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Stephen O'Neill hangs up boots after stellar service

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Stephen O'Neill, Tyrone

Stephen O'Neill, Tyrone

SPORTSFILE

Stephen O'Neill, Tyrone

Tyrone legend Stephen O'Neill has confirmed his retirement from inter-county football, ending a 15-year career that established him as one of the finest left boots in the sport.

He retired once before, in 2008, when he was struggling with injury, but was persuaded back by manager Mickey Harte and made a vital contribution in Tyrone's All-Ireland victory over Kerry.

O'Neill subsequently refused to accept that All-Ireland medal, saying he had not earned it but confirmed how much he still had to offer when he won his third All Star the following year.

The 2005 Footballer of the Year, who turns 34 next week, was one of the marquee forwards of the modern game, who always appeared to have tons of time on the ball and was blessed with an ability to score from impossible angles.

He won senior All-Irelands in '03 and '05 as well as '08, and also won one minor and two U-21 titles.

Greatest

O'Neill's greatest season was undoubtedly 2005 when the Clan na nGael star finished as the Championship's top scorer, shooting 5-49 - 29 points more than his nearest rival, Derry's Paddy Bradley.

But he has struggled with ankle problems in the last two seasons, needing surgery, and he had to be content with mostly a substitute's role this year when he made only five appearances.

O'Neill came off the bench against Down and Monaghan in Ulster and started the Red Hand's qualifier against Louth but his last appearance for Tyrone was as a sub when Armagh knocked them out of the qualifiers.

Team-mate Martin Penrose, who also won All-Irelands in '05 and '08, has also reportedly retired and it remains to be seen if fellow veterans like Conor Gormley, Joe McMahon and Dermot Carlin remain involved.

McMahon, who is currently studying in Coleraine and will line out for Omagh in tomorrow's Ulster club semi-finals, has hinted that his schedule may not allow for much inter-county activity in 2015.

Penrose was a particularly versatile forward with a selfless work-rate.

But he was also no longer a first-choice player this season, starting just one Championship game, against Monaghan, and making substitute appearances in the other four.

O'Neill and Penrose are both expected to continue to play for their clubs - O'Neill with Clan na nGael and Penrose with Carrickmore, for whom he played in the last two county finals, having transferred from his native Aghyaran.

If Gormley and Carlin also quit it would leave Sean Cavanagh as the only remaining playing link to Tyrone's historic first All-Ireland victory in 2003.

The Red Hand have also just lost their top minor Conor McKenna, who has taken up a contract with Aussie Rules side Essendon.

But Conor Clarke is on his way back from injury and former All Star nominee Cathal McCarron is also back in the fold.

Tyrone are among the second tranche of inter-county teams allowed back to collective training on December 1.

London, Fermanagh, Derry, Offaly, Louth, Westmeath, Waterford and Leitrim's footballers, plus the Laois and Antrim hurlers, are allowed to resume training today.

Irish Independent