Final journey an eye-opener for quiet hero Friel

WHAT follows is the net result of an extraordinary interview, one given by a player who answers every question put to him with his eyes closed.

Michael Friel, all 6ft 3in of him, is a shy man. Surrounded by Armagh players last month, he was in his element but here in Derry’s Owenbeg training centre with over half a dozen dictaphones thrust in his direction he cowers.

The only time he opens his eyes is to throw them to heaven when he gives his first reply, an utterance he feels anything but adequate. In an attempt to assure him, one journalist tells him not to beat himself up about what he’s saying. “The questions aren’t great either, Michael.”

Slowly, with the urgency of honey, Friel eases a little. The eyes remained closed but his humour displays itself.

He works as a shopfitter and joiner now but is qualified in property, investment and development. A degree virtually not worth the paper it’s written on right now.

“It was funny because my first year in university I took up sports science and about two thirds of the way through I was put off it by the fact they said there would be no job in it by the time you are finished!”

Asked about the semi-final win over Armagh and how Derry got into it with little or no fanfare, Friel says he revelled in the relative anonymity.

“I really enjoyed it, but I don’t like the situation I’m in right now (being interviewed). I think it’s a big benefit when you are coming in under the radar. I can get nervous before matches and big club matches because everybody would look up to you and depend on you.”

For a player who has almost parachuted himself into Derry’s midfield this year, it’s worth pointing out Friel has just turned 25. Attempting to get into a Derry engine room dominated by Fergal Doherty, Patsy Bradley and Joe Diver was difficult but he didn’t do himself any favours either.

“I was in the panel a couple of times when I was still in university and I didn’t really give it 100%. I didn’t give the management my full commitment. I regretted it big time after I left the panel. Two years ago I ruined the knee, (lateral collateral ligament in the knee). It was a long way back from it, especially after you put on three or four stone. It’s always at the back of your head — have you given up the chance to play county football?

“Thankfully, this year I got my act together and I have put in a lot of work training by myself and that has brought me on tenfold.”

His club, Swatragh, were relegated to intermediate level last year but the drop in class hasn’t made his life any easier. He’s the big fish in the small pond now.

“Intermediate football is a hell of a lot harder than some people might think.

“You are playing very strong midfielders, and I suppose with me being on the senior panel this year a lot of them go out to break ball against me and wrestle me as opposed to trying to catch the ball like they do at senior.”

Playing senior inter-county football is heaven compared to it. “You can express yourself more,” he says. “Everybody wants to try and do the best they can for the team and it’s not as much negative football as you would get in some club matches where people would try to take you out of the game.”

Up against a dynamic midfielder in Charlie Vernon last day out, Friel didn’t look out of place in the running stakes. He has trainers Conal Sheridan and Barry Dillon to thank for that.

“I am probably in the best shape I have been in a good while but I can probably still improve.

“Running was never my forte. But I have definitely picked it up this year. Conal and Barry have been great at training.

“A lot of the training I didn’t like. I would probably have said that behind their backs!

“You can definitely feel it when it is coming to match day. You have that little bit extra in the engine.”

Of course, him being a midfielder and hailing from Swatragh, he’s been mentioned in the same breath as Anthony Tohill, although he baulks at the comparison. The pair played alongside each other in Tohill’s last year but Friel knows he has a long way to go to get even close to what the current International Rules manager has achieved.

“Everybody wanted to be Anthony, you can pick out a town in the corner point of Kerry and ask anyone who Anthony Tohill was and they will always tell you.”

Michael Friel doesn’t roll off the tongue as easy but he doesn’t mind. His name will be altogether more familiar with people if he and Derry do the business tomorrow.

His eyes are wide open to that possibility.

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