The precarious nature of Tyrone’s free-taking this summer isn’t lost on Ronan O’Neill. Didn’t he miss a couple of them against Cavan last day out?
But he has gripes with the criticism aimed at him and his team-mates who haven’t been all that hot in that department.
“In the Donegal-Monaghan game, there were eight or nine free kicks missed in the drawn match. Not many made a song and dance about that, but whenever it is Tyrone, they make a song and dance about it. Oisín McConville and Paddy Bradley, they keep harping on about it. I am sure they missed a few free kicks in their time too. It’s about having confidence to step up and hit them if you have missed a few. I will be confident to hit them the next day.”
There are few other teams than Donegal with the ability to seize on weaknesses in free-taking. Consider the 2013 Ulster preliminary round game in Ballybofey and how they successfully got in Niall Morgan’s face as he weighed up long-range frees.
Then the on-field excursions of selector Maxi Curran as Conor McManus was aiming at the posts. Mickey Harte was quick off the bat in highlighting that behaviour.
O’Neill isn’t perturbed by the intimidiation be it physical or verbal. Sledging, he says, is something he’s used to in training.
“It has happened before and teams have looked at it as a way of gaining an advantage,” he says of Curran’s actions.
“The last day, I hit two free kicks and they kicked wide. The next day, I will still be stepping up to take free kicks and will be confident they will come off.
“In training, you have boys standing over you as well. That is all part of your preparations and whatever you can do to replicate a match situation, you will do.
“The boys stand over you and give a few verbals in training. But if you miss, it’s about having the confidence to step up again and hit them.”
One man who’s good for a chat is O’Neill’s Omagh club-mate Justin McMahon, who could be asked to detail Michael Murphy as he did last year.
“We’ll see if ‘Justy’ picks him (Murphy) up or not. But he did a phenomenal job the last day against Cavan. He got a bit unfairly criticised for a few things. The Donegal boys do the same and don’t get criticised. ‘Justy’ is a quality player and is a commanding figure in there. He is a great leader for the younger boys in defence. He really leads them. His presence was a major influence on the team.”
This year has seen O’Neill enjoy an extended run in the team. He was close to quitting last season before a heart-to-heart with the manager.
“Omagh won the county championship in 2014. I thought then things would kick on , on a personal level in 2015 but it just didn’t happen. I was playing catch up and then some of the U21 boys came in and got their chance. Getting just four minutes in the All-Ireland semi-final was very frustrating and three minutes against Donegal equally so. I just took it upon myself October/November time, after Omagh got knocked out early from the championship, to knuckle down, train hard and lose a bit of weight. Luckily enough, I got a few games in the Ó Fiach Cup, then the McKenna Cup and then the National League.”
O’Neill was excellent in the Division 2 final and Tyrone’s Ulster opener against Derry but was held scoreless the last day out, albeit laying on points for others. He’s had to learn to be patient.
“The last day I couldn’t hit a barn door. I hit three wides in the first half and I thought I would ease myself more into the game in the second half.
“In training, Ronan McNamee is hanging off you so that can be a replica of what might happen in the game. But the main attribute you need is patience. You might only get two or three balls into you a half against that sort of defensive structure so it’s important what you do with the ball then. You have to make plenty of runs for other boys and pull defenders out of position to create space for runners in behind. It’s about being unselfish too.
“You have to have belief in yourself and confidence to make the most of balls that come into you. You might have to go five, 10, 15 minutes without getting a ball so when it come you have to make sure you are going to win it.
“This year I have that bit of confidence and belief.”
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