Better late than never for Rebel star O'Neill
Published 19/09/2009 | 00:00
In his assessment of the current Cork team at a function in Dublin earlier this week the former manager Billy Morgan drew upon one of football's, whether Gaelic, rugby, soccer or Australian, oldest maxims.
"A good big 'un," declared Morgan, "is better than a good small 'un."
In Cork's case now the bigger they are, it seems, the better they become.
But it wasn't always the way which is why Pearse O'Neill, their dynamic 6'5" centre-forward, had to wait until he was 26 to make his senior championship debut for Cork.
He hasn't wasted any time fast-tracking his way to the top. His powerful, direct running, reminiscent of Derry's Anthony Tohill in his prime, can be hard to defend against. And last season he took over as Darragh O Se's nemesis, his presence around midfield in two games with Kerry irritating enough to result in two red cards for the Kingdom maestro.
For an outfield player, 26 is a big age to hop on to the fast-moving treadmill of inter-county football. There are few who have made their debut beyond their mid-20s. Dublin's Jack Sheedy was 27 in the early 90s but was very much the exception rather than the rule.
Morgan was into his third season second time round when O'Neill came so sharply into focus that he couldn't be removed from the radar screen.
"We had trials and Pearse was doing well. We picked a panel and went up and played Laois. Pearse played and did alright. But we had to pick a panel for the league that year and Pearse didn't make it. He was in our minds all the time. Then we went looking for him and he had gone off to Australia."
That was the beginning of 2006 when O'Neill and two friends from his east Cork club Aghada took off on a mini world tour, incorporating America's west coast before travelling the full stretch of Australia.
In O'Neill's case the journey lasted just six months before it had to be cut short but he was quickly picked up on the radar screens when he returned.
"He came back for the championship, he played for his club against Nemo and we brought him in straight away. Personally I would have no doubts about him. He never played minor or U-21 for Cork so I suppose he was a late developer. We had a lot of good scorers and very similar-type players but nobody who could be direct and go straight at goal," reflects Morgan.
At school in Middleton CBS it was much the same slow rate of progress and he never hurled or played underage football with district side Imokilly, normally a fair pointer as to the future direction a young east Cork lad is going to take.
But with O'Neill, an accountant with Boston Scientific, the trail to the Cork senior football team was cold for a long time. He broke his arm in a collision with a team-mate in his first game for Aghada as a 19-year-old in 1999 and took two more years to establish himself with the club's premier hurling team.
It was in his early 20s that he really started to flourish and develop. Aghada, then managed by club stalwart Conor Counihan, travelled to the 2003 Kilmacud sevens on the eve of Tyrone and Armagh's All-Ireland final "for a day's craic" and ended up winning it.
It was the second series of TG4's reality GAA show 'Underdogs', however, that had most observers sitting up and taking notice of 23-year-old O'Neill.
Together with his midfield partner Kieran Donaghy the 'Underdogs' forced Kerry to extra-time in Tralee in the showpiece game before beating them.
For Jarlath Burns, a selector along with Mickey Ned O'Sullivan and Micheal O Muircheartaigh, 2004 remains the concept's most successful venture.
"They were the finest and most honourable bunch of fellas I have ever worked with," says Burns. "And Pearse O'Neill stood tall in more ways than one amongst them.
"Mickey Ned would have to take credit for introducing him to the series (on the recommendation of Counihan).
"Pearse has character. I remember in the build-up to that game he suffered a family bereavement that might have taken many a player out of the picture. It happened a bit more than a week before the game but he was committed to it. He wasn't going to miss it. I'd never forget him for that.
"You would never have seen him interviewed in that series. That wasn't his style. He just got on with the business of playing the football," said Burns.
He's been consistently good all season, slicing open the Kerry defence for an early goal in the drawn Killarney game and has kept his standards high. Limerick in the Munster final was perhaps an exception when Stephen Lucey's physical presence kept him sufficiently occupied.
More often than not Kerry have brought the best out of him and his attitude towards tomorrow reflects that.
"Regardless of records a lot of it is mental at inter-county level. I'd hope we're mentally as strong as Kerry, if we're not we're going to lose, simple as that. It's another game, it's between four white lines. We've been playing in Croke Park now long enough. We've been playing Kerry long enough. There hasn't been that much focus on the whole Kerry thing. It's a means to winning a title no matter who we're playing and it just happens that it's Kerry and obviously that brings a bit more spice given the games we've had against them recently.
"If you're going to have a mental block about them you might as well not turn up. There's a lot of perceptions about this Cork team that we have no control over.
"We can only deal with the 'controllables' and our own mental attitude is within our own control and I think our mental attitude is good at the moment. It has been for the last few years."
You suggest to him that there must be reasons as to why he has only made it so late in his career as an inter-county footballer and he stops you in your tracks. He hasn't made it, he tells you, until unfinished business is tended to.
"I wouldn't think I've made it successfully as far as I'm concerned. You only make it when you have a Celtic Cross in your back pocket. I just want to win that and then you could say, 'yeah I've won something'. Up to that you're just another county player."
Winning an All-Ireland would fulfil a lifetime dream but not bookend a life that has always been geared towards this weekend. Just as O'Neill understood there has never been any guarantee about a career pathway with Cork there is no guarantee about a return to an All-Ireland final.
"In the last few years we have underperformed (against Kerry in Croke Park), the last day last year being the exception. But what has happened in the past has no relevance to All-Ireland finals, in my opinion.
"People might disagree with me but it's just on day, 70 minutes, massive game, the biggest game of your life. It's do or die and whether it's in Killarney or Croke Park or Casement Park up in the north, I think it's irrelevant."