“I can’t remember being in a game when the mark was involved.”
The season was a monumental success for Cork but the early part of it remains foggy for the 6ft 5in man who helped himself to 1-6 from play in three of the county’s first four Division 1 games before they went on to claim the top-flight title. “I genuinely don’t recall the mark being used in those games,” he says.
O’Neill’s hazy recollection will feed into the concerns that the mark, now permanent as opposed to seven years ago when it was introduced on a experimental basis, will become a nonentity of a rule.
Beginning in earnest this weekend, a player catching a kick-out cleanly between the 45 metre lines will be permitted to take a free or play on.
A broken thumb ruled O’Neill out for the remainder of the campaign. By the time he had returned to action, Congress had voted down the mark, much to the disappointment of former Dublin midfielder Eamon Fennell who had revelled during its implementation.
“I was delighted it was brought in. High-fielding at kick-outs was my bread and butter. My heroes growing up were Anthony Tohill, Jack Sheedy and Liam McHale, men who could catch high ball.
“I remember a game against Derry when Ross (McConnell) and myself played Derry in Parnell Park and I just so happened to have a good day catching a few kick-outs. I brought onto the Irish panel that year solely on the basis that I was winning a lot of kick-outs.
“In fairness to Brian Fenton and Aidan and Seamie O’Shea, they are changing the midfielder role from what it was. It’s no longer about being there to catch ball. They’re offering so much more to the game.
“But to me, when I see Stephen (Cluxton) giving a ball to one of the corner-backs and then the ball is worked across the pitch it ruins the game for me. I’m looking at it with rose-tinted glasses as a midfielder.”
Many share Fennell’s view, though. In the Football Review Committee’s survey, catching was ranked the number one skill by respondents and a majority of them wanted to see the mark introduced.
The FRC’s subsequent motion, effectively the same rule that is now in place, failed by 1% to receive the required two-thirds majority support in 2013 but gleaned 68% backing at last year’s gathering in Carlow.
As Fennell readily admits, he’s biased but he feels the traditional midfielder has been pushed to the side by possession tactics.
“When I got onto the Dublin team Ciarán Whelan, Darren Homan, Darren Magee and Shane Ryan were the big ball winners. The game was a lot better back then. If you look at it at the moment, kick-outs play such a massive part and the game is kind of ruined by it. Teams are just conceding the short kick-out, putting 15 men behind the ball and the game slows down as the ball has to be worked through a crowd of players.
“There has been no incentive to catch a ball because if you look at some of the teams they’ll let you win the kick-out but once you come down you’re being swarmed and eight times of 10 you’ll over-carry or foul the ball some other way. Like a defender getting a block in or a forward getting a score, a high catch gives a team a lift. Hopefully, the mark works so that we see more of that. I might get another season or two with the club anyway.”
However, there are strong misgivings about the claims the mark will safeguard high-fielding. When any catch from a kick-out between the 45m lines constituted a mark, aerial fetches aren’t being rewarded. Mickey Harte, Tomás Quinn, Gary Sice, Rory Gallagher and Whelan are among those who have questioned its relevancy.
“Stephen (Cluxton) made me look good for years,” says Fennell, who will miss the St Vincent’s All-Ireland semi-final with Slaughtneil next month with a serious hamstring injury.
“You could put your hand up and he would send it directly to you. I can see this allowing the game to be a bit faster and look like it was. If it stops the cynical fouling for backs coming out with the ball which slows the game down then it can be a benefit.”
O’Neill is of the same mind — if the mark can increase the aerial contests even marginally it will be a plus.
“The days of five or six high catches are nearly gone, even at club level. The goalies are tactical, playing the wings and avoiding big contests around the middle. High-fielding is dwindling.
“My perspective is that it’s in now and we have to get on with it. I wouldn’t be complaining about it and let’s just move on. This time next year, it probably won’t be discussed. It’ll just be part of the game. The mark might bring back the contested kick-out a bit more given there’s an incentive to catch it.”