Morgan unstinting in his praise for ‘king of keepers’ Cluxton
Tyrone’s young goalkeeper inspired by the heroics of Dublin’s number one
Niall Morgan has paid a uniquely personal compliment to his opposite number ahead of Sunday’s Allianz Football League final describing Stephen Cluxton as “the king of keepers”, and adding that if it wasn’t for him, Morgan would still be standing somewhere between the posts at Dungannon Swifts.
Tyrone footballers are no strangers to talking up the merits of their opponents, then cutting them down come match day, although Morgan’s tribute comes straight from the heart.
The 21-year-old, in his first season with Tyrone, is clearly inspired by the Dublin goalkeeper, and indeed perfectly mimics him, right down to Cluxton’s once trademark kicking of long-range frees, 45-metre placed balls and even the occasional penalty.
“He has completely revolutionised it for us,” says Morgan, “and is the king of the keepers. Fifteen years ago, you wouldn’t have heard of a goalkeeper coming up to kick a free whereas now, it seems to be a thing a lot of counties are looking for.
“And I’ve been lucky that he did come along while I was playing. I would say that if Stephen hadn’t been hitting frees for Dublin, I don’t think I would be playing Gaelic football at county level. I’d still be preparing for the last game of the league for Dungannon Swifts, at the minute.”
By that he means the Irish league, Morgan having played semi-pro with the club for the past few years, before now committing solely to the county cause. Tyrone manager Mickey Harte brought him in at the start of the season as cover for the now retired John Devine and veteran Pascal O’Connell, yet so impressed was he by Morgan’s versatility that he prompted handed him the number one jersey for good.
Still in the middle of a teaching degree at St Mary’s Belfast, Morgan admits his rise to Tyrone number one has been swift, and yet not entirely the way he would have liked it: still harbouring some dreams of playing outfield, as he still does for his club Edendork, he in fact mockingly blames Cluxton, too, for ending his hopes of ever emulating, say, Peter Canavan.
“I would see myself more as an outfielder at club level. And it was probably my free-kick taking ability that got me promoted towards the county scene. Considering I hadn’t really done goals in Gaelic that often. So I also have him to blame Stephen Cluxton that I’m stuck in goals for the rest of my career. But I have him to thank him, that I got to play at intercounty level.
“Because the year before last, aged 19, I was thinking I would never get the chance to play for the county, especially the way the soccer was going.
“But I also think in the back of my head there’s still a wee tiny dream, that someday I’ll get to wear a white jersey instead of a red one. But I am starting to let go of it. It’s getting smaller and smaller every day.
“Whenever I first played county minor, in goal, I thought maybe this was it. As a goalkeeper at county level, when you start off, it’s hard to make the move outfield then.”
Harte has nearly always operated a policy of rotating his goalkeepers, namely Devine and McConnell, and Morgan realises how fortunate he is.
“I was kind of shocked when named for the first league game. I thought Mickey would rotate it, that I wouldn’t play the next game, then the next game. But I’ve been very lucky he played me in every game. But I can only thank the boys for the experience they passed on. I can’t speak highly enough of Pascal and John as well. It was superb, and very lucky they were two gentlemen like that.”
The soccer background came from his father, who simply encouraged him to join Dungannon Swifts as a nine year-old, and while he certainly enjoyed the experience – and the club will welcome him back should Morgan ever wish it – there was always some extra pressure playing in the professional mode.
“I started off as a right winger, and when they found out I played Gaelic in goal, that’s where I went with the soccer too. But when you’re getting paid, there’s a bit more pressure. People are paying you for your performance, and if you weren’t performing, they were wondering why, every time they went to pay you the money.
“In terms of actual playing, whenever you catch the ball in Gaelic, you’re practically mauled. In soccer you can roll about the ground for five or six seconds before you do anything with it. So, still a wee bit more pressure in Gaelic, to get rid of the ball as soon as you can, but you still have to keep the ball for your team as well.
“The basics are similar, to stop the ball from going past you. With kick-outs, and I know a lot of counties do their calls and their different colour cones, but we’ve been sort of given a free rein to put the ball down and pick the kick out that you want. It just depends on where the space is.”