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Lilies plucked by O'Neill

ANY and all descriptions of Tyrone's Allianz League Division 1 semi-final victory over Kildare in Croke Park yesterday should begin and end with Stephen O'Neill.

And that's not just because he kicked the first and indeed the last scores of the match. O'Neill's every contribution to Tyrone's 2-15 to 2-11 win was so laced with class, it's nearly a criminal indictment of his own team that he wasn't involved more often.

It began with a point off his right foot, one of two converted by the Tyrone captain's 'weaker' peg. It ended, magically, with a point off his left, from such an incredibly acute angle.

In between, he kicked two more, one after selling Peter Kelly a dummy so convincing, Kildare's former All Star committed with almost comical effect and, just as importantly, assisted directly in both of Tyrone's goals.

"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," gushed manager Mickey Harte afterwards. "They were something else.

"Nobody came close to Stevie to delivering what we needed at the time it was needed. That's what great players do. They get the scores when needed and when the pressure is on."

Kieran McGeeney, understandably less buoyant about O'Neill's tour de force, was still in agreement with Harte, and given that the major malfunction of his own team was their relative inferiority in terms of top level finishing, you could almost sense his jealously.

"We probably had more scoring chances than they did," he noted ruefully. "Even the ones they didn't have, they took. There were two or three points from the sideline, it doesn't matter what kind of defence you have, you have to give credit to Stevie O'Neill."

Against that, both teams clocked 11 wides but largely, Tyrone looked the more accomplished and confident in front of goal.

Matthew Donnelly – who picked up the TG4 Man of the Match award – stole forward for 1-2, while Mark Donnelly plundered their second goal after O'Neill had seized possession with a huge hit on Seán Hurley that had the hint of a high arm about it, yet McGeeney wasn't inclined to give out.



"Sean got well plastered going for the ball, we were just watching it," he noted. "But those are things that happen in football, you just have to live with it.

"We should have pulled the trigger earlier sometimes, instead of trying to walk it in. But trying to find that balance seems to be the hard thing for them.

"They have to take those scores when the shots are on. Against a counter-attacking team, that's what kills you."

Fielding no fewer than six of the players who will play for the county's U-21s in next Saturday night's All-Ireland semi-final with Galway, Kildare played catch-up from the moment O'Neill laid off to Matthew Donnelly for Tyrone's first goal. But a hugely impressive first half from Pádraig O'Neill – who kicked three points by the break – and the ever busy industry of Johnny Doyle kept them close and indeed edged them into the lead.

One of those U-21s – and probably the most effective on show yesterday – Paddy Brophy scored the Kildare goal six minutes before the break after a one-two with Eoghan O'Flaherty, who had his shot well-saved by the ever impressive Niall Morgan.

Yet the key scores were the 1-1 Tyrone scored immediately after the break; Aidan Cassidy barging through for a point and Mark Donnelly the goal.

Even if Kildare got it back to a point when Paul Cribbin replied in kind after O'Flaherty again was involved, the closing stages and the plaudits – deservedly – belonged to O'Neill.

"The second (goal) was the killer," McGeeney admitted. "Four points within about two minutes."

Worryingly for McGeeney, Kildare have now lost four of their last five matches, despite starting the campaign in slick form. Against that, he was blooded more players this year than any other and still they managed to make the Division 1 semi-finals in their first year back in the topflight.

"Just getting a settled team is the main thing," he said of his priorities for the spring campaign. "They're getting there, but we're going have our work cut out against Offaly (in their Leinster SFC opener on June 1).

"They're playing in a divisional final. They'll have no fear of Kildare."