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Gary O'Neill puts family first after year of emotion

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Gary O’Neill has decided to hang up his boots

Gary O’Neill has decided to hang up his boots

SPORTSFILE

Gary O’Neill has decided to hang up his boots

WHEN Gary O'Neill made the decision after Christmas to retire from football, he did so with a sense of satisfaction that he was doing it on his own terms.

He didn't allow cancer to set the deadline. That's why the Dubliner will look back on his final season in the League of Ireland as one of his proudest achievements.

Understandably enough, the shock diagnosis of testicular cancer 16 months ago changed the 32-year-old's perspective on life and it is a factor in his move.

"Maybe before last year, you would take things for granted and think 'I'll be here until I'm 80' but you don't know what's around the corner," he observed yesterday.

Still, it would have been easy for O'Neill to hang up the boots when he first received the bad news. Instead, he used fitness as a focus to get him through the hardest period of a life changing moment.

Drogheda United offered a contract that gave him a chance to play in 2014 and O'Neill seized the opportunity.

This time around, he concluded that the commitment of balancing work and family life was too much. Ultimately, football lost out.

Combining four nights training a week and a game on Friday with a day job was a big ask for a family man with two children, Cian (5) and Ella (18 months).

"I was going to work when the kids were in bed and coming home after training when they were in bed," reflected O'Neill.

"My little fella is starting to play football now, and I want to be going along to training with him. He kinda said it to me. He was happy when the season ended. He said, 'Dad, you're going to be around now' and that hit home.

"I might have been able to go to a club with less commitment but that would annoy the hell out of me. You are paid to be professional, to be 100pc committed and if I couldn't do it right then I didn't want to do it at all."

O'Neill ticked a lot of boxes during his 14 years on the scene. In addition to winning a couple of league titles, an FAI Cup and a Setanta Cup, he joined a select group to have played for all four big Dublin clubs. And, even more impressively, he managed to retain his popularity as he moved around.

This was evidenced by the huge response to his plight as fellow pros rallied together to raise funds for his medical treatment.

Contribution

Support also came from unexpected channels as Roy Keane picked up the phone after reading the news in the paper and provided morale-building assistance despite the fact they'd never met. Keane also made a substantial financial contribution to his fund.

"I'll never ever forget what the football community did for me," O'Neill stressed. "I'll never have anyone speak badly about the league because, when it came to my hour of need, the amount of people that were there for me. I'll always be grateful."

O'Neill was typically self-deprecating about his input during quite a turbulent year for the Boynesiders.

"I had some ok games and some terrible ones," he laughed, before adding, seriously: "There were times when I felt I couldn't do it but I got through another season.

"In a way, coming back to play on was sort of like thank you to everyone who had supported me, I'm proud that I was able to do it."

His return of nine goals illustrated that there was life in the old dog. On the pitch, opponents gave their best wishes and match officials too.

As a player who always enjoyed a joke, he appreciated attempts to bring levity. After one strike, a ref ereequipped to O'Neill that he'd improved as a player since he 'got that thing.'

"Things like that were great," he chuckled. "It was a good year. There was lot of lads saying fair play to me, that it was good to see me back and that was great."

For now, he's unclear what his future holds football wise. The intention is to pursue coaching badges, although the immediate plan is to make the most of the relaxing evenings.

Health wise, he still faces regular check-ups. Yesterday, he was in Drogheda's Lourdes Hospital for tests and next week a visit to the specialist is on the cards. All is well, but vigilance is key.

Come March 6, and the first Friday of the new campaign, O'Neill knows that it will sting. But when that pain passes, he will look back with a smile.

Meanwhile, Galway youngster Ryan Manning is set to complete his move to QPR this week. The 18-year-old has agreed terms for a two-and-a-half year deal.

Irish Independent