GAA Football

The stage is set for Armagh and Rian O'Neill - it's up to them to grab it

Armagh's Rian O'Neill hit the heights in the Championship sequel with Donegal earlier this month Picture: Philip Walsh.

RIAN O’Neill ambled towards the centre of the St Tiernach’s Park pitch, spat into his hands, rubbed them together and eye-balled Jason McGee and Michael Murphy before the ball was thrown up.

No handshakes were offered or required.

O’Neill grabbed Murphy’s attention by issuing a stiff arm into the Donegal leader’s chest – as if to say: this is a new day.

Murphy grinned through his protruding gum-shield, momentarily distracted by the pre-match shove.

But O’Neill was already airborne.

Ben Crealey, Armagh’s towering midfielder, impeded Murphy’s jump for the throw in while also managing to delay McGee for a millisecond.

Crealey will go down as the unsung hero of a majestic move.

McGee still tried to snare O’Neill by wrapping his arms around him; referee Brendan Cawley immediately awarded a free – but the Crossmaglen man had his head up and was scanning.

Boom! He launched an inch-perfect 60-metre ball into the hands of Rory Grugan on the edge of Donegal’s square.

In one sweet movement the Ballymacnab playmaker caressed the ball into the top right-hand corner of the net with his left foot, and one of the most exhilarating moments of the 2022 All-Ireland Championship was conceived.

Despite some first-half turbulence after that early goal, Armagh ran over the top of Donegal.

O’Neill weighed in with a game-winning 1-7, banishing the bitter memory of Ballybofey six weeks earlier.

The mercurial 23-year-old had arrived on the inter-county stage – or at least that was the perception.

“People were saying that Donegal was his break-out game but they’re forgetting what he did against Monaghan last year,” says former Armagh defender and O’Neill’s Crossmaglen team-mate Aaron Kernan.

“He was unbelievable in a game that was going against us.

“He was everywhere. He was hitting his frees, winning his contested ‘marks’ in the middle of the field, putting the long ball in for Conor Turbitt’s goal. Last week wasn’t his break-out game. He didn’t ‘arrive’ against Donegal.

“We lost a couple of county finals [2020 and 2021] and the performances he put in when he was 19 or 20 years of age were brilliant.

“In the Gweedore game [2018 Ulster semi-final], where we just never turned up, he kept us in the game, kicking points left and right foot, winning ball, taking men on. The problem was the rest of us didn’t get up to the level he was at.”

In his debut season with Armagh in 2019, he racked up 3-21 in five Championship games.

In 2020, COVID was many teams’ season wrecker, including Armagh who exited after two Championship games – a win over Derry and a heavy defeat to Donegal in the provincial series.

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RIAN and Oisin O’Neill were born into a football-mad family in Crossmaglen. Kicking the ball was in the south Armagh club’s DNA.

O’Neill hasn’t diluted or disowned his footballing roots one iota since breaking into the Armagh set-up.

“A lot of these things come down to nature versus nurture,” says John McEntee of Crossmaglen.

“Rian has grown up immersed in football. He’s got real confidence in his ability from both sides of the house. His Dad [Gareth] was a fine footballer, won an All-Ireland with ’Cross and played for Armagh and Louth.

“And his mum [Dora, sister of Oisin McConville] is steeped in it.”

In an interview with The Irish News last month, elder sibling by just 18 months, Oisin, remembers the back garden being their battleground.

“Sometimes my mam’s hand would have been sore beating the windows at us,” Oisin says.

“We always played in the same underage teams from U8 right up. At St Colman’s we played MacRory Cup together. I was 7th year and Rian was 5th year. I couldn’t tell you the last time I played a game and he wasn’t involved in it.”

Stylistically, St Colman’s, Newry couldn’t have been a better fit for O’Neill.

“Rian came from a kicking background with Crossmaglen,” says St Colman’s renowned coach Cathal Murray, “and that style of play fitted in perfectly as we’ve always had a strong kicking tradition at the college. He had freedom to go and play football.”

“He’s watched good teams kick the ball in ’Cross,” McEntee says. “It is part of who we are and how we play football, that was his upbringing. So Rian’s natural instinct is to look for the pass. Players are conditioned by a particular style so I would say he was influenced by football at home.”

He won a Dalton Cup in 2012 – beating Omagh CBS in the second year final - but later in his college career he suffered final anguish in the Corn na nOg and Rannafast Cups.

Despite those defeats he was awarded a College Allstar at number 11 in 2015 and was destined for the elite grade.

But a MacRory Cup winner’s medal eluded him.

Hotly tipped to win the St Patrick’s Day showpiece against St Mary’s, Magherafelt in 2017, Murray had an awful sense of foreboding in the opening seconds when Colman’s spurned a goal chance.

O’Neill caught the ball from the throw-in and embarked on an unstoppable run before off-loading to Finn McElroy, but the Down man's drive was well blocked by Convent ‘keeper and Derry’s current number one Odhran Lynch.

Even in defeat that day, O’Neill showed his marquee quality.

“The boys just loved him, they looked up to him and respected him,” Murray recalls.

“He was a real role model not only to his peers but the young ones in the school. Physically, he was so well developed. He trained the way he played – hard, fair and always intense.

“If you needed him at 14 or 11 or midfield he could do any of those roles. He’d be great on kick-outs, could supply the ball inside. Wherever he was needed he was put and he dominated in that position. Rian always got great support from his parents Gareth and Dora.”

Those who know him say he’s quite a reserved character. “Quiet as a mouse”, says Kernan. “He'll certainly not overpower any conversation.”

If it’s possible to provide an answer with 10 words, O’Neill will give you nine.

You’ll never hear him ranting and raving or banging tables before games either.

“I’d consider him to be confident but he doesn’t strike me as someone who is arrogant or obtuse,” says McEntee.

Following their soul-sapping Ulster defeat up in Ballybofey two months ago - where O’Neill didn’t score - the Armagh camp consoled themselves with the fact that they were still only two wins away from an All-Ireland quarter-final berth at Croke Park.

They recovered brilliantly and breezed past defending All-Ireland champions Tyrone and gained revenge on bogey team Donegal in the Qualifiers and now face Connact champions Galway this weekend.

Armagh are one of the most talked-about teams left in the Sam Maguire race, probably due to the fact it’s eight years since they last breached the latter stages.

With their fascinating ascension comes more scrutiny, particularly for the leaders of Kieran McGeeney’s team.

Joe Brolly maintains Rian O'Neill has a bit to prove to be regarded as a great player

So just how good is Rian O’Neill?

It depends who you ask.

For Gaelic football pundit Joe Brolly, O’Neill still has some road to travel to reach the gold standards of the modern-day greats of the game, but feels he has the rich potential to do so.

“You’ve got a player here who has everything – pace, power, athleticism, two feet, kicking it off the ground,” Brolly says.

“So the question is, why is he not a David Clifford? Why is he not playing like that because his level of ability is extraordinary, well beyond your normal, very good county footballer. He’s still young.

“Clifford embraced his talent very young and immediately accepted the responsibility that comes with being a great footballer, i.e. ‘I will win this f***ing game for my team. That is my role. My role on the pitch is to be the deciding factor. I will be a Brian Fenton, a Con O’Callaghan, or a Ciaran Kilkenny. I will not play passively…’

“But he is not fully embracing the responsibility that comes with his talent. I think we’ve seen it in glimpses…

“Players like David Clifford and Con O’Callaghan always perform in ‘the clutch’ [of games] and have guided their team to victory and turned games around.

“Rian has now had a couple of good games – not great games given the nature of his ability but he must constantly accept responsibility and constantly perform in ‘the clutch’ because that’s what his ability deserves. I believe he can be a great player and he can guide his county to great things…”

Brolly adds: “Put it this way, if Rian O’Neill scores a goal on Sunday, it’s highly likely Armagh will beat Galway because of the huge lift that will give the crowd.

“What Galway will want is Rian playing out around the middle area of the field, picking up the ball and laying it off. Of course he can pass a ball and all of that. My point is that he must lead his team now because he has the ability to do it.”

Weighing up Brolly’s lofty Clifford comparison, Kernan feels O’Neill offers Armagh things Clifford doesn’t offer Kerry and that his Crossmaglen team-mate has always been totally unfazed by pressure.

“Rian can hit 1-7 inside but he’ll win turnovers in the middle of the field whenever we’re desperate to win a ball,” Kernan says.

“He will be back in his own square fetching ball over his goalkeeper’s head.

“David Clifford can’t do that. Or if he can, I’ve never seen him doing it. Also, look at the team David Clifford is on – I know they haven’t won an All-Ireland – but his whole team are probably on a different plane to where Armagh are at right now.

“Now, if Armagh keep going the way they’re going and add in a few players, we might be able to leave Rian inside all the time.

“Sometimes we look at people through different glasses.

“Rian is a player people come to see play. We’re blessed to have someone of his ability in Crossmaglen and Armagh at the moment.”

What’s irrefutable, however, is how Rian O’Neill has radically changed the dynamic of Geezer's Armagh team.

With him in their ranks, they’re a more self-assured unit.

Kernan likens O’Neill to his uncle Oisin and how ‘Cross always felt “safe” when the 2002 All-Ireland winner was on the field.

McEntee adds: “In a lot of the top teams, you’ve plenty of players who are very, very good. In that Armagh squad, there are a lot of excellent footballers – players who might not be great inside but are good at half-forward or wing-back.

“Every good team needs a bit of high quality about it, a cut above the rest – and Rian fits that brief.”

From an Armagh perspective and indeed neutrals all around the country, Croke Park beckons for one of the best footballers to emerge from the Orchard County in a generation.

Crossmaglen's Aaron Kernan insists his club-mate Rian O'Neill will be unfazed by the big stage

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