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O'Neill's Omagh success eases pain of Tyrone's early exit

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Ronan O'Neill (right) celebrates Omagh St Enda's victory over St Eunan's. Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE

Ronan O'Neill (right) celebrates Omagh St Enda's victory over St Eunan's. Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE

SPORTSFILE

Ronan O'Neill (right) celebrates Omagh St Enda's victory over St Eunan's. Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE

With five weeks between Omagh winning that unexpected Tyrone title and their meeting with Armagh champions Crossmaglen, Ronan O'Neill had homework to do.

Omagh's most deadly forward would clamber into his father Oliver's car, sometimes with brothers and team-mates Shane and Cormac and their mother Joanne, originally a Ballymena woman but just as cracked on the St Enda's now as any of them.

"We always go to games together - I'd say that is our bonding time together as a family," says the 22-year-old Jordanstown sports studies student.

"My mother and father are phenomenal supporters. They would go to America to see us play."

It's not all a scene from 'The Waltons'. There is a purpose to these trips. Ronan went to study James Morgan of Crossmaglen. He knew they would face each other.

"I said that James Morgan is a phenomenal marker, he is probably one of the best in the country," he begins.

"I watched him in the semi-final and final. I studied him and I knew that if the right ball went in I could turn him. I will not give too much away because I will probably end up marking him again!"

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It took only seven minutes to realise the worth of the trips. Aaron Grugan played a ball into O'Neill, who drew Morgan close before spinning away in a micro-second, heading for goal and firing home.

Apart from winning the competition, there is no higher achievement that beating Crossmaglen in Ulster football. Omagh managed it.

In a lot of respects, they put people in mind of Nemo Rangers, the illustrious Cork city outfit of whom it is said that you will never see a Nemo man in town but he will be accompanied by a few more.

Whenever O'Neill is with Tyrone, he is ribbed by team physio Michael Harte about the amount of St Enda's tracksuits sitting in the back row of the local cinema.

O'Neill laughs: "That's the nature of us, we like to do things together, we don't like doing things in twos or threes. We like to show where we are from, we take immense pride in where we are from.

"We are a large town and people have plenty to say about townies and not having that closeness that country teams have."

At college in Belfast, he lives up the top end of Agincourt Avenue of the Holylands, away from most of the madness that prevails. His housemates are clubmates Rory McBride, Micheál Gallagher and Conan Grugan.

"We spend 24 hours together basically throughout the day," he explains. "Coming down the road the craic is good and we get back up again, some famous stories told at the back of the bus."

If Omagh is a joy to be around, Tyrone wasn't such a fun environment earlier this year. By the time the Championship came round, O'Neill had been racking up the scores in the domestic leagues with Omagh, yet was left on the bench for the visit of Down for the preliminary round in Ulster.

It didn't get an awful lot better from there and there remains a measure of regret that Stevie O'Neill, Marty Penrose and whoever else is to follow didn't get more out of it in their final season.

"Monaghan just showed a greater intensity and that was their first time to beat us in 26 years," he concedes.

"Against Armagh, we didn't know what to expect. So it was a difficult season for us. Especially the way the boys retired after it, we could have given them a better send-off after it, a better season to end things with."

With more time to group together as a club, Omagh unveiled a new system of play under Larry Strain and Barry McGinn. It places additional demands on O'Neill and Connor O'Donnell as the inside forwards, but Strain has insisted O'Neill gets on the ball as much as possible. His football and his enjoyment have benefited immensely.

Against Carrickmore in the county final, he showed immense willpower and bravery to tip-toe around giant goalkeeper Plunkett 'Big Oz' McCallan for the injury-time goal that changed everything and ended 26 years of underachievement.

"I knew that if I had gone round Oz to the left he would have taken me down or he would have got a hand on the ball because he is such a large figure," he recalls.

"So I thought I would side-step him. It wasn't until the Monday, looking back on the video that I see the two boys tried to take me down, how I stood up and put the ball in the back of the net."

This adventure has been a long time coming for a club the size of Omagh.

O'Neill recalls summer camps spent listening and learning at the feet of Joe McMahon. Now Joe's role is to advise the young players who are tearing around at training, doing anything they can to get a chance, and urging on the elder statesmen. They carry Conor Starrs, Keith Burns and Paul Tierney, all in their late 30s, on their panel, reminders that success can be oh-so fleeting.

But now they must seize the day against Slaughtneil in the Ulster final. In describing the win over Cross, O'Neill explains: "When it came to that wee bit of nitty-gritty, that wee bit of bite that we showed we had it against the best club team in Ireland."

They will need that, and more in the Athletic Grounds tomorrow.

Irish Independent