Facing Ulster Championship favourites Donegal is unlikley to faze Derry keeper Thomas Mallon, a man who has taken an unconventional path to the the county No. 1 jersey.
Four years ago Mallon couldn’t get a game with the Loup senior team but on Saturday evening in St. Tiernach’s Park, he will be a key figure as Derry seek a first final appearance since 2011 against Rory Gallagher’s in-form team.
Mallon refuses to acknowledge any suggestion he is now Derry’s automatic first choice but how many keeper’s win an Ulster Championship ‘Man of the Match’ award without making a meaningful save as Mallon managed against Down in the Quarter-final victory?
“It’s unbelievable to be honest,” explained the Loup man, “If it wasn’t for kickouts being so important now, I don’t think I’d be a county ‘keeper. There are other keepers who, maybe, are better than me. It’s just because kick-outs are so important in Gaelic football now. Stephen Cluxton really has turned the goalkeeper into one of the most important players on the field.”
Mallon’s modesty belies his importance to a Derry defensive strateggy that Brian McIver is hoping can upset the odds on Saturday night. Indeed, it was Mallon’s quick thinking to pick out Eoin Bradley in injury time that eventually won the quarter-final for the Oak Leafers.
“To be honest, I don’t read much into them (the plaudits). I take compliments with a pinch of salt. That game’s history the next day. You could go out the next game and have a real stinker and nobody will remember your performance against Down. I’m happy with the praise but I take it with a pinch of salt.
“It’s maybe 10 years ago that nobody really thought much about kickouts,” adds Mallon, “I remember Cluxton taking kick-outs to wings and wondering to myself why nobody else picked up on it. It’s only really in the last four or five years that kick-outs have come into it. Winning primary possession on your own kick-outs is half the battle.
“Most kickouts I go to hit nowadays, I just think if it’s on, it’s on. I saw Skinner (against Down) and I’d hit him with one just before it, he broke it and we won the free-kick. He was in acres of space this time and I just thought ‘do it’. Lucky enough he won it and he had Kevin Johnston with him. I was delighted we got the point from it.”
Despite his achievements since finally managing to oust Shane McGuckin at Loup and then putting himself into pole position in his ongoing battle with Glenullin’s Eoin McNicholl for the county spot, last year’s Ulster Championship defeat to Donegal in Celtic Park remains the one major regret Mallon is key to make up for.
“Absolutely (it is a regret). That 10 minutes against Donegal, my kickouts went down the middle. At that time of the game, Niall Holly was our only real midfielder. Afterwards, I thought to myself I should have been going short. I was disappointed with myself that time because Donegal were picking up all the breaks.
“In that time, they scored 1-3 and I think they won seven or eight kick-outs in a row, and it was our own kick-outs. I kept kicking it out, they were winning the break and scoring. Personally, I was disappointed in terms of my own kick-outs. As a team, it’s one thing we’ve tried to look at and work on. Hopefully next Saturday night we’ll overcome it and get the result we want.”
The Derry keeper has no problem with Derry’s ‘underdogs’ tag and admits he was impressed by Donegal’s performance in their preliminary round win over Tyrone and their one-sided victory over Armagh in the Quarter-finals.
“Very impressive. At the minute, in Ireland, Donegal are the form team. There’s no two ways about it. Tyrone put up a very physical battle against them and Donegal overcame that. Then, everyone was talking about Armagh but the experience and the quality of players Donegal shone through. From start to finish they were awesome. They are a fantastic side and this is one we’ll have to get ourselves up for. Whatever we did that was poor against Down, we can’t do that against Donegal because they’ll punish you.”
With Colm McFadden fit to be added to the attack that destroyed Armagh, Mallon knows he is up against one of Ireland’s most formidable forward lines but it is a challenge he is relishing.
“You have to prepare for everything and expect the unexpected. Whether it’s (Michael) Murphy or (Patrick) McBrearty or anyone, you have to expect it. If a high ball comes in and it’s there, you have to go for it. Height doesn’t come into it. If you get up early and you have confidence in yourself, you’ll get there. I don’t just prepare myself for kick-outs. You prepare for standing up big, for high balls that come in, calling it early and commanding my square, talking to defenders and kickouts as well.”