GAA Football

'Chief' making the most of great days after Magherafelt's final win

Darren O'Neill has been a steady hand at full-back for Magherafelt for more than a decade. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

THE morning after Magherafelt’s county final success and fellow scribes are picking through the words of the winners.

“Who’s ‘Chief’?” comes the text message.

Two minutes later, a second man. “Who on the Magherafelt team is ‘Chief’?”

In the town, you’d have no bother getting pointed his way. But if you asked for him by his right name, Darren O’Neill, you might have more bother.

“It was a name I got in secondary school, one of the boys in the class. I can’t remember where it came out of but it just stuck.

“Even teachers used to call me Chief. A lot of people wouldn’t even know me by my real name.”

The red number three jersey has been glued to his back for more than a decade. Quiet, dependable, often brilliant, his senior career spans 14 years.

Most of them were short summers. Underage successes took a long time to translate and when they lost that infamous game to Slaughtneil last year, O’Neill admits it was a very long winter.

It was one in which he considered considering his future, but quickly decided upon an extended break rather than retirement once he heard Adrian Cush was staying on.

“Last year, we were going into the game feeling pretty good but we didn’t do ourselves justice at all. We had a really strong team last year and you’re thinking it might never happen.

“It’s the way he goes about his job, he respects every man that comes there. He’s not one of these hardliners that if you miss training, that’s you, you’re gone" - Darren O'Neill on Magherafelt manager Adrian Cush. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

“Then you’re looking at teams like Glen going well, there’s 5 or 6 seriously strong teams. Especially with our record in championship, we hadn’t been in a semi-final in 38 years. It definitely creeps into your mind.

“The fact that Adrian was taking us again, I was definitely going to go back out.

“If it had been someone else, I don’t know, I maybe would have thought about it. I was a bit depressed after the Slaughtneil game last year for a while, wondering do I really want to have any more.

“Once I heard he was staying on, I knew I was going to go back out, I just needed a bit of time to sort stuff out. He was more than happy to give me the time.

“We all have that much respect for Adrian and think he’s such a great man, and he took the brunt of [the abuse last year]. We said after last year that we’d stand by him no matter what.

“It’s the way he goes about his job, he respects every man that comes there. He’s not one of these hardliners that if you miss training, that’s you, you’re gone.

“Myself, building a house, if I ever needed to miss training it was never a problem, he understands and takes everything into consideration. He’s a great manager.”

O’Neill didn’t reappear until March, and says he was “sore for a week” after the first training session back.

It’s been a busy time. Living in his wife Claire’s [neé Cassidy] native Ballymaguigan, they have a 13-month-old son, Jack. The house they’re building is out the road in The Loup, and as a joiner, it’s a lot of Darren’s own evenings and weekends spent out at the site.

It took a rest for a few days in the aftermath of the county final. One of the features of Magherafelt’s season was their ability to celebrate victories.

A video of virtually their entire team topless, singing through Bryson’s bar after the first round win over Magherafelt went around the WhatsApp world in Derry, but they took the abuse that followed in their stride and played up to it.

“None of us cared, not one man. We were the only ones in the bar. It was Bryson’s front bar, there wasn’t another sinner except the Magherafelt team and it was just good craic.

“Because we were getting so much stick about it, that made them want to do it even more. It was a bit of craic.”

He says he managed to keep his own top on during the post-final celebrations, which ended on the Monday for O’Neill as he turned the younger bucks down on the idea of the Hatfield.

“Adrian said to us, especially to the young boys, don’t be thinking that because it happened in the first year or two, don’t be thinking this is the way it’s gonna be,” says the 31-year-old.

“You could go out in the championship next year and get chinned in the first round. Other teams start to get stronger, and you mightn’t see it again.

“After every championship game, he told us to go and enjoy ourselves for a day or two, and boys did it.

“It helped, to go and enjoy those wins. It made you want to win the next one for that feeling again.”

Emmett McGuckin lifts Darren O'Neill into the air after Magherafelt's semi-final win over Banagher. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

Having finished his A-Levels at St Pius’ and gone on to do Quantity Surveying, he hated it and dropped out at the end of second year.

He got on the phone to Danny Heavron, a joiner by trade, and asked if there was any work going where he was. A few days later he was in, and they’re still working together yet.

Heavron came to national prominence for his heartfelt words after the one-point win over Glen in Celtic Park.

“He’s a great man, a great speaker,” says O’Neill.

“He doesn’t do a wile pile of talking but does enough. When he talks you listen. He just has that presence about him.

“He only spoke for 30 seconds before the final, but when you’re taking the field with him on it, you stand a good chance of winning the game. He gives you everything.”

Truth be told, when the semi-final draw was made, most observers in Derry were wondering whether Mickey Moran would have to go up against his former charges in Slaughtneil or his native club, Glen.

Warrenpoint did their best to upend Kilcoo, but the other two did find themselves derailed. Glen took Slaughtneil out of the way and, off the back of it, came into the final as big favourites.

It was a position Magherafelt were happy to be in, and they made the most of it.

They’ll be in the same boat in Páirc Esler on Sunday afternoon.

Only two clubs have ever won Ulster at the first attempt, and one of them is from just out the road in The Loup, where the O’Neills will put down their roots when the house is finished.

It’s a big ask, but Magherafelt have made a habit of defying conventional wisdom this summer.

‘Chief’ will always be glad he came back out for it.

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