GAA Football

Ronan O'Neill quits Tyrone panel in frustration over lack of game-time

Ronan O'Neill gives Mayo's Brendan Harrison the slip in the 2016 All-Ireland quarter-final. Picture by Hugh Russell
Andy Watters

RONAN O'Neill has quit the Tyrone panel in frustration after failing to feature in any of the Red Hands' Division One games this year.

The sublimely talented Omagh St Enda's clubman was an ever-present throughout Tyrone's successful Dr McKenna Cup campaign this year but he was unable to nail down a place in Mickey Harte's National League squads and has walked away with a heavy heart. At 26, hopes to return to the inter-county scene at some stage in the future but will concentrate on the club game for the rest of this season.

“Towards the middle of the League I wasn't getting a look-in and I thought to myself: ‘Should I maybe step away from this?'” he explained.

“Ultimately it was an extremely hard decision to make because Tyrone has been the best part of my life for eight years. I sat down and chatted to my father and he said to see how the League went and to keep pushing at training.

“But I wasn't getting into the matchday squads and people were asking why I wasn't and I just thought ‘You know, maybe it's time to take a step back here' so I saw out the League and met Mickey on Sunday night and explained my decision.

“I had to think what was right for me. I was sitting about being part of the squad but not making much of an impact and I wasn't really happy doing what I was doing.

“Mickey listened to my reasons and he was supportive.

“He said that I wouldn't be the first person to step away and then come back again the following year. He gave me some things to work on and I'll use this club season to do so and reassess where I am for next year.”

O'Neill first came to prominence as a schoolboy with Omagh CBS, spearheading their runs to the MacRory Cup finals in 2009 and 2010 and he was the star forward when the Tyrone minors won the All-Ireland in 2010, scoring 1-4 in the semi-final and two points in the decider against Cork.

He announced himself on the senior scene with a first-touch debut goal in the McKenna Cup two years later and, by 2013, aged 19, he was captain of the Tyrone U21 side and an established member of the senior panel.

He suffered a serious setback when he ruptured his cruciate while training for the Ulster SFC quarter-final against Donegal but returned to the fold the following year and, after top-scoring for Ulster University in the Sigerson Cup final, hit the target in every game of Tyrone's Division One campaign.

Since then O'Neill has won two Ulster Championships with Tyrone, lighting up Clones in the 2017 decider with an audacious chip into the Down net that showcased his natural, uncommon flair and fans will remember his 'Dab' celebration after a goal against Cavan in the 2016 Division 2 final. However, as the era of the footballing athlete took hold and with Tyrone regularly playing just one inside forward, O'Neill found his opportunities becoming limited.

His last Championship start was as a lone frontman against Mayo in the 2016 All-Ireland quarter-final but he did feature regularly as a substitute in last year's run to the All-Ireland final.

“I'm only 26, so I wouldn't like to think my county career is over yet,” he said.

“Not getting game-time is the most frustrating thing.

“You do all the hard training and you want to be rewarded. It's the manager's worst nightmare picking 15 boys and then putting five in, they can't keep everybody happy especially at Tyrone with the panel being so competitive.

“But it left me frustrated and I was probably a bit snappy about the house with my parents and brothers and my girlfriend. I love playing for Tyrone and I love my county and I wish all the boys all the best – I sent them a message and I really do think the team will go on to win the All-Ireland and that's what made the decision even tougher.”

O'Neill now intends to focus his energy on playing with Omagh St Enda's, the county champions in 2014 and 2017, before weighing up his inter-county options.

“Mickey has decided that Mattie (Donnelly) and Cathal (McShane) are more dangerous and physical up front and Petey (Harte) is playing off them,” he said.

“The three of them are playing fantastically well and then you had myself, Connor McAliskey, Darren (McCurry), Lee (Brennan) and Kyle (Coney) fighting for other spots. It's a competitive field and sometimes those boys are going to be ahead and other times vice-versa.

“It happened to be me this time and I just thought I wasn't doing myself any justice sitting about there. I want to go back and play club football with Omagh which I love doing. I want to get a full year, hopefully injury-free playing football and playing to the best of my potential.”

He added: “I thanked Mickey for helping me out over the years and the rest of the management – the boys who were there before and the boys who are there now – and the county board for supporting me.

“It'll not be the end of me but, for the time being, it'll be a halt of the progress.”

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