“That split-second and it’s all taken away...” Luckless Armagh defender Conor O’Neill will support Orchardmen from the sidelines after injury horror

Software engineer Conor O’Neill doesn’t exactly fit the profile of the modern county footballer

Conor O'Neill's season has been ruined by injury but he hopes to see Armagh go all the way
Conor O'Neill's season has been ruined by injury but he hopes to see Armagh go all the way this year (J_Merry)

THERE are better days ahead, but there’ll be hard times before they come.

Conor O’Neill’s return to the orange jersey had started so well. A cloud hung over Armagh after the Ulster final loss but he was back on the field as they blew it away against Westmeath in the first round of this All-Ireland series.

O’Neill had missed the entire Ulster campaign and he was in a hurry to make up for lost time. Early on he caught a mark, laid the ball off and then sprinted to full-forward where he caught Rory Grugan’s pass, cut between two men in maroon and chipped over a confident finish.

Oh yeah, it was great to be back…

Unfortunately that feeling didn’t last for long.

Ten minutes’ later, sprinting back into defence he felt pain shoot through the back of his right ankle. For a moment he thought someone had raked their studs down his leg but there was no-one near him and he quickly realised that his Achilles Tendon had given out.

Shock was followed by pain and then disappointment as the medical team gathered. Even before they moved him onto the stretcher he knew that was that. Game over.

Armagh skipper Aidan Forker consoles Conor O'Neill as he exits the pitch with a ruptured Achilles Tendon.
Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Leah Scholes
Armagh skipper Aidan Forker consoles Conor O'Neill as he exits the pitch with a ruptured Achilles Tendon. Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Leah Scholes (©INPHO/Leah Scholes ©INPHO/Leah Scholes/©INPHO/Leah Scholes )

A CLASSY defender with an eye for a score, O’Neill is first choice for Armagh when he’s fit but he won’t be fit for maybe a year now.

“Aye, no luck at all,” says the 26 year-old.

What else could he say as he lies on the sofa with his leg in a cast a few days after an operation on his ruptured Achilles?

“I’d had problems with the Achilles all year,” he explained.

“I’d had them in the past and it was sore, but it was manageable and I was always able to play on. This year it was really bad and for a couple of games in it was touch-and-go.”

He pushed the pain to the back of his mind as he struggled through Armagh’s first four Division Two games. He scored two vital points in the draw against Donegal but the next day was “completely crippled”. Struggling to walk, he had to accept that treatment and rest was needed so he sat out the remainder of Armagh’s successful League campaign and the thrills and spills of the Ulster Championship although he did make the bench for the final.

“I was hoping to get back into it,” he says.

“I was hoping to get the fitness back and a bit of form and finish out the rest of the year but obviously the tendon was weak and it just gave way.

“All the emotions come at once. There’s a fair bit of grief there because you’ve worked so hard all year and all pre-season to strengthen your body up.

“I was gutted because I had already missed so many games this year. I was pushing hard to get back in and I did get back but then, in that split-second, one moment and it’s all taken away from you.

“I was defending, sprinting back, chasing my man which is something you do countless times on the training pitch and countless times in games… It was a hard one to take.”

He had surgery last week and, according to the consultant, it went well. He’ll be in a cast for a while, then a protective boot and then he can start the process of becoming a footballer again. It can take anything from nine to 12 months to fully recover, but at least the ball is rolling.

“In that initial period when you just can’t put any weight on it so it’ll really be learning how to walk again for a couple of months,” he explains.

“It’ll be a long road but there’s plenty of lads who have done it and no doubt I’ll be back stronger. Oisin O’Neill (no relation) had trouble with both legs and had to get surgery on both. He was out for nearly two years with it so he’s a good example of somebody who has been there and done it and he’s back to himself now so I have to draw inspiration off boys like that.”

Oisin O'Neill grabbed the game by the scruff in the second half as Crossmaglen eventually saw off Madden
Oisin O'Neill spent almost two years' on the sidelines with injury

HE could get inspiration closer to home as well because he’s not the first member of his family to play senior county football. Originally from Belfast, his dad Kieran was a Lamh Dhearg clubman who played a challenge game for Antrim against Armagh back in his day.

That was as far as his career with the Saffrons went, but a few years’ later, when he married Armagh City native Andrea Barton and they settled in the Orchard county side of Newry, he transferred to Cullyhanna. He still likes to recall his goal against a Crossmaglen team at the peak of its powers.

But there was never any prospect of his son playing for Cullyhanna. Killeavy has always been Conor’s club and Armagh his county and he’ll wish his mates well this season although watching from the sidelines will be a challenge.

He played his part in getting Armagh back on the rails against Westmeath and then – even without him, Ciaran Mackin and Andrew Murnin - they routed Derry in their own backyard.

“You just wish you were part of it,” he says.

“But I enjoyed watching that Derry game, it certainly helped pick up my mood.”

At least he has his work to take his mind off things. A maths graduate from Queens University, he works as a software engineer for a company called Pytillia and is currently working on the web platform for an American financial firm.

“I’m working on building the foundations of what you’d see if you logged onto their platform,” he explains.

“People click a button on a website and think it’s magic, it just takes you somewhere but somebody has to write the code that allows that.”

And that somebody is Armagh’s right half-back. He not your stereotypical modern county footballer but professional and recreational lives that contrast starkly between mental and physical seem to balance each other nicely.

“The people I work with don’t really have much of an interest in football so it’s nice to get away from it,” he says.

“You’re able to zone-out and then, when you get to training, you’re able to zone in again.”

Conor Turbitt rolls home Armagh's second goal despite the best efforts of Odhran Lynch and Brendan Rogers. Picture: Margaret McLaughlin
Conor Turbitt rolls home Armagh's second goal despite the best efforts of Derry's Odhran Lynch and Brendan Rogers. Picture: Margaret McLaughlin

HIS Armagh team-mates have been in that ‘zone’ for years now. The entire nation (apart from Donegal fans and perhaps a few Tyrone and Down ultras) felt sorry for them when they lost the Ulster on penalties.

When setbacks have come they have bounced back and the performance against Derry was a testament to that. It was Conor Turbitt who led the charge at Celtic Park and he and O’Neill made their senior debuts for Armagh on a cold Sunday afternoon in Cavan in December 2019. ‘Turbo’ announced his arrival with 2-2 and he has continued those free-scoring ways ever since.

A look through that team from 2019 illustrates just how committed this group of Armagh players is. Every man in the starting line-up, bar Brendan Donaghy and Stephen Sheridan, is still playing and Sheridan remains in the camp as the statistician.

“Everybody bought into it,” says O’Neill.

“We’ve all been on this journey together. I came through the development squads from U14s with Rian O’Neill, Jason Duffy, Ross McQuillan, Barry McCambridge… We played in an Ulster U20 final in 2018.

“That group of lads has all progressed – not too many have fallen by the wayside. Then there are lads just younger than us like ‘Turbo’, ‘TK’ (Tiernan Kelly)... We’ve all known each other for years so that adds to the tightness of the group.

“Before I came into the senior team there was the likes of Rory Grugan and Aidan (Forker) who had played Division Three and they set out to get Armagh back to the top table.

“We have come in and pushed the boat on a wee bit further. Everybody has bought into the thing and we haven’t won a trophy yet so the hunger is still there, that’s what drives us on each year.

“Everybody enjoys it, you enjoy representing your county and you enjoy the big days and hopefully there’ll be more big days but you play football to win things and that’s why everyone is still around and still pushing each other on.”

Armagh is now the best supported team in the county. But it wasn't always that way...
The 16th man... Armagh are one of the best supported teams in the country

THE players have kept the faith and there are men, women and children following them whose passion for their county cannot be quenched. Despite annual disappointments, Armagh supporters keep turning up in droves around the country.

That matters, says O’Neill.

“You feel it before the game and you feel it when you’re out on the pitch,” he explains.

“Football these days is all about momentum – you get one or two scores and the fans get behind you and you push on for another one.

“The Galway game in Croke Park (in 2022), I remember when we got the second goal it put us a point behind. The roar of the crowd… You couldn’t hear a thing and the place was absolutely bouncing.

“Then we won the free and Rian scored... That’s one that stands out but there’s been loads of times, especially playing at home. We haven’t been beaten at home this year and that’s testament to the crowd; they’re pushing us on all the time and you end up craving it a wee bit. It really is like a 16th man and we’re blessed we have some of the best fans in the country – there’ll be massive support in Sligo on Sunday.”

Armagh came within a whisker of an All-Ireland semi-final but were denied by Galway
Armagh and Galway face each other in a trilogy clash in Sligo on Sunday

SLIGO on Sunday is of course the trilogy match between Armagh and Galway. Familiar foes, it’s 1-1 between them over the last two seasons and O’Neill played in both previous games.

“It was mad the way they went,” he says.

“The first one was my first game in Croke Park. A lot of the boys hadn’t played there before and I was kind of blown-away by the occasion.

“You look around the place, up into the stands… It felt like an achievement even to get there, to get to a quarter-final. We kind of died off in the first 15 minutes of the second half and they got a decent lead on us (Galway led by six points when injury-time began) and I’m sure people thought the game was done.

“Then we got two mad goals (Aidan Nugent and Turbitt were the scorers) so it was all frantic from there. Extra-time and the penalties… The first time we got beat on penalties… It was a tough one to take.”

Last year the counties met again in a group decider at Carrick-on-Shannon. Armagh had lost the Ulster final (more penalties) and they travelled to Leitrim on the back of poor performances against Westmeath and Tyrone.

“There was a question mark hanging over us,” says O’Neill.

“People said we couldn’t win a tight game so that was the goal for us and we managed that.

“We ended up topping the group and there was a great celebration after it, all the fans were on the field… It was one of the good days. Everyone was very excited after that.”

Armagh's Conor O'Neill and Monaghan's Niall Kearns in action during the 2021 Ulster semi-final in Newry. Pic Philip Walsh
Armagh's Conor O'Neill and Monaghan's Niall Kearns in action during the 2021 Ulster semi-final in Newry. Pic Philip Walsh

BOTH counties know they can beat the other and they start again at zero at Markievicz Park on Sunday. The winners top the group, go straight into the quarter-finals and will have a chance of winning the Sam Maguire. It’ll be a long way back for the loser.

“Topping the group is massive,” says O’Neill.

“There’s so many great teams and if we don’t win on Sunday we could come up against one of them in the Qualifiers, so you really want to make sure you get yourself straight into a quarter-final.

“This time of year boys are picking up wee knocks and niggles so getting that extra bit of time to iron them out and get everybody fit and training is very important too.”

And if Armagh get past Galway, what then?

“I wouldn’t put a limit on them,” he says.

“It’s all about momentum, you’ve got to ride the high. We beat Westmeath, we beat Derry and it’ll be good to finish off this group with another win and then bring that into the quarter-final.

“We want a Dublin, or a Kerry or whoever it is. Even just to know where you’re at, you want to play the best teams because that brings you on. You have to go into every game believing you’re going to win and fancy yourself against anyone.”

With his right leg in a cast he won’t be in Sligo on Sunday. He’ll miss the game and the rest of this season and Armagh will miss him.

There’ll be hard times before they come, but there are better days ahead…