In injury-time and five points down, when O’Neill’s Seamus Darby impression arrived, it did come too late but it was, as the goal against Longford last Saturday week, a reminder of the redoubtable goal-scoring capabilities of the Ballyclough man.
Only in Pearse Park, it was as a substitute after O’Neill lost his starting spot following the win over Limerick. Was his strike from such an acute angle a message to Peadar Healy and his selectors?
“I don’t think I was trying to prove a point to anybody, more trying to prove a point to myself! There was nothing in that. My form just wasn’t great coming into the game and there were other lads going better in training. That’s the ethos of the management team all year: lads who are performing in training will get the nod.
“It’s well known that there’s a strong panel and I’m sure there are lads who didn’t make the championship panel for the Longford game who are very disappointed and they’ll be putting their hands up now.”
All the same, is there a threat O’Neill may now be in danger of pigeon-holing himself as an impact substitute? “It could be a dangerous one alright! I might be better off kicking it over the stands! No, I’ve never really thought like that. Whenever I’ve come on, I’ve only thought about doing my best. Sometimes when I have come off the bench things have gone my way but there have been times when I’ve come on and things have not gone so well. I can remember coming on in Ballyshannon earlier this year and coming off the pitch I still hadn’t warmed up!”
O’Neill maintains he’s not one for being too hard on himself but he knows what he has to do to start against Donegal, and that’s more in training.
“Not only me, there are 30 lads going to training wanting to start. Only half can start and fellas who are going better will be picked. It’s only the fairest way too. Peadar mentioned after the (Longford) game that they are no guarantees for positions so you have the chance to fight. It’s encouraging.”
Throw Alan Cadogan and Aidan Walsh into the mix and the competition grows. So be it, says O’Neill. “The management team never named a panel for the championship and said ‘this is it’. They kept an open-door policy and there would always be fellas who are coming and going. Aidan has two All-Stars and one of the highlights of Alan’s career would be his U21 football championship in his last year. They don’t want to just be part of the panel but to make an impression. It’s a positive.”
Following the Longford game, Mark Collins spoke of players’ careers being on the line in the qualifier. O’Neill wouldn’t go as far as agreeing with his team-mate but accepts the stakes were high.
“I don’t think it was as bad as that. It was a big game. If we did take another knock, it wouldn’t have been the best for some of the footballers. There’s been a lot of stick. There was relief. When the draw was made, there was a lot of talk about it being a handy draw but as we’ve seen over the years bigger teams have been taken down a peg or two in Pearse Park. All we wanted was a win and to be in the draw Monday morning. After where we were at half-time, it was relief.”
The criticisms after being dumped out of the Munster SFC by Tipperary made it difficult for Cork to make that trip with much confidence but now they are the better for coming through an awkward tie.
“It was difficult,” said O’Neill of the criticism that came in the wake of the provincial semi-finals. “A lot of it was deserved, some of it not so deserved. We didn’t need to hear from anyone, we’re big enough now to know the performance against Tipperary wasn’t good enough. Whether we didn’t play or weren’t allowed to play well, we were beaten fair and square. Our route wasn’t the one planned but the beauty of the qualifiers is you get momentum and I think we’ve been slowly building a bit of momentum. You can tell there’s a bit of excitement growing.”
As for the possibility this afternoon’s qualifier could be played out in front of a largely vacant stadium, O’Neill doesn’t mind. “There’s a lot being said about playing in a half-full Croke Park but if you ask any player they would play there any day.” O’Neill in particular. In 20 games there, he’s found the net eight times.
His veritable playground.