GAA wasn’t his living, it was his life. Spinal issue forced Armagh star Alan O’Neill into retirement

“It was heartbreaking because I knew Armagh was going to win an All-Ireland,” says luckless Alan O’Neill

Alan O'Neill on the charge during the All-Ireland semi-final clash with Kerry in 2000. Photo by Damien Eagers/Sportsfile
Alan O'Neill on the charge during the All-Ireland semi-final clash with Kerry in 2000. Photo by Damien Eagers/Sportsfile (Damien Eagers / SPORTSFILE/SPORTSFILE)

THE surgeon didn’t understand. He had lots of letters after his name but G-A-A weren’t among them.

“Do you make a living out of this?” he asked Alan O’Neill.

“No,” replied the young Armagh midfielder whose career was on the line.

“Well there’s nothing to talk about then - just give it up,” added the surgeon with clinical, surgical finality as he dismissed Gaelic Football as a trivial pastime.

It wasn’t the man’s living, it was his life.

“It was more than just a hobby!” says O’Neill almost 25 years’ later.

“My whole life revolved around it.”

Alan O’Neill was born with a talent for sports but he was also born with a narrow spinal canal. If his passion had been basketball, or tennis, or even soccer he might never even have known that but the harsh reality was that the tall, athletic lad from Concession Road in Culloville just wasn’t built for a contact sport like Gaelic Football.

A full-blooded tackle in the wrong area, even a bad fall coming down with a high ball put him at huge risk of damage to his nervous system. When the spinal cord is bruised (it’s called a spinal concussion) by an impact it never recovers and every subsequent impact increases the chance of a full-blown spinal injury which means paralysis and spending the rest of your life in a wheelchair.

Deep down Alan knew the surgeon was right.

But he played on.

Armagh captain Jarlath Burns checks on Alan O'Neill as he is stretchered off the field at Clones in 1999
Armagh captain Jarlath Burns checks on Alan O'Neill as he is stretchered off the field at Clones in 1999

THE first episode of spinal concussion occurred in a club game in 1996 but O’Neill dismissed it as ‘one of those things’ – growing pains, tiredness, something he’d eaten… After a while he felt fine and so he wished the issue away. When it happened again he was more worried but he said nothing and told no-one apart from his brothers because his football career was taking off.

He played midfield when the Armagh U21s won Ulster by beating Derry in 1998. That was a significant win for Armagh and the following season himself, the McEntee twins John and Tony, Aidan O’Rourke and Enda McNulty were promoted to the senior ranks for the Ulster semi-final against Derry at Clones.

Armagh were the coming force in Ulster and they knew it. They went toe-to-toe with the All-Ireland champions of six years previously and then O’Neill stooped to gather a ball as a Derry player came in to tackle. The 20 year-old took the hit on the left shoulder (he regards it as “an innocuous challenge” and says “there was no malice intended”) and went down in a crumpled heap.

Medical personnel rushed to him and he was stretchered off the field and taken to the Mater Hospital in Dublin. He spent two weeks’ there and during his stay he was taken to the spinal unit.

There was 14 people there and nine of them were paralysed.

“This is real life,” said the doctor.

“This is what you’re looking at if you don’t stop playing.”

Deep down, he knew she was right.

But a few weeks later he ran out at Croke Park for the All-Ireland semi-final against Meath.

Alan O’Neill has been teaching at St Patrick's College in Armagh since 2000. Picture: Mal McCann

HE’D got out of hospital on the Thursday before the Ulster final. He graduated that day and admits he brainwashed himself into thinking: “I’m fine, I’m ok, I’ll be grand”.

“At that age, when football means everything to you, you think different and nobody really wants to tell you: ‘You’re finished, pack it up and go home’,” he says.

Armagh lost out to Meath but the orange wave continued to build and in 2000 the Orchardmen won Ulster again. O’Neill got a vital score in the one-point semi-final win against Fermanagh in the semi-final and the Orchardmen beat Derry in the final, and went on to play Kerry in a thrilling All-Ireland semi-final that went to a replay.

O’Neill played in both games but he was walking on thin ice and he knew it.

“It was mad stuff really,” he admits.

“Deep down, if I’m honest, I knew it wasn’t the way to play county football. I was mindful of the spine – it wasn’t like a dodgy knee or a bad shoulder that you can strap up, I knew what was at stake and at the end of 2000, after the second Kerry game, I walked off Croke Park thinking: ‘Well, that’s my chance of ever winning an All-Ireland gone…’ I knew what the consequences were and what was at stake. I knew I really shouldn’t be on the field.”

He knew that but his heart ruled his head. He couldn’t let go and went back the following year.

However, by that stage the Armagh camp was aware of his issue. Of course they didn’t want to lose a talented player but they had to save the man from himself. Kieran McGeeney and the two Brians (Canavan and McAlinden) sat him down.

“We’ve been told what’s wrong with you,” they told him.

“There’s more to life than football, you’ve got to look at the bigger picture...”

He had to agree and, finally, he had to walk away.

Armagh goalkeeper Benny Tierney takes the Sam Maguire from captain Kieran McGeeney in Croke Park. Pic Ann McManus
Armagh goalkeeper Benny Tierney takes the Sam Maguire from captain Kieran McGeeney in Croke Park. Pic Ann McManus

THE following season, Armagh won the Sam Maguire and luckless Alan O’Neill (21) watched it all unfold with tears in his eyes.

The nail-biters against Tyrone and Sligo, the one-point win against the Dubs, the All-Ireland final against Kerry, McGeeney lifting the cup, all his team-mates in the Hogan Stand, the celebrations when the team came home…

He wished he was part of it. He wished he could still do what he’d always believed he was born to do but it had all been taken away.

“I’m not going to sugar-coat it, it was a very difficult time. A dark place,” he says.

“It was heartbreaking because I knew there was a golden era coming and Armagh was going to win an All-Ireland.

“I had played three years’ of U21, I was breaking into the senior team in ‘99 and Jarlath Burns was coming to the end of his career in midfield. I felt there was an opportunity to cement my place in the team and establish myself.

“To lose out on that literally felt like the end of the world. I missed the football but it was even the craic in the cars and the changing room…

“I just thought: ‘What do I do now?’ There was a huge sense of just feeling sorry for myself I suppose but I can’t express enough the help I got from the people around me at that time.

“The players who were on that Armagh team are exceptional people – nevermind exceptional footballers. Jarlath, Paul McGrane, John Rafferty, Cathal O’Rourke… Armagh look after their players and the Armagh county board were very good and fellas like Kieran and the McNultys (Justin and Enda) were very good for just talking it out – it was counselling I suppose.

“I’ll be honest, I had mixed feelings for a while but then I was the biggest Armagh supporter going, I just wanted the boys to win an All-Ireland. There was an element of: ‘That could have been me up there’ but I think it’s natural to feel like that too.”

THERE are people who’ll tell you that if Alan O’Neill had stayed fit Armagh would have won more than one All-Ireland.

“Or we mightn’t have won any!” he says with a smile.

After his Armagh dream ended he took a couple of years out of football but the craving to play ball wouldn’t go away. He missed the craic, he missed the changing room, the missed having that focus in his life.

Drip, drip, drip… He talked himself into returning with Culloville Blues.

“I thought: ‘Ok I don’t have the county, could I get back playing a bit of club football?’” he says.

“I kept thinking to myself: ‘I’ll get back to playing club football’ and that kept me going. I thought: ‘At least I’ll get back into the changing room, I’ll get togging out…’

“I needed to be more sensible about it but there wasn’t much sense about to be honest. Benny Tierney used to slag me that I went round the country looking for somebody to tell me I could play football and there’s an element of truth in that. I just wanted somebody to say: ‘Well, yeah, sure there’s risks with everything…’ I got away with it again for two or three years at club level but then it happened again.”

And that was that.

He says he realised: “This is madness” and people at Culloville like Tommy Moley, his uncle Ownie and Malachy Watters advised him to step away. This time he did.

“Your heart rules your head,” he says.

“You’re telling yourself: ‘I’ll be ok, I’ll be able to protect myself’ but in football you’re all-in or you shouldn’t be in at all.

“It wasn’t fair on the players, on the management, on my family either. That was it and at that stage I was 27-28 and I could take it then.”

"Things happen for a reason - maybe the football path just wasn’t for me," says former Armagh Footballer Alan O’Neill. Picture: Alan O'Neill

ONE door closes and another door opens. When Ger Houlihan took charge of the Armagh minors in 2003, he asked his former team-mate to get on board.

“They knew there would be a big void in my life and they tried to help me,” says O’Neill.

“Nothing replaces playing but the coaching did soften it a bit. You’re still in the changing room and out with a group and working together.”

He has spent the best part of the last two decades coaching at club level at St Patrick’s College, Armagh where he’s been teaching since 2000.

He guided St Pat’s to the Rannafast Cup final last year and won the Armagh intermediate championship with the Culloville U20s. He has managed Castleblayney and Inniskeen in Monaghan, Glen in Down and is now in his third season with Dundalk’s Clan na Gael in Louth.

“What happened to me could have been a whole lot worse - there’s people in far worse situations,” he says.

“Everybody retires – I just had to retire a wee bit earlier and I had to accept that. Everybody has to go through adversity and if you can get through it you tend to come out the other end a better person. It builds your character.”

He doesn’t use himself as an example but he tells the players he works with to make the most of their football days and to get the best out of themselves: Work hard, enjoy it, relish it, grab it. When a man like him talks like that... Well, you listen.

“It does give you that sense of appreciation,” he says.

“Things happen for a reason - maybe the football path just wasn’t for me and I went down the coaching path.

“I always encourage the lads to make the most of the time they’re playing because you don’t know. I tell them not to take it for granted and to get every last ounce out of it they can. We have a number of boys in their mid-30s in Clan na Gael and they’re just squeezing every drop out of it.

“If somebody tells me: ‘This’ll be me last year’, I tell them: ‘Listen, if you’re enjoying it then keep at it and commit to the thing fully – get yourself as fit as you can be, put it front-and-centre in your life’.

“You can play golf, or do triathlons and all these other things but the team dynamic that Gaelic Football gives you and that sense of identity and purpose… Where else would you get that?

“I didn’t have a choice, I had to walk away and when something has been taken away from you I suppose you get a sense of the opportunities that players have and that they shouldn’t waste talent, they should make the most of it.

“The tragedy for me was that I didn’t get to fulfil my potential so when boys do have that chance I tell them they need to go and take it with both hands whether it’s sport, or academically, or family or whatever it is. Use your talent, be the best you can be and make the most of what you have because it can be taken from you very quickly.

“I’m lucky, I’ve got my health, my wife and a young family. When I look back now, nearly 25 years’ later, I’m thankful I got the opportunity to play a bit, I played in Clones and Croke Park. They were great years for Armagh and I suppose I was part of it – I was there in ‘99 and 2000.

“You know, I’m just grateful for that.”