Article: The Leitrim Leader

Rovers captain for 2024, Niall Morahan, chatted to Leo Gray at the start of the season, about his rise through the Showgrounds academy, his pride at leading out the Bit O’Red and his hopes for the 2024 campaign.

Niall Morahan carries the responsibility of leadership lightly.

Being one of the youngest captains in the attritional arena of the League of Ireland is a daunting challenge but the Leitrim man embraces the task enthusiastically, inspired rather than inhibited by the role.

At 23 years, he’s one of the youngest players to skipper Sligo Rovers. If that sets him apart in the pantheon of great warriors who have worn the prestigious armband, there’s something else that distinguishes him. He’s the first man from his county to captain the Bit O’Red.

“It’s a huge privilege to captain this great club,” he insists. “As a proud Leitrim man, it’s an honour for my county too. I’m aware Rovers have always had a solid base of supporters in the Carrick-on-Shannon area and throughout North Leitrim and if my involvement with the club, especially in the role of captain, gets a few more people from my native county following Rovers that would be a nice bonus.”

Articulate, engaging and displaying maturity beyond his years, Morahan’s progress through the club’s under-age ranks to first-team regular and on to the coveted role as skipper reflects the impressive development of Rovers as a modern, self-sustaining club devoted to nurturing home-grown talent and utilising regional resources.

When he joined the Showgrounds academy as a raw teenager, the whole concept of under-age football within the League of Ireland was in its infancy and nobody was quite sure if the fledgling project would stand the test of time.

But Morahan, talented and ambitious, was delighted to be among the early recruits to the revolution, signing on with Rovers under 17s.

“Lads like Ed McGinty, Jack Keaney and John Mahon were a year ahead of me in the academy and there were plenty of really good players in my own age group,” he recalls. “Liam Kerrigan and Mark Byrne were there too. Niall Harrison, Colm Jinks and Danny O’Leary were our coaches, really top class guys were who were a major influence.

“The first priority was to go in every day, learn and improve as much as possible. But of course the ultimate objective was to make it all the way to the first team. Once Ed, Jack and John got the breakthrough, it was a great boost for everybody in the academy. It showed there was a genuine pathway, a real chance to become a professional footballer which was the dream we all shared at that stage of our development.”

A native of Leitrim village, Niall and his sisters, Dara and Niamh, were actively encouraged by their parents, Michael and Orla, both teachers, to engage in sporting pursuits from a very young age.

Niall played soccer with the under-age teams at Carrick Town in Carrick on Shannon and Gaelic football with Allen Gaels in Drumshanbo. His Dad, a coach with the youth set-up at Carrick Town, offered inspiration and guidance, not to mention invaluable schooling in the art of football know-how, and soon the tigerish young midfielder caught the attention of the Sligo/Leitrim squad.

He played with the League’s under 14s in the prestigious Kennedy Cup before linking up with Strand Celtic, another club dedicated to nurturing talented young footballers. Trials with Rovers under 17s followed, eventually leading to a place in the Showgrounds academy.

“It was all a big change from what I was used to, “ he explains. “There were lads from Mayo and Donegal and Sligo and it was a huge step up in terms of the standard of football. I would have been playing as a full-back or in midfield at the time and, thankfully, I settled in very quickly.”

Rapidly establishing himself as a young player with immense potential, Morahan was offered  his first professional contract in the summer of 2018, just after finishing his Leaving Cert at  Carrick on Shannon Community School.

Thanks to the highly successful partnership between Sligo ATU and Sligo Rovers, he was able to combine academic and sporting paths, studying business at College while continuing his football development at the Showgrounds.

Within weeks of signing his first professional deal, Morahan made his first team debut, coming on as a late substitute against Limerick at the Market’s Field in August 2018.

He recalls: “I was only on for a couple of minutes but it was a great thrill. It was what I had aimed for from the moment I joined the club so to make my senior debut was a very special occasion, not just for myself but for my family too. And once I got a taste of it, I wanted more. I remember I was quite nervous coming on but the senior lads were great. David Cawley and Raff Cretaro looked after me and helped me settle into the game. I think that experience, brief though it was, made me even more determined to work harder and try to become a regular. I was determined to grasp whatever opportunity came my way and make the most of it.”

As is the case with a lot of up and coming youngsters, Morahan was in and out of the team for a couple of seasons before nailing down a permanent place in 2020.

“The season was disrupted by Covid so it was all a bit strange,” he remembers. “We had a poor start to the year but we came back after the enforced break and everything seemed to click. We ended up qualifying for Europe and I won the player-of-the-year award. Liam Buckley really put his trust in me that season. He believed in me and gave me the opportunity to prove that I could play at this level of football. I will always be grateful to him for that.”

Rovers unforgettable adventure in European football in 2022 further enhanced Morahan’s reputation as one of the most accomplished midfielders in the League and nobody could have predicted the sudden decline which dragged the team into a relegation battle last season.

While the Leitrim man readily concedes 2023 was hugely disappointing, he insists the experience will make the squad more determined than ever to put the record straight this year.

He says: “The frustrating thing is that we know we’re better than we showed last year. That’s why I feel there will be added motivation this time around among the lads who were here in 2023. That whole experience will make us stronger.”

He’s excited by the new-look squad assembled by manager, John Russell, and very impressed by the quality and application of the new players.

“The manager worked us really hard in pre-season. Already, there’s a great bond within the group. The lads who’ve come in have settled very quickly and there’s a real desire about the place. We’ve got a young and hungry squad and I feel quite confident that we’ll have a good season. The fact that so many people had written us off before the campaign even started is an added motivation. We’ll take that on board and use it to fuel our efforts to prove people wrong.

“On a personal level, it’s a massive honour for me to captain the side this season. I’ve been at the club since I was 12 years old so to come up through the various under-age grades and get to a stage where I lead out the team is something I’m very proud of.”