible Tyrone goalkeeper and free-taker and Morgan had a huge decision to make.

"It was probably the most difficult decision of my life," he admits. "You have to choose at some stage, and it was hard to choose between playing football for the club I've been with since I was a kid, or playing GAA for my county. I knew that if I gave up Gaelic at this stage I wouldn't get another chance. If I ever decide to go back to the Irish League, there is only one club I'd go to."

It's unlikely he'll be going anywhere any time soon. In just four months Morgan has acquired hero status in Tyrone. After beating off competition from Packie McConnell and the now-retired John Devine for the number one shirt, Morgan is already pushing for an All Star, having made superb blocks, penalty saves and kicked 0-19 from frees and '45s in his first five months as Tyrone goalkeeper.

Harte's latest remodelling of Tyrone has seen the young net-minder operate in a quarter-back-style role. And his progress is so swift even McConnell admits it will be hard to break back into the team.

"It's difficult watching on," McConnell said. "There's nothing beats playing on the big day. But I've got to hold my hands up and give credit where credit's due; Niall Morgan has been absolutely fantastic. He's really come of age. He's still only 21, so there's bags of learning still there and so much experience to be gained, but yet he's got an old head on young shoulders."

In the Allianz League final against Dublin, he was man of the match, scoring five points from placed balls, making great saves and distributing with clinical accuracy.

Yet, he takes a pretty minimalist approach to practising frees, spending only 20 minutes before training sessions kicking. Instead, he prefers to devote the lion's share of his focus to the basics of goalkeeping.

"I don't think there is anything between me and Packie goalkeeping-wise," he says. "I'm lucky to have got my chance to take the free-kicks and every chance that comes I am more than happy to run up the pitch and have a go."

When he played with Swifts, the biggest audience he entertained was 1,200 people. With Tyrone, he has already played in front of 33,000 at Croke Park and the stadium wasn't even half full.

Today will be another valuable day on the learning curve. Playing in Ballybofey has been on his mind for some time. "Donegal are lying in wait for us. They have the chance of making it a hat-trick of Ulster titles and they will want to maximise it."

Still, Harte will not want to be caught by McGuinness for a third time in a row. Morgan's long-range frees will, at least, provide another platform for scores.

He plays outfield for his club, Edendork, and likes to challenge himself by furthering the distances from which he can score. So he's very much in vogue with the modern-day goalkeeping requirements – to such an extent that he was Tyrone's joint second-highest marksman in the NFL.

During last year's game with Donegal, Tyrone used three free-takers while a further three players attempted '45s. Only two of the six successfully landed their kicks.

"Playing with Tyrone is a lot more intense. In soccer, you get paid for it and that makes it easier to commit, whereas the Gaelic takes a lot more commitment to play. But I am very happy with my decision.

"It's almost like a job to tell you the truth. You have to keep yourself right at all times. Even in training, you have to be ready for every session whereas at club level you can bluff the odd day. At county level, you would get caught out if you tried to take short cuts."

He'll get a championship baptism of fire today. But Morgan was born for this stage.

Irish Independent