Jody O'Neill: from Coalisland teenage sensation to Tyrone GAA legend
“We caught a few trout - but didn’t get the salmon we wanted.”
THAT comment about a recent fishing trip might also serve as an analogy for Jody O’Neill’s playing career.
The Tyrone legend more than made his mark, but his Red Hands never lifted the biggest trophy of all, the Sam Maguire Cup.
Yet if modesty happened to be the deciding factor between winning and losing then Jody O’Neill would have several All-Irelands in his collection.
O’Neill did achieve one national triumph, managing Tyrone to become Junior Champions way back in 1968, with the late, great Art McRory as captain, but he’s remarkably low-key about his own playing ability, despite holding a place in history.
The Coalisland man not only became the first set of Red Hands to lift the Anglo-Celt Cup, in 1956, but he was also the youngest ever captain, at just 19.
Indeed, he’d made his Tyrone senior debut as a 16-year-old, and went on to feature for many seasons, into the late Sixties, before a couple of spells as the county senior football manager. In 2016, supporters selected him on an all-time Tyrone 'Dream Team'.
A regular on the Ulster Railway Cup (Inter-provincial) Football panels and teams too - yet, rather remarkably, he claims that he only ever played two really good games.
The first of those was in 1957, the All-Ireland SFC semi-final against Louth, when Tyrone had returned immediately to the last four, having made their Ulster senior breakthrough the year before.
“People say ‘Did you ever play well?’ I would only say I played well twice. In that particular match, I was on a higher plane because I had trained seven days a week, five on my own and two with the county.
“We were well on top,” says O’Neill, he and Mick Cushanhan of Derrylaughan getting the better of Louth’s vaunted midfield pairing of Kevin Behan and Dan O’Neill.
Tyrone’s team trainer, from Down, then made a fateful intervention, O’Neill recalls: “Gerry Brown asked me to change over and mark Dan O’Neill, he was doing fairly well on the Cusack Stand side. I said ‘No, let it go’. I was a strong personality, though maybe not strong enough. He came onto the field and said ‘Change onto Dan O’Neill’.
“I knew for that 15, 20 minutes I felt I was on another plane. We were leading 5-2. They beat us by six points. Dermot O’Brien was their man to go to in that particular match.”
According to Joe Martin, in his Tyrone GAA history ‘The Long Road to Glory’, O’Neill was also then hampered by injury, with the Red Hands also weakened by forwards Donal Donnelly and Frank Higgins being forced off.
Louth went on to win the All-Ireland, just as Galway had done in 1956 after squeezing past semi-final debutants Tyrone.
The hype was all Galway, Purcell and Stockwell, we were rank outsiders
The Red Hands would not reach an All-Ireland decider until nearly 20 years later, in 1986, and it wasn’t until 2003 that they would triumph at last.
The Sixties were largely a struggle for Tyrone, but O’Neill continued to excel as an individual.
Asked about the other game in which he felt he played well, he becomes genuinely emotional, before replying:
“Oh dear oh… Down had won the All-Ireland. In ’62 I was picked at centre half-forward [on the Ulster team] and the papers went ballistic.
“Now, James McCartan was a talisman for Down. I remember sitting in the Hogan Stand and when he got the ball the people straightened their back, you bristled nearly with expectation – and he wasn’t on the team.
“The papers weren’t saying I shouldn’t have been there but they were saying that he should have been on the team. So he should.
“The team was picked a week after the All-Ireland Final and my brother Patsy said ‘What are you going to do about all this?’
“I said, ‘Right, we’ll train seven days a week.’ October, November, December, January, February. We trained in the snow. We trained on Christmas Day, on New Year’s Day.
I had read about Herb Elliott and his Fartlek runs and I did Fartlek runs. I got fairly fit: there was a steep hill and then I went the full length and up the hills. That was truly, truly, the only time that I said I was ‘bombing’.”
All his preparation paid off, against one of the stars of the Dublin and Leinster sides of that era: “I was marking Des Foley – he was the man at the team, a fantastic player at both codes. I scored a point into the Railway goals and came running out past him and he says, ‘For f---‘s sake, stop running!’,” says Jody with a laugh.
Being lauded by one of the greats of Irish sports journalism - no, not now, but more than 60 years ago – has stayed with him.
It took him almost a minute to get these following comments out when he recalls the praise he received in a summary of that season:
“I can always… I get a bit… JD Hickey [legendary Irish Independent GAA scribe], he wrote – I suppose self-praise is no recommendation – but he wrote at the end of the year, his highlight of the year was the [pauses] ‘tour de force’ by O’Neill on St Patrick’s Day. That was a treasure for me. It made up for a lot.”
Born Joseph O’Neill on August 17, 1936, the second of six children, behind his aforementioned elder brother Patsy, he was actually a Clonoe cub.
Sitting in his home on Coalisland’s Main Street, where he ran his pharmacy practice for decades, he says of his birthplace: “Two mile down the road, Annaghaboe, where my parents lived for a while, born in Drumurrer.”
The young family moved into Coalisland town when ‘Jody’ was two or three, because his father “worked in local factories, yards, Kelly’s Yard, Coalisland Brick.”
The making of the footballer Jody O’Neill started at Primate Dixon Primary School, where Master Looney was principal, and staff included Master Foley from Cullyhanna, and Master Cavanagh, father of future local councillor Jim. Jody recalls Looney as “old aristocracy, bow tie and waistcoat”.
A much more memorable influence came outside school, from a Coalisland man Peter Mulgrew, who’d played for Tyrone: “He bought us a leather case ball – that was it, really. We felt we were big boys.
“Prior to that, it was who could scrounge a tennis ball, or we played with stuffed stockings. All clubs only had one ball. I went to matches until I was 20 and there was only one ball.”
From his Coalisland primary school he went on to the recently established St Patrick’s Academy in Dungannon.
His modesty again emerges when he puts his early success on the football fields down to being a ‘man-child’, already six feet tall when entering the Academy - but that doesn’t explain his longevity in the senior ranks.
He was clearly one of the better footballers in the county, although Coalisland Fianna boasted top talents such as the Devlins, Eddie and Jim and still went without a Tyrone SFC, or even a final appearance, from 1946 to 1955.
In that latter year they did reach the decider, and it was some singing beforehand that led to tunes of glory afterwards, recalls Jody:
“There used to be a fellow Francie Donnelly, who was a couple of years older than me, lived in Annagher, up near the football field. He always sang ‘The Hills of Pomeroy’ on the bus.
“He didn’t sing it that particular day and I was going ballistic for him to sing it, probably superstition. Finally he sang it going up Pomeroy main street. I think that settled me down.”
The Blues saw off Dungannon Clarke’s in that decider, but “celebrations were muted in those days. Not like today – fellas if they win something they’re off for a week.
“Quite a few people were Pioneers, non-alcoholic drinkers. You came home and knocked about the town, enjoyed the day, but that was it.
“I was playing senior county football then… Smoking and drinking, you hadn’t the money to do either, put it that way, that was a big factor.”
He’d obviously graduated to the Tyrone minors, captaining them to the Ulster MFC Final in 1953, but there was an element of chance to his involvement with the senior side:
“We had played a match in the Feis Shield up in Annagher. It transpired that there was a fall-out with the West, or Omagh footballers, and they didn’t arrive for a [senior] challenge match against Derry.
“So there weren’t enough Tyrone players. I was asked to play – well, you weren’t going to say ‘No’. So I played right half-forward and another player from Coalisland, Malachy Gervin, he played ‘top of the right’, and that made the 15. So…I like to boast about that,” he smiles.
Part of the senior set-up, he became skipper after that Tyrone SFC win in 1955: “Then you had the honour, at that particular time, the captain came from the team that won the previous year’s championship. Jim Devlin wasn’t on the panel and Edward [Devlin] was up in Dublin.
“I was asked would I do it. I was a bit dilatory because you were a teenager… Tom O’Sullivan said ‘For God’s sake, do it!’
“So I became captain, which was more or less leading the team out in the parade. But it was a great honour for me and the family as well.”
In 1956 O’Neill and Tyrone reached their first Ulster senior decider for 15 years by seeing off Derry then Monaghan – but the opposition was Cavan, then the dominant force in the northern province.
The Breffnimen were not only reigning Ulster champions, they were Tyrone’s bogey team.
Fourteen times the counties had met in senior championship football. Fourteen times Cavan had won, including in the 1954 semi-final, by 3-10 to 2-10.
Interestingly, O’Neill said “the bane of Tyrone football at that particular time was Derry…They stymied us at every turn. We just couldn’t get past them.”
So that 3-7 to 2-4 first round win over Derry in Dungannon was significant – and Tyrone stunned Cavan in Clones.
This wasn’t one of those two matches for which O’Neill praised himself, but Joe Martin wrote that Jody – the youngest player on the field - and his midfield partner Patsy Devlin, from Donaghmore, were “rampant” and “almost unbeatable”.
The Red Hands won handsomely, by 3-5 to 0-4.
“I can remember someone writing about the first win against Cavan and he talked about ‘the veteran O’Neill’; I said to myself, ‘a veteran at 19!’.
He turned down the chance to drink alcohol from the Anglo-Celt Cup, but there were to be more celebrations for Jody O’Neill as he moved into his 20s.
Tomorrow, Jody O’Neill speaks about management, the modern game, Tyrone’s triumph in 2003, and the Red Hand’s greats.