Monday 21 August 2017

Supersub O'Neill aiming to get under starter's orders for Tyrone's trip to Croker

Tyrone's Ronan O’Neill (right) and Conall McCann celebrate after winning the Ulster GAA Football Senior Championship Final. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Tyrone's Ronan O’Neill (right) and Conall McCann celebrate after winning the Ulster GAA Football Senior Championship Final. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

As Ronan O'Neill was conducting interviews after Sunday's Ulster football final triumph for Tyrone his mother was waiting patiently in the wings for her chance to give him a hug and congratulate him.

That morning she had urged him to score a goal. He did better than that, he scored two and with that provided a reminder that he is not ready for the 'forgotten man' tag assigned to so many other mercurial Tyrone underage talents.

O'Neill was an All-Ireland minor winner with Tyrone in 2010, the star of the team whose abrasiveness and talent drew comparisons from some to Peter Canavan.

But seven years on he's still very much on the periphery. A decent cameo in the 2013 All-Ireland semi-final against Mayo but so often a step forward has been followed by at least one back.

In Clones on Sunday his class was evident in the way that he came off the bench and finished both goals to kill a game that was drawing its last breath anyway.

O'Neill hopes he can get a foot in the door again as Tyrone search for a more clinical edge. The impact of their bench, with Declan McClure also playing a lead role, was significant against Down.

"I have always had confidence in myself to get a goal and I am happy enough that, when the opportunity arose, I had the confidence and the belief in myself to put the ball in the back of the net," said O'Neill.

"I saw Mattie Donnelly (for the first goal) coming through and normally I would pull away to create the space but all I wanted to do was to get my hands on the ball and put it in the back of the net, just to prove that I can play on this team as well, not just be a bit-part player.

"All you can do when you get on is to stake a claim for the next day and make sure that you are higher up the pecking order. Last year was my first full year and I wanted to prove that I was a regular starter.

"I had a back injury and different things put me out, but I am fighting for my place on this team and hopefully I showed a wee bit."

Quite a few Tyrone players have stepped away in recent years because of a lack of game time and and the former underage star admits there were times when he challenged himself on that issue.

"It would be a lie to say that it does not go through your mind. It does but it is days like this that makes it worthwhile, to see the supporters and your family out there and to be able to make them proud is a wonderful thing.

"It (stepping away) goes through your head sometimes but playing for Tyrone is a privilege and it has been written in the past as if it was something of a chore. It is not a chore, we love playing for Tyrone, we love doing this, we just love going to play football and days like this make it all worthwhile."

O'Neill feels Tyrone will now go to Croke Park for an All-Ireland quarter-final on August 5 armed with a few points to prove.

"It has been said that over the years we have not beaten a top-two or top-three team. We will go to Croke Park now and we will relish anyone who comes and challenges us on All-Ireland quarter-final day.

"Hopefully we'll go there and give a good account of ourselves after all that happened there last year."

Tyrone lost narrowly to Mayo and captain Sean Cavanagh has since conceded that they may have basked in the success of a first Ulster title in six years too much.

"I don't know about over-celebrating. Last year it was a long time since we won an Ulster title. It was very emotional beating Donegal in the last few minutes, it put everyone on a high for a few days," said O'Neill.

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