Thursday 22 February 2018

Keenan and Derry studying hard to upset favourites Donegal

Derry U-21 captain Niall Keenan. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Derry U-21 captain Niall Keenan. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Declan Bogue

Striking a balance between study and sporting commitments is the name of the game for the combatants in this evening's EirGrid Ulster U-21 football final between Derry and Donegal, which will be hosted at the Athletic Grounds in Armagh (8.00pm).

Take the Derry captain Niall Keenan, for example.

A Castledawson man, he is the nephew of former Derry chairman John Keenan and steeped in the game, also playing a part in Damian Barton's ultimately doomed senior campaign in Division 2.

By day he studies chemical engineering in the David Keir Building in Queen's University, Belfast, and admits the demands can be hard to manage.

"There's a lot of hours you have to devote to it. You have assignments and group work and your tests and all. You are in tests a lot. You just have to organise your time around it," he said.

Little wonder then that he was as perplexed as anyone over the late decision to call off the first semi-final between themselves and Armagh two weeks ago.

"It's pretty frustrating when you are coming down from Belfast all the way to Omagh and it was so close to the game starting. It was on 15 minutes before it was called off," he said.

Last Wednesday, he and his team- mates eventually got the better of a powerful Armagh side in the rescheduled fixture at Celtic Park.

By Friday he still hadn't got any recovery work done and was turning his mind to foam rolling or even a dip in the sea if he could find the time to rejuvenate his weary legs.

Donegal's Lorcan Connor, meanwhile, has got some act to live up to.

In their semi-final win over Cavan, they put on a display worthy of Ulster hot favourites, leaving seasoned football observers hailing them as one of the best groups ever to play at this level in Ulster.

Connor, from the Downings area, is their resident free-taker, a task he has studied by watching one of the best around in Donegal senior captain Michael Murphy.

"From underage you spot something that works for you and you stick with that," he said.

"You watch the inter-county boys and they do the same thing all the time and you have got to emulate that. You need to find out what works for you and I found what worked for me."

Studying accountancy in Jordanstown, he has also become familiar with the practice of marking out all your days to accommodate the hours devoted to sport and academia.

"You just have to plan your days around when there's football, when there's studying - and there's not much else," he said.

"There's plenty of time for socialising when the football is over, I suppose. It's a short season for the U-21s and you only have from December to March or April and you can do what you want for the rest of the year.

"So you just get your football right and your studying right for those few months."

Having a day free from studies on a Friday leaves it easier for him when he returns to training on a Thursday night.

However, he knows he is one of the luckier ones as some of his team-mates have a five-day week spent studying in Dublin.

This is the last year of the U-21 grade, with the change to U-20s and no senior players being allowed in the panel.

As someone who would have had another year at U-21s next year, this is a real bugbear of Keenan's, but he added: "At least we are making the most of it in the last year.

"We are in an Ulster final and you can't really ask for much more than that."

Irish Independent

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