O'Neill a puzzle Lilies can't solve
TYRONE 2-15 KILDARE 2-11
Stephen O'Neill is about to board the Tyrone bus outside the team dressing-room beneath the Cusack Stand.
In his hand is a book of Sudoku puzzles. He looks to have completed most of them.
You imagine such a challenge appeals to his mind more than the flow of conversation or the isolation of earphones and music for the journey home.
Sudoku requires a sense of broad vision to complete a square. If his football is anything to go by, O'Neill has that type of vision in abundance.
Once more, the quietly spoken leader of the Tyrone attack has defied geometry on a football field. Once more he has done it in Croke Park.
Those who recall his performance in the opening league match of the 2009 campaign against Dublin, which coincided with the launch of the GAA's 125th anniversary, will appreciate what we're talking about.
There isn't a footballer in the game right now who can belittle difficult angles like him. Off either foot, off either side of either foot.
His catalogue here included two off the left, two off the right, each one drawing an even greater gasp.
His two points to kill this opening Division 1 semi-final were quite something else. They had Mickey Harte beaming afterwards, proclaiming their worth for the admission fee alone. How right he was.
With Kildare back to within a point after Paul Cribbin's 59th-minute goal and Paddy Brophy's follow-up point some three minutes from time, Tyrone looked vulnerable to a late surge.
O'Neill had already landed two glorious points and had an involvement in the build-up to both Tyrone goals when he found himself in isolation with Peter Kelly in the corner of the Hogan and Davin Stands.
Twisting and turning the Kildare defender, O'Neill was looking for space on his left foot. When he got it he curled over from within a few metres of the end line with spectacular effect.
With the highly impressive Mark Donnelly adding a point to seal it, there was time for one more act of magic from O'Neill.
This time Ollie Lyons was in his shadow in the opposite corner but once again the angle was irrelevant as O'Neill struck with the outside of his left foot to slice over a breathtaking score.
"It doesn't matter what kind of defence you have, you have to give credit to him," admitted Kildare manager Kieran McGeeney afterwards.
"It just shows the class player that he is," beamed Harte. "He's still doing it at his age and he's been around the block so often, I mean it's worth coming to Croke Park to see those scores alone.
"When people talk about the entry fee being worth it to see some players, I don't think you'll see better scores than the last two that he took in today's game. They were just something else."
Tyrone did enough to win after an indifferent first half when they led by four points at one stage but were quite lucky to trail by just one at the break, 1-6 to 1-5.
Kildare had so much possession, so much fluidity in building from the back through Lyons, Cribbin and Michael Foley.
But their lack of a clinical edge killed them and will, in all probability, continue to do so.
McGeeney used the opportunity to play six U-21s in Croke Park and get them more accustomed to the experience.
However, every one of them found the going tough at different stages, even Cribbin and Brophy who got the goals.
Kildare have now lost four of their last five games and even more worrying is the concession of 15 goals in eight games.
They won't reflect well on Tyrone's two here from Matthew and Mark Donnelly, the ease with which they were opened up symptomatic of so many of the previous 13.
For Harte and Tyrone it has been an impressive spring campaign resulting in their first Division 1 final in 10 years.
The pace of change in personnel in the squad hasn't forced them to take a step back at all.
They could afford to rest Joe McMahon because of a groin strain and lose Peter Harte to a hamstring injury after 23 minutes and still win with relative comfort.
Dermot Carlin and PJ Quinn came back into the side for the first time this year and both acquitted themselves well, with Carlin having a hand in the opening goal, his pass to O'Neill prompting Matthew Donnelly to spin off the shoulder of his full forward and break the cover on eight minutes for a 1-1 to 0-0 lead.
They were lethargic after that, however, as Kildare came strong in the middle third, winning breaks and clocking up turnovers that brought them right into contention. Padraig O'Neill had a most impressive nine-minute spell as he whipped over three points from deep runs, prompting Harte to switch Sean Cavanagh inside.
Kildare had clawed their way back into contention and went ahead on 28 minutes when Brophy connected on a loose ball after Tyrone goalkeeper Niall Morgan had saved from Eoghan O'Flaherty following an incisive move.
But they might have sensed at the break that they hadn't done enough with the territory and possession they had, and sure enough nine first-half wides came back to haunt them.
All four goals were of benign nature with Tyrone's second, courtesy of O'Neill's robust challenge on Sean Hurley, clearing the way for Aidan Cassidy to set up Mark Donnelly on 37 minutes for a 2-6 to 1-6 lead.
Doyle led the response with two neatly taken points from play but Tyrone always had more attacking nous and craft about them, with Conor McAlliskey lobbing two points to justify his introduction.
O'Flaherty turned creator for Kildare's second goal when he linked up with Cribbin to give hope for a last-10-minute push before O'Neill stamped his name all over a semi-final that otherwise would have been forgotten quickly.
Man of the match: S O'Neill (Tyrone).
Scorers – Tyrone: Matthew Donnelly 1-2, S O'Neill 0-4, Mark Donnelly 1-1, S Cavanagh (2fs), C McAlliskey 0-2 each, A Cassidy, N Morgan (f), D McCurry (f), M Penrose 0-1 each. Kildare: J Doyle 0-6 (4fs), P Brophy 1-1, P O'Neill 0-3, P Cribbin 1-0, E O'Flaherty 0-1.
Tyrone – N Morgan 7; P J Quinn 6, C Clarke 8, C McCarron 7; D Carlin 6, C Gormley 6, R McNamee 5; C Cavanagh 6, S Cavanagh 6; Matthew Donnelly 9, P Harte 6, Mark Donnelly 9; M Penrose 7, S O'Neill 9, D McCurry 5. Subs: A Cassidy 6 for Harte (23), Justin McMahon 6 for McNamee (h-t), C McAlliskey 7 for McCurry (h-t), A McRory for Quinn (61), C McGinley for Carlin (61).
Kildare – M Donnellan 7; O Lyons 8, M Foley 7, H McGrillen 7; P Cribbin 6, E Doyle 7, E Bolton 6, P Kelly 6; Daniel Flynn 5; P O'Neill 8; N Kelly 6, E O'Flaherty 7; S Hurley 6, P Brophy 6, J Doyle 7. Subs: T O'Connor 5 for Flynn, S Johnston 5 for Bolton (53), E Callaghan for Kelly (61), A Smith for Doyle (66).
Ref – R Hickey (Clare).