Tyrone maestro Stephen O’Neill takes spring in his step
Red Hands’ encouraging league campaign ensures a stern challenge for champions Donegal in less than a fortnight
Tyrone’s Stephen O’Neill: “We’ll just have to take the good from the Dublin game and be prepared for a different challenge.”
If the hurling award for Player of the League went to an impressive newcomer, the football equivalent found its way to a more familiar recipient. Tyrone’s Stephen O’Neill has three All Stars and a Footballer of the Year gong to his name, as well as three All-Ireland medals.
The first of those awards goes back all of 12 years and predates the stewardship of Mickey Harte and the All-Ireland era.
For more of those years than O’Neill, 33 this year, might care to remember his contributions have been undermined by injuries and the irony of yesterday’s award is it comes after a nearly entirely injury-free league – the qualification relating to a twisted ankle that kept him out of last month’s final, a narrow defeat by Dublin
Less than a fortnight before the seismic championship meeting with All-Ireland champions Donegal, he’s confident his summer isn’t going to be sabotaged at the very start.
“The ankle’s grand. I’ll be back training again this week and I’m looking forward to getting back. Preparations have been going well. There are no injury worries from the league games so we’re just looking forward to it now.”
What happened was one of the more unusual occurrences in his extensive portfolio of misfortune.
“It was just unfortunate the way it happened. I stepped back and there were a couple of balls behind me and I went over on it. I was getting a wee bit of bother from the ankle anyway so I didn’t want to take the chance on it.”
Would Dublin have managed a one-point win in the dip for the line had O’Neill played? Impossible to say but Tyrone would have their views on that, as their most decorated player had scored 3-19 in the campaign up to the final.
His trademark ability to hold up ball and shoot, even from extraordinary angles, was showcased in the semi-final when he shot four from play against Kildare, most spectacularly in the closing stages when he managed two points, one from either corner.
The first was straightforward once he’d survived a challenge right on the sideline but held possession and then executed a dummy that sent his marker Peter Kelly into orbit before lofting over the point. The second was dispatched from the right with the outside of the left boot.
It’s fitting that he picked up his award in Croke Park, scene of the above cameos and many other big-day exhibitions.
“We put in a good performance but we lost,” he says of the league final. “It was an important game, a good, tight battle and the sort of intensity we’ll be meeting against Donegal but it’s going to be a completely different type of game.
“It’ll be a lot more defensive probably and not as open or free-scoring so we’ll just have to take the good from the Dublin game and be prepared for a different challenge. . . .”
Tyrone face that challenge having put in their best league display since 2005 and having run the champions so close in each of the past two years. Harte has introduced new players and there is a vibrancy about the team.
“Time will tell; we’ve a lot of new boys in and they gained a lot of good experience from playing Dublin in a Division One final. Hopefully they’ll learn from that and be able to close a game out when one or two points ahead because on Sunday week I’m sure it’ll be very close as well. We just need to use that experience to get over the finish line this time.”