Ronan O'Neill doesn't look back in anger as he embraces Fermanagh role

Ronan O'Neill (centre) is enjoying his coaching role in Fermanagh
Ronan O'Neill (centre) is enjoying his coaching role in Fermanagh Ronan O'Neill (centre) is enjoying his coaching role in Fermanagh

A YEAR after announcing his retirement at the relatively young age of 30, former Tyrone forward Ronan O’Neill has “totally made peace” with his decision.

In an emotional interview with The Irish News last January, the Omagh clubman explained that he couldn’t put himself through another year with the Red Hands after being left out of their 2021 All-Ireland final squad.

O’Neill was one of a handful of players who stepped away from Tyrone duty after the county won their fourth All-Ireland.

Still in his peak years, O’Neill has no regrets about his decision to retire and concentrated on his club St Enda’s, Omagh – not before accepting Kieran Donnelly’s surprise offer of becoming part of the Fermanagh backroom team in 2023 alongside Fearghal Quinn, Pat Cadden, Stevie and Leon Carters, Niall Smyth, Stephen Jackson and Ger Treacy.

“I’ve totally made peace with it in fairness,” O’Neill said, who got married at the end of last year.

“It’s funny, when you go into coaching and being involved with Omagh U19s towards the end of 2022, you see the flip side of it as well.

“I gave 10 years of my life and I suppose you have to appreciate the journey more than the end as it probably consumed everything.

“Not everything ends in fairy-tales. When I reflect over the last year, the memories, my own stag and seeing some of the Tyrone boys at my wedding, you make so many friends… but playing for Tyrone is gone now and I’m happy to contribute some small part to Fermanagh.

“I missed the Tyrone boys, big time. I missed the camaraderie and the craic. I always enjoyed gelling the young boys with the older boys and creating that bond.

“I missed that aspect and doing a tough session and appreciating the benefit of it afterwards. Of course, you don’t miss the cold, wet nights up in Garvaghey, and you don’t miss going away on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday and missing out on family events.

“I had my fun playing with Tyrone but from the other perspective I want to enjoy other aspects of my life. But it’s a double-edged sword. Most players would probably tell you the same when they step away from it.”

O’Neill was in brilliant form for Omagh throughout the club season, finishing third in the scoring charts, but always his own worst critic, he shoulders some of the responsibility for his side’s quarter-final exit last October.

“It was probably one of the best years I’ve had up until the championship match against Dromore when I couldn’t hit a barn door.

“We lost 0-6 to 0-5 and I missed a number of free-kicks. Out of all the games leading up to it, I think I missed five frees in total. My shooting accuracy was on point and then I scored a point out of seven attempts against Dromore.

“So it’s something I want to rectify next year. I was in the shape of my life and I enjoyed the responsibility with the club and the freedom of just being a club footballer again.

“I’ve enjoyed the down time too and my time with my now wife, my best friends and my brothers – so it’s been a brilliant year and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it.”

He attended a few of Tyrone’s League and Championship matches last season but felt he wasn’t bringing his former team-mates and friends much luck, so he doesn’t plan on watching too many of their games in 2023.

“I went to the Dublin game and they lost and I went to the Derry Championship game and they lost that, so I don’t think I’m a good omen to be honest.

“I thought they’d kick on against Armagh. I was at the Athletic Grounds that day too and they lost again. I don’t know whether I’d go back to watch them this year or not, with time commitments to Fermanagh - but I’ve a lot of friends in the squad and I want to support them.”

When he accepted Donnelly’s offer of joining Fermanagh’s coaching team, O’Neill was initially daunted by the prospect.

“It’s okay taking underage teams and people you know in your own club - but these boys expect the best of the best and you’ve got to be on it.

“I’d try and plan three or four nights ahead. Once you get into the flow of it you realise what they want and you try and create a bit of a buzz, you’re enthusiastic and passionate about it and you just hope that rubs off on the players.

“To be fair, they have been fairly receptive, and just being out of the inter-county bubble and knowing how the game is being played at the moment and playing at a high club level too, helps. I’m thoroughly enjoying it and getting a bit of a buzz out of it.”

O’Neill, though, sees his role more than simply coaching the Fermanagh forwards and has tried to be that conduit between the players and management team.

“Maybe the players can bounce things off me and I can go to the management. I can now understand what a manager is thinking but I can understand the player point of view as well and what they need, whether it’s a night off and where sometimes less is more.

“I know these players want to get as much as possible out of themselves too. It’s just trying to find that balance so everyone is singing off the same hymn sheet. So I’ve a greater appreciation of things and how the players are the most important people. It’s been thoroughly enjoyable and I couldn’t have asked for a better start.”