GAA Football

Answering the call: Mickey O'Neill on trying to avoid settling for 16

In the battle for Tyrone's number one jersey, Mickey O'Neill lost the tight calls. After seven years that saw him average roughly two minutes of competitive football for every training session, the Clonoe man has quit inter-county game. He spoke to Cahair O'Kane…

Mickey O'Neill made his championship debut against Donegal in Ballybofey in 2015, and that was the day he truly looked like he belonged.

MICKEY O’Neill almost came to dread Wednesdays, when Mickey Harte would call.

There’d be weeks the Clonoe goalkeeper’s hopes would be high. He’d shown well in training. Times he’d have started the game before and done nothing wrong. This time it might be different.

But when it came to the big games, the call always went the same way. He’d wear 16, and Niall Morgan would wear one.

O’Neill played 26 games for Tyrone. Seven of them were championship games, four in Ulster and three qualifiers. Nine were league games, and the other ten were in the McKenna Cup, where even still he only played in one final.

Yet the gap between number one and 16 in Tyrone was never as pronounced as Morgan’s grip on the starting jersey made it seem.

Standing 6’2” and 13-and-a-half stone, O’Neill’s edge was in the shot-stopping department. Anyone that ever faced him will tell you he is right up there with David Clarke as the very best in the land.

John Devine worked him into a position where his kicking caught up on Niall Morgan’s, and O’Neill himself felt that over the last couple of seasons, he’d found parity in the battle.

He just never got the call.

“Don’t get me wrong, the first couple of years you have to work hard and bide your time, and you’ll maybe get a chance here and there.

“Eventually, it was the third year, me and Niall were getting rotated every game. That wasn’t too bad, I didn’t mind at the start. Come championship time, you always want to play and I just wasn’t getting that decision my way.

”As the years went on, it started to bite a wee bit more and a wee bit more.”

But as much as those phone calls, those decisions, hurt him, he always appreciated the fact that Harte rang every single time.

“In fairness to Mickey, the team’s always named on the Thursday night before a big game, and he’d always come to you.

“He’d ring you on a Wednesday or talk to you early on a Thursday, and let you know the reason.

“It was the same as if he gave me a chance, he’d let Niall know too. He’d always give you a reason and let you know before the team was named out so you’re not sitting there stranded and thinking ‘why not?’ That was every time.

“But it came to a certain stage that I always thought Niall was going to get the big call, it just went that way for so long. Niall always did get the big call come championship time.

“That didn’t stop me trying hard at training, I’d never throw the rattle up. I hope to God I pushed Niall all the way, and he earned his place.

“But it probably did just come to a stage where I maybe did settle for 16.”

*****

THE first call he got from the manager was an emergency one. It was a Saturday morning and he was out with the lads for the day, shopping in Craigavon when his phone rang.

Packie McConnell and John Devine had both gotten injured. Johnny Curran stepped in as third choice, and Harte rang the 19-year-old O’Neill to see would he come and take a seat on the bench for the afternoon.

“I just managed to get up the road in time for it. After that I was in the McKenna Cup squad and in and out of it, I was dropped.”

It was 2014 when he was called back and made his McKenna Cup bow against Queen’s, and he never touched leather again until Morgan was black-carded in the summer heat of an Ulster Championship clash with Down.

His first act was to pick the ball from his net when Aidan Carr fired the resulting penalty past him. Barring two more McKenna Cup games at the start of 2015, that was it for almost a year.

He played no league football and then, in the mouth of championship, Morgan got injured. Facing the previous year’s beaten All-Ireland finalists in the Ballybofey bearpit, O’Neill was thrust in.

That was the day he looked like he truly belonged. He made outstanding saves from Patrick McBrearty and Colm McFadden. His best was from Odhran MacNiallais, but it was instantly forgotten when the rebound was volleyed home by Martin McElhinney.

O’Neill kept his place for the subsequent qualifier with Limerick, but a knee injury was eating at him.

“It was biting at me for a while but it was taken care of by the physios. During the warm-up, I felt it again but it passed. I went down at one stage and Michael Harte [Tyrone’s physio] came on but I was alright to play on.

“I went to training on the Tuesday night and had to pull up, it eventually gave in. It was the cartilage in my knee had worn away.”

He had to sit out for a month. By the time he was fit, Tyrone were in an All-Ireland quarter-final and Niall Morgan was on a run of clean sheets that would stretch to five in their run to the last four.

A hand injury for Morgan the following year gave O’Neill another chance, and he was solid against Derry. But with the Edendork man beating on the door to get back in, David Givney clawed a high ball to the net in stoppage time to snatch Cavan a draw on a wild day in Clones. That would be Mickey O’Neill’s last game in the Ulster Championship.

It’s a long sit for the sub goalkeeper. A rough gauge would be that for every night he trained at Garvaghey, O’Neill played approximately two minutes of competitive football.

The rewards could not have been more scant.

*****

IT’S taken him four years but the house is getting there. He managed to convince his father Kieran not only to give him the bit of ground out the back of their home house in Clonoe, but to take into building it as well.

A workshop joiner with Canavan’s across the road since he left school, he’ll be 30 in April. In long-term girlfriend Lauren, he’s had a supporter partner.

But while it’s a better situation in Tyrone than in most counties, the sheer weight of commitment to inter-county football brings an inevitable alienation within the club.

Being able to give that bit more back to the O’Rahilly’s was a big factor in his decision to retire from the inter-county game.

“It was part of it, it definitely was. The boys in the club are supportive, but it’s just myself feeling guilty at not being part of it for so long and missing a right bit of the year.”

Mickey Harte rotated him and Morgan through the qualifiers in 2018 and neither did much wrong. But when it came to the Super 8s, O’Neill missed out again.

He didn’t make any rash calls but it did make him waver, and hindsight brings the perspective that he might have stayed on had he played an active part in the latter stages of Tyrone’s run to the All-Ireland final.

But it’s easy for him to rationalise it too.

“Having a solid one man in there for the three or four games in the Super 8s maybe strengthened the team a wee bit more, because the outfield players knew the ‘keeper inside out.

“It [the rotation] was always going to end at the Super 8s no matter what I think, just to have a structure.

“To keep on rotating, it can mess with the defenders’ heads a wee bit. I’m not saying they’d panic under me or Niall, but just to have that one man there would work well.”

It was always the best of rivalries. O’Neill never forgot Morgan taking him under his wing when he joined the panel in late 2013. The two have been tight ever since, with O’Neill even doing a reading at Morgan’s wedding.

There were times they’d both agree Mickey got it right. Times they’d agree he got it wrong. But whatever it was, they’d always have an ear in the other.

“Every time I was debating ‘f***, I should’ve been starting’, and I’d have had no bother saying that to Niall, and vice versa, he’d say the exact same thing. There’d be nothing hidden between the two of us.

“We always talked it over with each other. It’s nothing to do with me and Niall, it’s the choice of Mickey himself and the two of us knew that.

“We trained away by ourselves. I learned an awful lot from Niall and I hope to God he learned something from me too.”

Dublin wasn’t long forgotten until Mickey Harte was ringing once more. 2018 wasn’t over but 2019 was beginning. Trial games were being set up.

“He was looking me up and I didn’t give him an answer, I hadn’t been in touch with him. I finally bit the bullet and rang him, we had a good conversation about it and I told him how I felt, that I planned to leave.”

Thailand almost swayed him. He was conscious that the team holiday would be his last time as part of that circle. His decision to quit had his head turned to the point he considered not going on the trip, but to a man his team-mates got in touch and told him to wise up.

“A number of nights out there, I’d boys coming over to me and I’d be having one-to-one talks about coming back and this craic. It sort of hit home a wee bit and I was starting to think maybe I should give it another year.

“But that was just in that moment, I felt like I owed the boys something. When I went back and thought over it again, I was very happy with my decision to leave. I was just doubting it with boys down talking, bringing up old memories and all the craic.”

And so as he sat down to his sister Carla's dinner last Tuesday evening, there dawned the realisation that he isn’t spending it at Garvaghey, boosting his disheartening training-to-games ratio further.

Niall O’Neill’s set the club’s first pitch session of the year for the following night. That’s the man that will call him now, to tell him whether it’s him or Collie O’Hagan getting the start.

A shot-stopper of Mickey O’Neill’s calibre is overdue winning a few of those calls.

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