TWELVE months ago, Gary O'Neill was an unemployed, out-of-contact footballer worrying about how he'd pay the bills over Christmas and Sporting Fingal were the newest, smallest club in the League of Ireland, having just completed their debut season in the league.
But today O'Neill is an unlikely hero in an unlikely success story as Fingal -- only formed two years ago -- emerged as a rare positive from the miserable, controversy-scarred 2009 season, guaranteed Premier Division and now Europa League football next season thanks to their 2-1 win over Sligo Rovers in the final at Tallaght Stadium yesterday.
Fingal came from 1-0 down to win 2-1 thanks to goals in the last six minutes from Colm James (a penalty) and O'Neill, and in the process becoming the first team from outside the Premier Division to win the FAI Cup since Sligo beat Derry City 15 years ago.
O'Neill has been through the mill since he made his league debut as a teenager with Bohemians in 2000: one of his clubs (Dublin City) went out of business, a second (Shelbourne) went bust too and were relegated after winning the league, and he was axed from his last club (St Pats) as part of their cost-cutting exercise.
But today it was all smiles from the man from Finglas and his Fingal team-mates as Liam Buckley and his men celebrate their success, the Cup offering pain instead of relief from the floods for Sligo and their 7,000 fans who crammed into Tallaght Stadium yesterday.
"I can enjoy my Christmas now. This time last year I wasn't getting paid, it was a hard time after leaving Pats but I can enjoy this one now," O'Neil told the Herald after picking up his first FAI Cup medal.
Comparisons with the now-defunct Dublin City are inevitable -- Fingal have a small support and were vastly outnumbered in Tallaght yesterday -- but O'Neill says his club are showing the way forward, not dragging the league back.
"We had a decent support for us at the final yesterday but of course Sligo had more fans. But winning games and winning trophies will only attract fans, that's the hope anyway," said O'Neill, who played for Dublin City in their ill-fated Premier Division campaign of 2005.
"We're in Europe next year and we could only have a handful of fans there with us, but it's up to the club now to go out and get supporters in, in bigger numbers. We have done our bit on the field, to win promotion and then win the FAI Cup in the club's second season is amazing, it's a lift for us all.
"You feel like a proper footballer here. Off the field, we as players can't ask for more. We train in an excellent facility, everything we need in terms of kit and travel is looked after, and you know your wages will be there. That may sound like a strange thing to say but considering what some of us have been through at other clubs, it's a relief to not need to worry about paying the bills. You can concentrate on football, you aren't worried about how you are going to pay the gas bill.
"I think we have been a good-news story for the league this season and hopefully people will be writing and saying good things about us. It was a bad year for the league this year, with all the goings-on at Cork and Derry and the rest, so this is something positive.
"We have our work cut out to attract more fans, and I know the club are working tirelessly to do that, so this Cup win will be great publicity, winning breeds more success," added O'Neill.
Sligo Rovers, it seemed, had everything they needed to win the Cup for the first time since 1994.
They came into the final on the back of a superb run of form, had the vast majority of the support in the 8,105 attendance, and also had a one-goal lead thanks to the 57th-minute strike from Eoin Doyle.
Rovers had more of the ball in the first half but the best chance came to Fingal, as Conan Byrne hit the post with a well-struck free kick on 32 minutes. Raff Cretaro had a couple of chances to beat Fingal keeper Darren Quigley but it appeared from early on that it wouldn't be his day, and his misery was confirmed on 68 minutes when an injury forced the Tubbercurry native to come off.
The sides traded chances in the second half -- a Gavin Peers block kept out Lorcan Fitzgerald on 49 minutes and on 53 minutes a shot by Cretaro was blocked by Darren Quigley.
But 12 minutes into the second half, Sligo got in front. Dubliner Eoin Doyle -- who started the season in Tallaght as a Shamrock Rovers player before a mid-season move west -- got the last touch after Shaun Maher had blocked Cretaro's shot.
More chances were missed after that as Eamon Zayed should have levelled for Fingal, while substitute Owen Morrison was also off target for Sligo.
But the game was turned on its head in the last six minutes. Fingal drew level on 84 minutes from the penalty spot, the kick awarded after keeper Ciaran Kelly took down Zayed as the raced into the box to pounce on a careless headed back pass by Alan Keane. And Fingal full back Colm James stepped up to send the spot kick past Kelly.
The 90 minutes now played, the FAI Cup final appeared to be heading to extra time for the second year running, but in injury time Fingal mounted one last attack, the impressive Robert Bayly swinging in a cross from the left and O'Neill was left free in the box to head past Kelly for the winner and a most-welcome Cup medal at last.
"I won two leagues at Bohs but never the Cup so this is a great feeling," O'Neill added.
"The year we won the double I was involved in all of the games on the way to the Cup final but I didn't make the match-day squad for the final and I was devastated.
"The following year I was on the bench for the final but Bohs lost to Dundalk so I haven't had much luck in the FAI Cup until now, so that makes yesterday all the more pleasing, It's a sweet win for me and for the club."