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Niall Morgan and Tyrone are pulling together in the most trying of times

'For me it was, the one thing that I wanted to do was make the kids proud'

Niall Morgan doesn't ask that you take his word for anything. He absolutely is not looking for your sympathy. If you have made your mind up on the rights and wrongs of Tyrone getting an extra fortnight to prepare for an All-Ireland semi-final, he's not about to try and change it. He knows what you're thinking. He'd be thinking it himself if he wasn't in the middle of it.

Morgan is one of the Tyrone players who have contracted Covid-19 this summer. It's none of anyone's business obviously but he's happy enough to confirm that it is, in fact, the case. He's fine. Fit and healthy. Ready to roll for his fifth All-Ireland semi-final. In the annals of Tyrone football, only Seán Cavanagh and, assuming they tog out, Peter Harte and Mattie Donnelly will have played in more.

And since you ask, Morgan has had his vaccine too. Again, this isn’t something he needs to be saying out loud in the company of anyone other than his wife and family. But he doesn’t feel he has anything to hide on that front either. He has had his first jab and is waiting for the allotted time to pass before his second.

He isn’t pretending that any of this is good. It’s obviously a mess. A mess of Tyrone’s making and nobody else’s. This should have been the weekend of the All-Ireland final. He should have been back in with Edendork, if not by now then towards the end of next week. Nobody wanted this.


“I can see both sides of the story,” he says. “But there’s some of the arguments that people are putting forward that I think are just silly. And that’s on both sides. It’s extreme on both sides. There’s somewhere in around the middle that makes sense.”

He genuinely doesn't know what sort of shape Tyrone will be in when the anthem finishes and David Coldrick throws the ball in. He knows his own after-effects were minimal, just as his symptoms – a runny nose – were at the time. But he can't talk for anyone else in the squad, partly because he has no right to and partly because they won't even know themselves until the game gets underway.

Here's what he does know. The Tyrone senior team were in no position to play the game before today. They played a full A v B game at training on Tuesday night for the first time in almost six weeks. Yes, absolutely, they could have filled 15 white jerseys with red trim and sent them to Croke Park last weekend for Kerry to slice and dice. Of course they could.

But – and again, he’s not asking you to agree with any of this –- they felt that wouldn’t be fair on anyone. Not on the players they would be asking to go and play, not on the other teams in the competition, not on supporters, not on the GAA, not on anyone. And if you want to argue that life isn’t fair and they should have sucked it up, that’s fine too. He’s just giving you the view from inside the camp.

“A lot of people are saying things like, ‘They would have had enough players to play. Surely to God there’s 26 footballers in Tyrone who don’t have Covid’. That’s fine if it was a club game – you’d have thrown any 15 together and put them on the pitch to fulfil the fixture. But if we had gone and got beat by 30 points, people would have been saying, ‘What did you do that for? Wasn’t that stupid? What did that achieve for anyone?’

“The whole issue was about team preparation. Would an under-20 team be prepared at short notice? Would a load of club players if you brought them in? This isn’t just any game you’d be sending them down to play. You’re going to play Kerry in an All-Ireland semi-final, a team that absolutely wiped the floor with us the last time we played them. Where’s the integrity of competition in that?”

Worst weeks

Let’s step back for a bit. This isn’t just a Covid story. It is, of course, The Big Thing and he’s happy to talk away about it. But life is bigger than all that endless to-and-fro. Smaller, too.

It’s Monday afternoon and Morgan has the earbuds in, staring out from a Zoom screen. This is his ninth season as the Tyrone goalkeeper, having turned 30 in July. He has played in one All-Ireland final, back in 2018. It was one of the worst weeks of his life, but not because of what happened in Croke Park.

The previous Monday, he and his wife Ciara lost a baby to a miscarriage. It was the second time it had happened to them in the space of a year. None of his friends even knew they were expecting. None of his teammates either. When the Tyrone team gathered a couple of hours before leaving for Croke Park that Sunday, the management got everyone to talk about their Why. Why are we here? What’s this all for?

“We were in a group, in a circle at the hotel,” Morgan says. “I’m getting goosebumps even talking about it now. I told the boys what I had been through that year. I was in tears before we even left the hotel. And some of the other boys had been through really, really tough stuff that year as well. Stuff that none of us really knew about.

“That moment made us all let the barriers down and on a human level talk about the fact that this wasn’t just an exercise in beating your chest. It wasn’t that usual pre-game where everybody is determined and everybody’s ready to do what they have to do. It was a really powerful moment.”

That was September 2018. Sixteen months and a lifetime’s worry later, the Morgans welcomed a son into the world. In April of this year, his little sister arrived. These days, Críostaí and Maisie are his Why.

Leaving them behind to go to training is no picnic for anyone in the house. It’s a lot of missed bedtimes, a lot of guilt. Also, if you think moving an All-Ireland semi-final is inconvenient and annoying, try imposing quarantine on a house with two toddlers.

“Ciara and I got married when I was 25. People would have said at the time that we were very young. But you have this fairytale that you get married and have children and everything is rosy. The first child that we lost was basically the week of our first anniversary.

“When that happened we felt like we were the first people to ever lose a child. You do feel that way. And it wasn’t until you talk about it that you realise it’s so common.”

Looking back, he concedes that two hours before an All-Ireland final might not have been the perfect time to have everyone in floods of tears in the team hotel. Or maybe it was – Tyrone were 0-5 to 0-1 up on the Dubs after 15 minutes that day, remember. But even though they got well beaten, he has no regrets. None to do with football, anyway.

“Our team has probably got a lot closer since that day. Even though the game went the way it did. I think if we hadn’t had that experience together and the game panned out the way it did, I think there would have been a lot of finger-pointing and a lot of blaming after it.

“We might not have recovered from it. But because we had that moment before the game, we realised that it was about more than just that one game. It was about putting a team together and hoping for future success and knowing why we’re doing it. Nothing is guaranteed.”

Final celebration

Okay, back to Covid. Let’s talk about the party. And the protocols. And the vaccines. And all the things Tyrone could have done to keep the virus out of their circle and all the things they either did or did not do.

The post-Ulster final celebration bash happened. It wasn't the Bacchanalian hoedown that some made it out to be but Morgan doesn't deny that some of them met to toast the victory when they got back from Dublin that night.

“It wasn’t even all of the players. There was no outsiders allowed – wives, girlfriends, nobody else was allowed in. No family, nothing. The players had a few beers together and we celebrated but it was very subdued.

“We were even disappointed because some of the players couldn’t go, obviously – the boys who had contracted the virus and missed the game. And some of the players said that, on safety grounds, they weren’t going. You wouldn’t have had any more than half the panel there, having a few beers together.

“I suppose all you have to do is flick through social media to see if it was anything more than that. There’s no pictures of us anywhere. We can control our own social media, yes. But there was no pictures of us on anybody else’s. That’s where the truth lies. There was nothing of us put up by anybody else.”

As for protocols, Morgan knows well that whatever he says is going to be taken with a pillar of salt. But where do you want him to start? Maybe with the fact that the Tyrone squad commandeered the kids’ play area in their training centre in Garvaghy for changing in since the start of the championship, on the basis that at least it was a softer surface than the car park.

Or maybe with the huge piece of canvas – "You know, like the side of an 18-wheeler lorry," he laughs – that they've rigged up to hang from the stand beside their training pitch like a curtain, allowing the physios to work without getting drenched when the weather doesn't play ball. Or the fact that they all drove to Dublin separately for the Ulster final and parked up in Clontarf Castle, splitting up into two buses for the 10-minute trip to Croke Park.

People ask: 'How did this transmit through the squad?'

Nobody knows how Covid got into the Tyrone camp. But it did. How it spread through it is a mystery too, given that, in Morgan’s words, they have been, “so, so strict on the protocols all year”.

He does offer one theory, based on dressing rooms. Not the ones in Garvaghy – they haven't been together inside those since the league ended. Rather the ones in Enniskillen, Omagh and Dublin where they played their Ulster championship games.

“People ask, ‘How did this transmit through the squad?’ Well, on each of those days, we spent two to 2½ hours in a dressing room together. Rammed into dressing rooms on roasting hot days. Outside of those times, we’re never in a confined space like that together. Those three games are the only time we’ve been in a dressing room together since the start of the championship.

Watertight solution

“You have to wonder should we have gone back to getting changed outside like we were doing last year. In Croke Park, in the bus tunnel, you could have opened up a marquee for teams to change and it might have just made it a wee bit safer.

“That’s the biggest thing from a player’s point of view – how did it transmit? And you look straight at the dressing rooms and ask how long we spent in there. The whole team celebrated in the dressing rooms. The whole back-room team celebrated in the dressing room.”

As for vaccines, nobody in world sport has worked out a watertight solution here. The NFL has taken to fining players who don't get the jab and still there are plenty of hold-outs. Everyone has their own reasons for getting it or not getting it. Take-up in the Tyrone squad hasn't been universal, no. But without each of them explaining their individual thinking, none of us know what's going on in their lives.

“It comes down to personal choices,” Morgan says. “I had one dose of a vaccination and I’m waiting on my second one. Just because you’re vaccinated, doesn’t mean that you’re perfectly protected. A lot of people are hinting at the fact that if they had been vaccinated, they would have been fine to play. If you’re positive, you have to do your isolation regardless. You can’t say, ‘Well I’m vaccinated. Even though I’m positive, I’m fine to train’.

“It’s a personal choice. You can’t be forced to do it just because you’re a county player. Yes, you can be forced to do it by governments that won’t let you into their country but we’re an amateur association playing a sport. I think some people are nearly forgetting that. We go about our daily lives. We have jobs. We have families.”

One way or the other, Covid got in and it spread among them and it caused havoc. There were nights with so few players at training that they were more or less reduced to going non-contact, heading off with a ball each to practice their skills like under-12s.

“It got to the stage where it was like passing ships. You were arriving to training and wondering who was going to be back and wondering who was going to be missing. You genuinely were. You were arriving at training going, ‘I wonder how many we will have tonight. Who’s going to be here? Who’s not going to be here?’ And you’re just hoping that there were going to be more returning than there was going away.

“It was like going to club training in bad times. Obviously boys weren’t putting into the group, ‘Aw lads, won’t be at training tonight, got Covid’. So players were obviously given the privacy to do their isolation or whatever. And then obviously there were a few boys who were hit really hard with it.

“It’s difficult for any outsider to actually understand what it was really like. I know we’re probably going to get no sympathy and people still have their minds made up as to what happened and how it infiltrated the camp so hard. But once it was in, it was so hard to control, especially the asymptomatic cases.

“If it was a virus that everybody had symptoms that was easy to spot then it would have been a whole lot handier. You would have been able to say, ‘Well, I have got symptoms – I’m out.’ Whereas boys were actually raging whenever their tests came back positive because they were thinking there was nothing wrong with them.”

Rotten day

It got so bad that eventually Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher informed the group that they wouldn't be able to field a team.

“There was a lot of players who were unhappy,” Morgan says. “But in realistic terms we wouldn’t have been able to put together a 26. And we certainly weren’t going to be able to put 15 on the pitch that had the prep done to play a game.”

Here they are, then. Facing Kerry, who blitzed them by 16 points the last time out. It was a particularly rotten day for Morgan, who saw six goals go past him, five before half-time. Every team gets a hammering here and there. Not every goalkeeper has to pick the ball out of the net six times along the way.

“The most embarrassed I’ve ever been,” he says. “For the sixth goal, a high ball came in that there’s no way I would have come out that far in any other game to try and get a punch on. But at that stage, I was just trying to do something, trying to walk away from the game being able to go, ‘Well at least I did that well’. But even that went wrong!

“The first session back we did video work that was very – how can I word it – very to the point. It was time to take responsibility yourself – am I doing the best that I can? I came across a quote that I like – it was about proving ourselves right. Not proving other people wrong, just proving that we’re there for a reason.

“For me it was, the one thing that I wanted to do was make the kids proud. And if I had turned around after the Kerry match and said, ‘That’s it, I’m gonna walk away because that was embarrassing’, what does that say to them in years to come? Whenever they ask why I stopped playing for Tyrone, I don’t want the answer to be because we got a hammering in a league game.”

The world will turn. Covid life will come and go. Tyrone will win today or lose today. The rest of the country will think what they think and say what they say.

When it’s over and when he gets back up the road, Niall Morgan will gather Críostaí and Maisie into his arms. And the world outside will melt away.