Sunday 18 August 2019

From winning with Connolly to facing Tyrone

Derry defender Niall Keenan out to make his mark on home soil after shining with Donegal Boston

Derry’s Niall Keenan (left) in action against Paddy Maguire of Leitrim during the Allianz Football League Division 4 Final in March. Photo: Sportsfile
Derry’s Niall Keenan (left) in action against Paddy Maguire of Leitrim during the Allianz Football League Division 4 Final in March. Photo: Sportsfile

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 was high and sports image company Sportsfile even commissioned a photographer to go along, 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 - Diarmuid Connolly, Lord Banquo's Ghost in the wider story of Dublin, the Lost Boy of the five-in-a-row bid.

While all the reports centred on Connolly, his nearest challenger man of the match was the corner-back from Derry, Niall Keenan.

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

How good was the Donegal Boston team? Well, McHugh was a substitutesintroduced off the bench for the decider, as was Oisin O'Neill of Crossmaglen and Armagh. While Connolly kept the scoreboard ticking at one end, Keenan's intervention and organisation of the backline made the difference.

"It was a very enjoyable summer," Keenan deadpans now, just a few days away from meeting Tyrone in the Ulster Championship preliminary round.

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

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In the Derry football system since his teenage years, Keenan's 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, the Castledawson man was happy to let Silke pick up 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. It's not much different from the club season here. Training is tough and there's good quality coaching out there as well," he says.

"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 winces now. "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, Keenan, like many other Gaelic footballers in that part of mid-Ulster, had made quite a name for himself on the rugby field.

Playing for Rainey Old Boys as an out-half, he won an Ulster U-17 title before being beaten in three U-18 finals. A senior career was never likely. His father Barney was an ex-chairman and current vice-treasurer of Castledawson; also involved were his uncles Seamus and John, who was Derry county board chairman of recent times and is now Derry delegate to the Ulster Council.

Derry have a Tyrone man in their own corner in the form of their coach, Ciaran Meenagh. The Loughmacrory man was drafted into the backroom team by manager Damian McErlain, who felt the side needed more defensive stability. In 2018, they conceded the third-highest points tally of the National League and an average of 25 points in their two Championship games.

Meenagh's task may 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 ,and Chrissy and Karl McKaigue.

His high-energy coaching and ideas have been positively received by the players, who, when you omit the 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 over-stated," says 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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