GAA Football

'I just couldn't go through another year with Tyrone' - Ronan O'Neill

Ronan O'Neill reflects on his last year with Tyrone and why he decided to step away Picture: Hugh Russell

FOR the best part of a decade Ronan O’Neill loved playing for Tyrone. For him, it was the ultimate privilege.

Some years it was pure magic – the chipped goals, ridiculous points, the ‘Dab’ celebrations, podium appearances and the chaos and imagination he brought to a football field.

Other years, playing for Tyrone tortured his soul.

Read More: Ronan O'Neill - a special talent the Omagh man was only too happy to share

Last season, which turned out to be his last, was one of those years. During Tyrone’s incredible run to the 2021 All-Ireland title, O’Neill didn’t know from one game to the next whether he would be involved.

He was part of the victorious Ulster final squad that overcame Monaghan, coming on as a 66th minute substitute, and was named in the Tyrone squad for the All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry a month later.

Would the St Enda’s Omagh clubman make Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher’s 26-man All-Ireland final squad?

The form line and the steady selection policy suggested yes, but if he’d learned anything in his 10 years with Tyrone, absolutely nothing was guaranteed.

“We’d normally train Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, but after the Kerry game we went Monday, Wednesday, Friday and my brother’s wedding was on the Friday in Carlingford and I was best man,” O’Neill explains.

“Management said: ‘Go to the wedding’.

“And I said: ‘Well, I’m not going if it’s going to impact on me getting into the squad because it’s the All-Ireland final. I’m not doing anything to jeopardise my place in the squad because I was in the squad for the Kerry game.

“But Feargal said: ‘It’ll not jeopardise it at all.’”

Management were giving no guarantees – just an assurance that attending his brother’s wedding eight days out from the final wasn’t going to have any tangible impact one way or the other.

O’Neill mulled it over, chatted to his brother and after some torturous deliberation he felt he couldn’t afford to miss Friday night’s training session.

He went to his brother's wedding, gave his best man speech, left the hotel at 6pm, raced up the road and arrived at Garvaghey at 7.25pm still in his tuxedo. The best dressed man ever to attend a Tyrone training session.

“When I arrived the team were doing video work, I got changed, trained, back in the tuxedo, back down to the wedding and stayed. I obviously didn’t drink, it didn’t enter my head.

“We were training on Sunday morning at nine o’clock, up the road again, trained, did well. It was match scenarios – four 10-minute games. Not that I thought that that would swing it in my favour but I was doing well to merit staying in the squad.”

A teacher at St Joseph’s College, Coalisland, the kids were the perfect distraction for O’Neill in the week leading up to the All-Ireland final against Mayo.

Sitting on 99 appearances for his county, the All-Ireland final would bring it up to a cool century.

“I knew after the Ulster final against Monaghan that I was on 99 games and I would target the All-Ireland semi-final or final. Id get to 100 and that would be it.

“I’d mentioned to a couple of close friends – Tiernan McCann, Conor Meyler, and a few other boys - at the start of the year it would be my last year and that I would give my all.

“I got myself into ridiculous shape. I worked with Meyler over lockdown, I went to the well. I was in a really good place when Tyrone started up again.”

After Tyrone’s All-Ireland breakthrough win over Kerry at the end of August, the drum roll had well and truly begun around the O’Neill County, with the schools being the excitable hub.

Some pupils would whisper and point in the corridors: ‘Mr O’Neill is playing for Tyrone in the All-Ireland final.”

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THURSDAY night before the final. The moment of truth. Ronan O’Neill is called to speak to management.

He can’t believe what he’s hearing. He hasn’t made the squad.

“I knew it was coming once I was called over,” he says.

“They pulled me aside and I said: ‘This cannot be happening.’ I kept saying: ‘I’m always the fall guy’. As soon as they talked I just zoned out.

“This was potentially my last game and I was not even in the squad. I remember trying not to be an energy-sapper. It was hard. I put my hoodie up and they were talking to the team. The boys could see I was annoyed. A number of boys came over to me and were saying: ‘Keep the head up. We need you to help the team on the day.’ And I was thinking: ‘How am I not going to play this last game for Tyrone?’

“I got into the car and burst out crying. I was in a bad way. I got home and went straight to my bed. Next day the school was giving me a send-off and I didn’t want to be there.

“As soon as I left school, I said: ‘Right, I need to get my head around this. We’ve a final to play, I’m one of the more experienced members of the team and I need to be positive because if I don’t it’s going to seep into the rest of the group.’

“In the changing room before the game it was hard and I was thinking: ‘I’d just love to be one of those boys togging out. I imagined all week that I would come on and kick a point, do something in the game, and that was taken away. It was really hard to deal with, but I just had to give whatever I had to other boys… Thankfully we got over the line on the day.”

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UPON Logan and Dooher taking the reins in 2021, opportunities in the Tyrone team had opened up significantly.

A few more out-and-out forward berths had been created in the starting line-up – good news for O’Neill – plus Gaelic football appeared to be coming back into the light from the defensive darkness of the previous decade.

The 29-year-old attacker didn’t feature in Division One North wins over Donegal and Armagh or in the drawn game against Monaghan.

With things going from bad to worse down in Killarney, however, O’Neill was thrust into the action for the start of the second half in place of Paul Donaghy against a rampant Kerry.

He nabbed a point but was helpless to stop the Kingdom putting six goals past the Ulstermen.

Tyrone were forced to re-appraise everything, and that entailed personnel changes. Darragh Canavan also suffered injury in Killarney which opened up a space in the attack.

The squad was laced with attacking quality. Darren McCurry was moving well, Niall Sludden too, Conor McKenna seemed a shoo-in most days, Mattie Donnelly, Mark Bradley, Paul Donaghy’s star burned brightly at the beginning of the NFL campaign and Cathal McShane was inching back to full fitness.

O’Neill, though, was firmly in Logan and Dooher’s eye-line.

But come Tyrone’s first Ulster Championship outing of the summer against a Cavan team at a low ebb, O’Neill didn’t make the cut.

“Now, it was cut throat all year,” O’Neill says. “It kept people on their toes. I just felt I should have got a chance. You can ask any of the boys. During that period of eight weeks after the Kerry hammering I was going extremely well.

“I felt after the Kerry defeat the script would be ripped up and I’d get a chance on my home ground against Cavan. You get in the team and stay there, but it didn’t happen. I was scratching my head when I didn’t even make the squad.

“I remember thinking then I didn’t want to go back. It was a couple of weeks to a semi-final and a possible Ulster final; anything could happen. I just wanted to play football. I was in the shape of my life and I was playing well, I wanted people to see this…”

Against his own instincts he went to training on the Tuesday after the Cavan win. He spoke to no-one, played centre half-forward in an in-house game and kicked four points.

‘Right,” he thought. ‘They have to put in the squad for the next match.’

Days before the eagerly awaited semi-final with Donegal, numbers 16 to 26 were called out.

Still no O’Neill.

“What is going on here? Boys were coming up to me and asking: ‘Why are you not playing?’

“I’d have a deadly relationship with most of the forwards because you know what type of balls to kick in. I played well alongside ‘Sparky’ [Mark Bradley] and Darren McCurry all year, and the other forwards too. I remember McCurry saying in training: ‘That man has to play.’

“If he’s saying it and the backroom team is saying I’m close, I was going home so confused. I wasn’t nice to be around all year. But how can I question Feargal and Brian – they won the All-Ireland at the end of the day.”

All-Ireland heartache awaited Richie Donnelly too. Playing the shirt off his back against Cavan, O’Neill’s 2010 All-Ireland minor team-mate suffered an injury, had to withdraw and never got back in the squad for the rest of the campaign.

Rory Brennan was another. Picked up a black card against Donegal and couldn’t muscle his way back into the reckoning.

Ronan O'Neill turns on the style for Omagh in the Ulster Club Championship Picture: Margaret McLaughlin 

AFTER Tyrone seized their fourth All-Ireland title on September 11 O’Neill masked his disappointment by enjoying every last drop of the celebrations that last three or four days.

But 2021 has had scarring effect – to the point where O’Neill sought professional help from a sports psychologist in a bid to make sense of a torturous year.

“That’s why I couldn’t go for another year. I couldn’t go through that again, mentally,” he says.

“I had to go and see somebody. I went to a sports psychologist. I needed somebody to talk to about it, somebody to bounce off. I was in a bad way.

“I couldn’t go back another year, play in the McKenna Cup, play the first few rounds of the League, Tyrone lose, you have an okay game, but I’m getting sacked because x, y and z are coming back from rehab and they’re coming straight in again and then you’re wondering why you’re not playing.

“Then you’re complaining to your girlfriend, your mummy and daddy. It’s just a constant cycle. I don’t want to do that. The best football I played was after lockdown, I played eight games and I ended up top scorer in Tyrone all year because I was playing with complete freedom. I was happy. There’s nothing worse when you’re not playing football.”

A couple of weeks after Tyrone’s All-Ireland victory, O’Neill is lining out for Omagh down in Derrylaughan: “They’re playing 15 men behind the ball, rain pissing down…I just didn’t want to be there.”

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SITTING in a café on the outskirts of Dungannon on a dank Wednesday at tea-time, you sense the emotion in O’Neill’s voice as he tells how his Tyrone career ended at just 29.

There’s not a trace of resentment towards Logan or Dooher. They did what they had to do. They won the All-Ireland. They delivered on Tyrone’s rich promise.

O’Neill totally gets that. He also knows that other team-mates suffered a similar fate.

Since he was a teenager, Ronan O’Neill was destined for great things.

He starred in Tyrone’s 2010 All-Ireland minor winning team and was truly humbled and forever indebted to Mickey Harte for calling him into the senior squad in 2012.

In March of that year, he suffered a cruciate injury while training with the U21s and it probably took him longer than expected to get back to his flamboyant best.

When O'Neill hit the high notes there was none better. He was simply awesome.

Club and county honours followed in a roller-coaster career that experienced as many highs as it did lows.

Defensive formations undoubtedly hurt the trajectory of his career. In another era his narrative may have been different.

Logan and Dooher wanted him to stay on for the 2022 season, but after some soul-searching O’Neill thanked both men and politely declined.

On New Year’s Eve, while on the team holiday in Orlando, O’Neill confirmed the news on his Twitter account.

“Tough to go. Was worth it all. Been a pleasure. Thanks to all who helped me achieve my dream, especially my family and Justina. Onto the next chapter.”

*In Monday’s second part of Ronan O’Neill’s story he talks about the difficulty in saying goodbye to his Tyrone team-mates, what life was like in Tyrone’s tactical bubble for 10 years and reflects on the better days of his playing career with contributions from Raymond Munroe, Paddy Crozier and Conor Meyler…

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