Ireland face missing out on rising US star Shane O’Neill
Son of double All-Ireland winner is highly rated by Jurgen Klinsmann
Colorado Rapids defender Shane O’Neill is being lined up by Jurgen Klinsmann for the US Olympic team. Photograph: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
For years Irish soccer fans have rued the game’s drain of talent to the perpetual lure of the GAA, yet now they face losing a descendant of Gaelic football greatness to a different adversary.
Shane O’Neill is from a family steeped in the GAA but he now must make a choice that will define his budding soccer career: will he represent the land of his birth or his home since infancy?
The son of two-time All-Ireland-winning Cork footballer Colm O’Neill and the nephew of Kerry’s three-time All Star Maurice Fitzgerald, the Colorado Rapids defender has just returned from the United States’ national team’s annual January camp. Once capped at senior national level he cannot redeclare for another country.
The 21-year-old was born in Midleton, Co Cork, but his family moved to the States before he turned two. The full back played for the US during the Under-20 World Cup but has not yet made his senior debut.
Opened a pub
"I love both countries,” O’Neill said. “Whether I put on the US jersey or the Irish jersey, I’d have a ton of pride doing it either way. I just want it to be the right situation for myself, my career and my family.”
Colm O’Neill moved to Colorado to open a pub after helping Cork win successive All-Irelands in 1989 and 1990 and both he and Fitzgerald have played significant roles in his son’s development. Fitzgerald has stressed “really having to prepare yourself for every situation and being mentally very strong,” O’Neill said.
From his father, O’Neill said he learned persistence: “The best players are usually the ones who work the hardest,” he said. “So I’m trying to be the hardest worker I can possibly be in improving the weaknesses in my game.”
O’Neill has spoken with Noel King, Ireland’s under-21 manager, “here and there” but “not a whole lot”. King had invited O’Neill to an under-21 camp before a 2013 friendly against the Netherlands, but at that point he was already training with the US under-20 team.
“I’ve never had any real contact with them, in terms of a call-up,” O’Neill said about the Irish national youth programme.
US manager Jurgen Klinsmann is also happy with O’Neill, who is young enough to play in next year’s Olympics, if the Americans qualify. “He’s a very important prospect for our Olympic team,” Klinsmann said. “He’s getting better one step at a time. It’s a real pleasure to work with him.”
O’Neill made Klinsmann’s 18-man match roster for the US’s last two friendlies. But despite never representing Ireland, O’Neill has not yet made a formal commitment to the US. “It’s down to whatever feels right for me,” he said. “When it comes, if I ever have to make that decision, I’ll know.”
Older brother Darragh has opted for a prospective career as an American footballer, following the example of his famous uncle a little closer.
Such is his kicking prowess from hand, he is being touted as an NFL prospect off the back of his performances as a punter for Colorado University. So while he may be beyond reach, the GAA’s loss can still be Irish soccer’s gain in Shane’s case, but time seems to be running out.