O’Neill unlikely to start Ulster decider

THIS may yet turn out to be the year of the underdog in the provincial championships and Monaghan’s chances of ‘doing a Sligo’ in Sunday’s Ulster final seemed to soar yesterday after Stephen O’Neill’s claim that he doesn’t expect to start the game in Clones.

The Clann na nGael All-Star has played no part in Tyrone’s championship, missing out on the earlier defeats of Fermanagh and Donegal thanks to a combination of hamstring and tendonitis complaints.

O’Neill’s recovery is practically complete but a full 70 minutes may be beyond him.

“I’ve had the wee injury and I didn’t start the last game,” he said in Dublin at a Bank of Ireland press conference to promote the Ulster and Leinster finals.

“I didn’t train last week either. I will be togging out but I don’t expect to start the game.”

O’Neill has been dogged by a persistent hamstring complaint for some time now and has even undergone radical cryotherapy treatment in Wexford in an effort to solve the problem.

His current run of trouble stems from an injury picked up in a club league game against Errigal Ciaran two weeks before the Fermanagh match in May.

He admitted: “I haven’t got a good run at training over the last couple of months. I’ve just been working away in the gym on the stuff the trainers have given me. Hopefully that will stand to me and get me out on the field.”

Should O’Neill start on the bench, he will probably be fulfilling the same role as Monaghan attacker Paul Finlay who missed the semi-final after a routine check-up uncovered a viral problem.

The Ballybay sales rep has missed a considerable amount of training in the meantime but captain Damien Freeman is keeping his fingers crossed that the 24-year-old is given the all-clear by the medical staff.

“Paul is just waiting on one more test result and hopefully he will be given the all-clear. We would be hoping Paul will be there Sunday,’’ Freeman said. ‘‘He has put in the work just like the rest of us and it would be great to see him togging out. We’re hoping he can play a part in some stage of the match. It would be a shame if he was to miss out on it.”

Whatever the result, Monaghan’s very presence lends the Ulster decider a novel air as it will be the first time since Down in 2003 that a county other than Tyrone, Armagh or Donegal will have contested this fixture.

Sligo’s win on Sunday is a template Seamus McEnaney’s side will want to follow but O’Neill rejected the notion that the result was somehow as a timely reminder for Tyrone ahead of a game they are expected to win with some degree of comfort.

“You always guard against complacency as best you can. You prepare as best you can. You never know what’s going to happen on the day. Monaghan will be a tough proposition in the Ulster final.”

Claiming an 11th Anglo-Celt is the least some people expect of Tyrone after a demolition of Donegal ended any doubts about their form after a mediocre spring and stuttering win against Fermanagh.

Repeating such a tour de force is the next step though and that is something Tyrone have failed to do since their ten-game odyssey of 2005.

O’Neill agreed: “The one game and performance against Donegal changed a lot of peoples’ opinions. We’d always known we were a good team but that we hadn’t produced the performances. It had been a long time since we produced consistently like that. A performance here and there isn’t good enough.”

Monaghan may edge the hunger stakes after 19 years without a title but the memory of 2005 is fresh enough to ensure that Tyrone have little appetite for another jaunt through the back door.

The All-Ireland may be their ultimate goal but another Ulster Championship would be very welcome.

Admitted the former All-star: “We were very disappointed two years ago when we lost an Ulster final to Armagh. This is our first final since then and we haven’t won one in four years so it’s a very big game for us. We’re very hungry to win it. We won the All-Ireland two years ago going the back route but I’d rather win it the other way. It was a crazy run that year.”

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