Majestic O’Neill still pointing the way for resurgent Red Hand
Tyrone’s elusive marksman poses a real threat to Dublin’s league title ambitions
Poor Peter Kelly, this wasn’t even his beat. Ollie Lyons was supposed to be on Stephen O’Neill patrol a fortnight ago. But in the Kildare set-up, concessions are made when the mood takes a defender and spirits him up the field and so Kelly found himself on deck a few times over the course of the afternoon when Lyons went on shore leave.
And, on one of those occasions, O’Neill sent him for a sky-dive with a dummy solo of evil economy and a looping score from the gods.
To rob a phrase from David Brent, some days you’re the pigeon and some days you’re the statue. Just right at that moment, sitting on the grass as the umpire reached for the white flag, it was hard for Kelly to locate any such perspective. But he didn’t have to wait for long.
A couple of minutes later, when O’Neill speared another eye-of-the-needle point from the far side of the pitch, there was comfort in not being the victim a second time.
“Yeah, at least Ollie got burnt as well,” he says. “It was a far better point in my opinion.”
You could watch them all day, those two points. When the patrons walked out of Croke Park that day and talked of Stephen O’Neill, they talked of two sweet finishes and a glorious dummy solo. Quite right, too. Mickey Harte said they were worth paying in to see, just them on their own. Kieran McGeeney said they were scores from what you couldn’t even call scoring chances.
The man himself, he says as little as possible. He’s been doing this for just over 13 years now and though he’s never been one to turn down an interview request, it’s not really in his nature to drill down too deeply for an explanation of his worldly gifts.
So when you put it to him that there must be a serious amount of confidence flowing through him to able to score points like that with a league semi-final in the balance, you’re met with a smile and a shrug.
“I just shoot,” he says. “There’s no point trying to run away from two or three defenders – if you have half a yard you may as well take the shot and go with it. Some of the boys give me stick and say I just shoot on sight but I think if you feel you can do it you should just go and give it a rattle.
“A dead ball is sometimes better than dropping it into the keeper’s hands, especially at that stage of the game. You’d be thinking that if the ball goes dead, we can get ourselves back into position again.”
Ah here, you’re not trying to say you were just making sure the ball went dead?
“Well no,” he concedes, “but you know what I mean.”
Sort of. If nothing else, the thought process is interesting. Most of every mountain doesn’t reach the top, yet it’s the summit that naturally enough gets all the press. Though the taking of those two points was what left you feeling warm and fuzzy afterwards, the making of them arguably told you more about how it is that O’Neill is still here, still vital long after most of his old compatriots have melted back into regular society.
On neither occasion was the pass into him particularly on the money. For the first one, Colm Cavanagh’s ball hopped over his head and negated the effect of his run out in front of Kelly. The Kildare defender actually got the first touch on the bouncing ball and was able to punch it away towards the sideline effectively enough, so that by the time O’Neill won the foot race to go and pick it up, he was no more than a couple of feet in from the whitewash.
From there, Kelly did more or less everything right. He lowered the shoulder and knocked him out over the line. But a combination of brute strength and a career’s guile meant that despite O’Neill taking four full steps off the pitch, he kept the ball in play. Kelly got goalside of him again, although by now he was in a little trouble.
By rights, he shouldn’t have been because they were still all but flush against the sideline and only 10 metres from the endline. Fatally, however, Kelly was just a touch off balance having been turned this way and that and O’Neill was anything but. It meant that Kelly’s timing wasn’t quite up to O’Neill’s, like watching a movie where the picture is ever so slightly behind the sound.
“I thought I was able to knock him out towards the sideline and then get in between him and the goals,” says Kelly. “And I thought I did it well enough. But look, you have to hold your hands up, it was an unbelievable point. There’s not a whole lot you can do at times, is there?”
Kelly is half-messing about the second one being the far better score but there’s an argument to be made all the same. Again the pass in to him gave the defender a better chance than he should have had – Conor McAlliskey’s ball looped and made him wait on it, allowing Lyons to push him out to within a couple of yards of the Cusack sideline.
But though there was no dummy solo this time, the right-handed bounce to shift the ball on his left side was worthy of the silkiest point guard. It left Lyons facing the wrong way for just long enough to steal a step.
And the shot was definitely more difficult than the first one, the lines made by the Croke Park lawn-mower telling us that he was just five metres from the endline when he pulled the trigger. So true was his technique that the ball went straight on a diagonal, rather than spinning left as it passed through the posts. Sometimes there’s just nothing you can do but acknowledge the best.
“He’s been around the block,” says Kelly. “He’s cool and composed the whole time. He’s just top quality. You can prepare and you can watch clips and all that but sometimes he’s just going to get a bit of space and do damage.
“You think you’re in control sometimes but he’s very elusive and he’s very strong. As a defender, you wouldn’t normally be too worried about fellas who are going to be taking on shots like that. But he just has the confidence to take it on.”
That has always been a part of his make-up. The last remaining starter from Mickey Harte’s minor teams of 1997 and 1998, O’Neill’s career has had scores like those two points hanging from it like Christmas baubles all the way through. What they might cloud though is the fact that both of Tyrone’s goals against Kildare came through him winning tough ball and feeding the younger players that now populate the Tyrone dressing room.
Mattie and Mark Donnelly cashed in on his industry that day, just as the likes of McAlliskey and Darren McCurry have been doing throughout the league. This is their team now, theirs and Peter Harte’s and Niall Morgan’s and the rest.
O’Neill has Conor Gormley, Martin Penrose, Dermot Carlin and the Cavanagh brothers around but by and large it’s a younger generation. Although, as he points out himself, they’re not exactly children.
“We were just saying today that the only one of them who’s underage again next year is Darren McCurry. The rest of the lads are 21, 22, 23. They know that they’re going to have to stand up now because it’s a very short career. They have maybe nine or 10 years playing at this level.
“You have to take every opportunity when it comes and you have to grow up very quickly. A lot of them have been successful at underage. But then, it’s no guarantee of success at senior level. You have to work hard at it and you have to buy into the team ethic and a lot of the boys are doing that.”
No better exemplar than O’Neill. This, after all, is the player who went down the tunnel after the 2008 All-Ireland final as his team-mates climbed the steps to lift Sam Maguire for the third time. O’Neill had walked away from the game earlier that year, only to be brought back in for the final.
In his mind, he didn’t deserve an All-Ireland medal so he wasn’t going to stand up there looking like he was demanding one. It was only when Enda McGinley ran into the dressing room to tell him they weren’t taking no for an answer that he relented. “You put medals in our pockets in 2005,” said McGinley. “Come on and let us put one in yours.” Team ethic is a many-splendoured thing.
Peter Kelly took plenty of slagging in the days after the semi-final. Joe Brolly zinged him on Twitter, prayers were offered up in his honour. For a few training sessions, he had to put up with being called Superman. He took his lumps and laughed it off, safe in the knowledge that O’Neill has done it to the best before and will again.
“The best joke I heard was that Stephen O’Neill retired in 2008,” he says.