Just graduated from U21, where he had represented his county, his career prospects were being stunted at club level.
He had moved between the sticks at U14 level, and was by that stage an out-and-out goalkeeper. But a former Oak Leaf custodian stood in his path at Loup. Shane McGuckin gripped tightly to number one.
He had won a championship in goals in 2003 and he was still between the posts when they regained the John McLaughlin Cup six years later. It was 2011 before Mallon made his senior championship debut.
Slowly, his stock has grown. When Brian McIver went about finding a successor to the retired Barry Gillis, he brought Eoin McNicholl, Thomas Mallon and Kevin Farren in.
Mallon and McNicholl have since vied over the number one spot for the first 12 months, with the Glenullin man winning the battle. His superior ability in the air and his shot-stopping prowess earned him the nod over Mallon during the first year of McIver’s tenure. But, over the winter, Mallon continued to do what he has done consistently in the last four years. He worked hard. He has spent hours upon hours, both on his own and with goalkeeping coaches Johnny Kelly and David Hasson, on the facets of his game that needed most work. McNicholl won the first battle but Mallon is winning the war. Because of that, he will wear the number one jersey in Croke Park for the second time when Derry face Dublin. He will line up, for the second time this season, against the benchmark goalkeeper for all of Ireland, Stephen Cluxton.
“The movement he has in front of him on kickouts is unreal, he has men going everywhere and his kickouts are class. I’m watching him for years, ever since he started playing, and I try to take whatever I can from watching him and utilise it in my own game,” said Mallon.
He will be joined on the Derry team by clubmate Aidan McAlynn who has been drafted in at wing-back to replace the injured Sean Leo McGoldrick. Another Loup man, Anthony O’Neill, is also part of the extended squad.
They carry a proud recent tradition their club has built since their formation in 1933. They have, at times, looked enviously upon the success that their neighbours from the other side of Ballyronan village, Ballinderry. The village itself is a middleground between the two. While it is regarded ordinarily as Loup territory, there have been plenty who have gone to Shamrock Park instead.
But they hardly mope about what Ballinderry do. For the last 20 years, they have enjoyed their own success. The Loup village consists of barely 600 people. The club has just 150 members. Those sort of stats are not often conducive to a club that played in five county finals between 2002 and 2009, winning two of them. It’s not the bulging membership you’d expect of a club that won an Ulster club title in 2003.
They have long produced players of great standing. Club stalwarts like Mickey McBride, Fintan Martin, Columba McVey and Martin Gallagher dragged a brilliant crop of young players up in to senior for the first time in 1994. It was in between Ulster minor titles won in 1993 and 1995. They still believe it might have been three-in-a-row had the focus of a young Johnny McBride and Paul McFlynn, among others, not been on a big push to get the club to top tier.
That decision to concentrate on senior promotion has paid its dividends in the two decades since, at club and county level. There’s an incredible list of players to have togged out in the red and white since then. Johnny McBride is a former county captain and Paul McFlynn was a regular fixture, but there have been plenty others. Ronan Rocks, Padraig O’Kane, his brother Joe, Gavin Mallon, Shane McGuckin, Brian Doyle, Fionntain Devlin, Paul Young have all appeared at senior level. The list at underage level is more impressive.
Aidan McAlynn and Thomas Mallon carry that on now. Mallon’s rise is stunning. He has held as tight to Derry’s number one jersey this year as Shane McGuckin once held to the Loup custodian’s jersey.