AIB ULSTER CLUB SFC FINAL:
Omagh St Enda’s (Tyrone) v Slaughtneil (Derry)
When retired All-Ireland winner Philip Jordan recently questioned the mettle of Tyrone’s new generation, it’s safe to assume he wasn’t talking about Ronan O’Neill.
Few players have had to live up to such high expectations as the Omagh St Enda’s forward since starring in Tyrone’s All-Ireland minor victory in 2010.
Being labelled as the new Peter Canavan would have crushed lesser mortals, but just as he’s proved he can conjure a score out of nothing, the 22-year has handled those unfair comparisons with the same amount of poise.
For sure, his senior inter-county career has not gone the way he’d hoped but it has been a cruciate knee ligament injury sustained in March 2012, not the weight of expectation, which has hindered his progress so far.
“It’s been a hard transition from minors to U21s to seniors but it’s time for people to wise up and start filling these boots of the people who retired from that great team over the last decade,” admitted O’Neill.
“Obviously I’ll try my best to step up next year.”
Scoring a crucial point against Monaghan in last year’s All-Ireland quarter-final was a sign he was coming back to his best after the bad injury.
However, he was rocked back on his heels when, after replacing Stephen O’Neill early on against Mayo in the semi-final, he was taken off again before the end.
He can now reflect on that bad time with a good degree of maturity when he says: “I thought I was fit but I wasn’t fit. It was a bad experience but I took it on board to try and get myself in some sort of shape.
“This year was frustrating, being in and out of the team, but that’s the way football goes sometimes. You can play well and get on a run some years. Or it might not happen. I was lucky I had Omagh to come back to and we’re having a great year.”
O’Neill has embraced the responsibility of being ‘the main man’ for his club throughout their fairytale run to a first AIB Ulster club senior football championship final appearance tomorrow.
He’s loving the freedom he’s been given by manager Laurence Strain to express himself and the scores have flowed.
A hat-trick against Eglish, an injury-time winning goal in the county final against Carrickmore, an outstanding 1-4 against Crossmaglen and three majestic early points to drain the belief out of St Eunan’s in the Ulster semi-final, have been pivotal.
O’Neill said: “Larry knows what to expect from me, he just lets me go out and do my thing. If I have to lead the line, I can. I’m 22 now and it’s time for me to step up and be a leader on this team. Joe and Justy (McMahon) can’t go on forever and we need new leaders.”
Tomorrow’s opponents Slaughtneil are also appearing in their first final and while Omagh have been favourites since defeating Crossmaglen in the quarter-final, it should not be forgotten that the Derry champions took out defending Ulster champions Ballinderry in the county final.
Managed by the well-travelled Mickey Moran (who was in charge of Omagh when they last won a county championship in 1988) it’s the most rural of clubs in a community which doesn’t even have a church, never mind a pub or a shop. It’s in direct contrast to Omagh, the stereotypical ‘soft townies’ but O’Neill is one of eight of the current side to win Ulster club minor and U21 titles in 2009 and 2011 respectively, and the underage success is paying off.
“We are proving people wrong all year and it’s about time because the slack we have taken in the last few years has hurt us. All the usual stuff people say about Omagh... that we have great youth but when it comes to senior we fall away... it’s hurtful and it’s not true. This year in tight games we showed we can mix it with the best of them and when games are in the melting pot we can take them by the scruff of the neck.”
It’s the commitment of All-Ireland winners Joe and Justin McMahon which is inspiring O’Neill, who is joined on the panel by his brothers Cormac and Shane.
“Us young boys have won so many club medals and then you see Joe and Justy slogging away, year in, year out, trying to win that elusive medal for the club.
“After all they have won with Tyrone, they’re still putting their heads in where others wouldn’t put their feet. That just rubs off on everyone else.
“You play gaelic football for enjoyment but you want success at the end of the day.”