The art of goalkeeping with Niall Morgan

NIALL GARTLAND: With collective training out of the picture, are you worried about losing your sharpness?

Niall Morgan: I’m carrying a bit of an injury from the end of last year so it’s given me a good opportunity to rehab it. If we had have been back training in the middle of January, it might have been too soon for me so it’s probably worked to my advantage. Most of the boys are doing individual stuff and Peter Donnelly being back has been a great help as there’s a lot of variation. He keeps you on your toes rather than doing the same stuff all over again. I’m tipping away with gym stuff and I’m working on weaknesses I have in that department. I should be back for whenever we do return, it’s just making sure that I’m ready rather than overdoing things.

NG: Going back to Tyrone’s championship match against Donegal last year, a lot was made of Donegal’s physical presence in the middle third. Did you have a particular way of counteracting that or is it not that big of a deal these days as goalkeepers go short so often anyway?

NM: Ballybofey and Newbridge are probably the two tightest pitches that I’ve played on, and it probably allows teams that are more physical around the middle to get the better of you in a sense. If they force you long it’s easier for them to make it into more of a midfield battle. Obviously the conditions weren’t great either, which worked to Donegal’s favour as they’ve so many men who are six foot plus in comparison to us. It’s something we as a county, even thinking right back, apart from Colly (Cavanagh) we haven’t had a stereotypically dominant midfielder player, which is a reason why we do go short quite a bit. We get a lot of success going short. We’re willing to take risks and have great ball carriers coming out of defence. Donegal tried to prey on that but we’ve big lads coming through like Brian Kennedy, Conn Kilpatrick, and Conor McKenna’s a good aerial threat, so we still had that outlet. On the day Donegal were a bit hungrier and won more of the breaking ball. I’m not really a believer in luck. They did well to get their bodies where they needed to be and out-worked us on the breaking ball.

NG: In both matches against Donegal last year, if you waited more than a few seconds, Donegal subs were shouting ‘too long, too long’ – is that a distraction or were you able to block it out?

NM: That’s been happening the last five or six years and it’s coming into club games now as well. I block all that out. It’s the first thing I say to any young ’keeper asking for advice – whenever you’re hitting the kick-out you’re in complete control, and the minute you start to look panicky, the referee thinks you’re taking too long. It’s probably only the last year or two that I’ve realised that if you start running up and back and waving your hands, the referee thinks this man’s under pressure and maybe he has taken too long. I just stand and try to be the calmest person on the pitch and wait until an option opens up.

NG: You’ve spoken before about Dublin players, including defenders, pushing up on the opposition kick-out. Do other counties replicate that to the same degree or is it almost unique to Dublin?

NM: The lockdown has actually given me a good opportunity to look at other teams as well. We looked at the teams that always seem to be in finals like Kerry and Mayo, and it’s pretty clear that they’re all doing it. It’s a brave move to do and whenever we watched the 2019 final, Jack McCaffrey’s goal actually comes from Kerry pressing up. They ended up leaving the middle free. What makes it unique to Dublin is that, if they lose the kick-out, they block off the middle sector and almost gift you a point instead of conceding a goal. Other teams sometimes get pulled across and leave a gap and that’s how Jack McCaffrey got his goal, he wasn’t tracked. Dublin just seem to have all their bases covered, they know what happens in all the different scenarios and that’s where the rest of us need to catch up.

NG: If you watch Dublin matches you can forensically examine what they’re doing, but I imagine when you’re taking kick-outs in real time that it must be quite daunting?

NM: A lot of my job depends on the movement of the boys in front of me. If they’re static, and I tell them this, it’s nearly impossible for me to hit them. Dublin always seem to be on the move and creating pockets of space for the others. It does make my job a lot easier whenever our boys are hungry for the ball and creating space. You’re hitting the gap more so than hitting the player. We can be as forensic as you want, but Dublin are so good at changing in the middle of matches.

NG: When training for Tyrone down the years, has the team tried to replicate different kick-out scenarios in preparation for upcoming games?

NM: At times, yes, but you’d probably be surprised by how little work we’ve done on it, especially from our own kick-out, and it probably has been a downfall over recent years. I’m not afraid to put my hand up and hold some responsibility for that. Sometimes you did feel underprepared in terms of how other teams are set up. Everyone talks about how important the kick-outs are but we didn’t seem to spend that much time on what we’re going to do. We did spend time working on kick-outs, don’t get me wrong, but you have to work on kick-outs to beat certain systems as well. The value of doing that on a regular basis can’t be under-estimated. As I said earlier on, Dublin seem to know what they’re doing in all the scenarios whereas if you’re only practising what you’re going to do whenever you win the kick-out that’s when it becomes dangerous.

NG: I suppose we’ll find out in due course if that will change. Do you always feel pressure to improve? There’s only one starting jersey for the goalkeeper and there’s a couple of subs like Benny Gallen breathing down your neck.

NM: This was my eighth year and I’m going into my ninth. There is pressure but a lot of it comes from within. I’ll hold my hand up and take responsibility for our kick-outs in the last year or two. There’s that pressure from within to constantly get better and constantly improve, and to work on my own weaknesses. Last year I used my left foot a lot more from kick-outs and I think that added a new dimension to my game. You can over-think things but I feel I’ve a point to prove to others. I listened to a podcast with Kasper Schmeichel the other day and he said it’s not about proving other people wrong, it’s about proving yourself right, and that’s what I aim to do. I want to prove to myself as well as others that I’m one of the better ’keepers in the game. I’m sometimes in that conversation, sometimes it feels warranted and sometimes I feel I still have a lot to prove. I don’t want it to be taken for granted that I’m up there with the best ’keepers because I want to prove that it’s deserved.

NG: Going back to what you said about trying to use your left foot more, why was that important to you?

NM: If I’m hitting a kick-out, the other team would feel that I’d have to come around the ball a bit if I’m looking for the right corner-back so they’d ease off a bit on that side. So using my left foot  allows me to get a quick kick-out away to that side more often and forces  the other team to press up on both sides. It did come as an advantage. Teams may cop on to the fact I can do it but it still forces them to press up on both sides and allows me to hit the midfield area as another option. You’re trying to move their parts yourself and dictate where they’re going to be. It’s like being a quarter-back I suppose, and you’re trying to be one step ahead in the next game – maybe finding a different area and different receivers than the previous week so opponents don’t know what to expect.

NG: I watched the 2005 final again last year and it’s amazing how much the role has changed as goalies just belted the ball down the middle. Are you glad that it’s changed so much? It’s obviously made things a lot more challenging.

NM: That was my eighth year for the county, but I’ve played for the club  since 2008 and was playing goals for my school in that period. I’ve noticed a massive change, it was the case of just getting the ball out. But I distinctly remember working with Niall McKenna around the time of our (St Pat’s, Dungannon) Hogan and MacRory Cup  successes in 2008 and 2009, and going to Donaghmore’s back-pitch and practising kick-outs to the wing that were low and hard, for him to run onto. The feeling you got whenever you managed one of those kick-outs in a game, from a goalkeeper’s point of view, is far more gratifying than a midfielder catching a high ball over a crowd of three or four others.

On the flipside, whenever I’m playing for Edendork, that’s what I want Mark (McReynolds)  to do, I want him to kick it out long! But it’s definitely far more rewarding for goalkeepers now and it’s a role that’s probably a lot more attractive to younger players coming through.

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