High-flying Tyrone's impressive start a source of satisfaction for O'Neill
Tyrone's Stephen O'Neill tackles Mayo goalkeeper David Clarke during Sunday's Division One league clash in Castlebar. Tyrone won by 1-12 to 1-11. photograph: mike shaughnessy/inpho
The Tyrone players held a brief conference on the field after they were awarded their do-or-die penalty against Mayo on Sunday in Castlebar. The debate over which player would take the kick reflected the changing order in the Red Hand county. Several players were up for accepting the responsibility.
“Whoever feels confident enough to hit it can hit it,” said Stephen O’Neill, the man who ultimately dispatched the match-winning kick, which leaves the Ulster team sitting pretty as the football league goes into hibernation for three weeks. “Wee Ronan O’Neill, I think, was looking to hit it. Then big Seán (Cavanagh) put the foot down and said I was hitting it, so I stepped up.”
The amusing thing is O’Neill is the team captain; if anyone should have been dictating who took the kick, it was him. But O’Neill has always been one to make his statements though his scoring and his penalty – ice cool despite the best attempts of the Mayo fans to distract him – was an example of that. Anyhow, he wasn’t going to argue with Cavanagh.
But the moment distilled the latest chapter in Tyrone football.
O’Neill and Cavanagh are made men: gilded members of the county’s three All-Ireland -winning seasons. Into the mix are the younger generation like O’Neill and Patrick McNiece and Ronan McNamee, who have looked at home during Tyrone’s impressive opening performances in Division One.
Tyrone have lost so many seemingly irreplaceable figures, like Brian McGuigan, Ryan McMenamin and Brian Dooher, there was a question over how fast they could rebuild. The answer is becoming clearer with every league game.
It is often forgotten Tyrone probably gave Donegal their toughest match during their All-Ireland run last summer. And last year their season was defined by the absence of Seán Cavanagh. Tyrone’s win in Castlebar was significant not just because they rescued a match which Mayo looked to have stolen but because they dealt with the injuries to Conor Gormley and Peter Harte smoothly. It was vintage Tyrone: everyone knew what they were doing.
Their two road wins against Down and Mayo leave them in a nice position as they prepare for their March 3rd meeting with Donegal in Omagh.
“Our new players have settled in so well,” O’Neill says. “They have represented Tyrone at underage and we knew we were getting good players in. But it is early days yet; it is only February so there are a lot of teams that will be improving as the weeks and months go on. “We have a massive task on our hands over the next few months. At the start of the year we wanted to maintain our status in Division One. And if you had told us at the beginning we would have four points after two away games we’d have taken the right arm off you.