Jody O'Neill: Tyrone's triumph of 2003 and memories of men who paved the way
CAPTAIN of a landmark Ulster-winning Tyrone team while still a teenager, manager when they ended a 16-year drought, but Jody O’Neill had to wait another 30 years before Red Hands finally lifted the Sam Maguire Cup.
When that so much longed for day came, he admits: “There was a tear. Never thought I’d be that emotional.”
The Coalisland man had done so much to elevate Tyrone football towards those heights so his wife Yvonne – who sadly passed away earlier this year – insisted that they go down onto the sacred ground.
“I said, ‘Come on, we’ll leave’. She said ‘No, we’ll go down on to the pitch…I want a bit of the turf.’”
- Jody O'Neill: from Coalisland teenage sensation to Tyrone GAA legend
- Glory Days... Conor Gormley recalls Tyrone's historic All-Ireland triumph in 2003
Yvonne was from strong GAA stock herself, a niece of Fr Peter Campbell, after whom Coalisland Fianna re-named their home ground.
She was the memory-keeper in the O’Neill household, says Jody: “There’s bits in drawers. Five Railway Cup medals, a few McKenna Cup medals, things like that…I’m not a hoarder.
“My wife, Yvonne, oh, everything, photographs with every signature of the Tyrone players of 2003 and 2005, hanging up on the wall. Even a photo of a 1928 Royal School [Dungannon] rugby team.”
Before leaving discussion of that 2003 Final, 20 years ago this Thursday, O’Neill insists on praising Tyrone’s vanquished opponents:
“Armagh were unbelievably gracious. They had won it the year before and it had to be hard to take, their neighbours beating them. But that stands out as a nice memory.”
Even winning Ulster had seemed beyond Tyrone, until O’Neill led them to a first ever senior championship win over Cavan in the 1956 provincial Final.
No one expected any more of the Red Hands, but they pushed Galway hard, only a stunning save from the Tribesmen’s goalkeeper Jack Mangan helping them to a 0-8 to 0-6 win.
“The hype was all Galway,” remembers Jody, “they’d a good team, the likes of [Sean] Purcell and [Frank] Stockwell. We were rank outsiders.”
Tyrone returned to the All-Ireland semi-finals the next year, after retaining the Anglo-Celt Cup by defeating Derry in the Ulster decider. Unfortunately injuries forced off forwards Donal Donnelly and Frank Higgins, and hampered O’Neill himself, and Louth prevailed by six points.
Again Tyrone’s conquerors went on to win the All-Ireland.
Yet for all the quality of O’Neill himself, who was a regular for Ulster through the mid-Sixties, and men such as Frankie Donnelly, the Red Hands didn’t reach the provincial final again for 15 years.
By then, in 1972, Jody O’Neill was manager.
He’s typically self-deprecating about how he came to be in that role, having started out as player-manager:
“Nobody would take the senior team. I don’t know who they approached, maybe Donal Donnelly. I was still playing.
“Paddy O’Neill [Tyrone county board chairman] said it was a county committee decision.
“I felt honoured, but I realised after a few matches you just can’t do it [player-manager]. You can’t call the shots the way you should, can’t be clinical and positive. I decided it was time to stop and just become manager, of the seniors and juniors – won the Junior All-Ireland that year, ’68. We managed a trip to the States again [having been there in 1957], that was great.”
He lauds the displays of future Tyrone senior boss, the late Art McRory: “We played Mayo [in the All-Ireland Home Final], Art was centre half-back, and it was a very muddy field at Carrick-on-Shannon.
“We were behind in the last five minutes. Frank McCartan generally would have taken the 50-yard kicks, but with the ball so muddy and heavy we shouted at Art to take them.
“Art toe-pointed it over…We won the kick-out, got another 50. Art took the second one and we got to the All-Ireland Final.” That proved to be a comfortable win over London, helped by two early goals from Coalisland’s aptly-named John Early.
Senior management wasn’t so easy, however, with first-time exits until 1972 – but then Donegal made their own Ulster breakthrough, beating Tyrone in the final with Brian McEniff as player-manager.
Tyrone and O’Neill got their revenge on the champions in 1973’s ‘Battle of Ballybofey’, then defeated Fermanagh, before comfortably beating Down in the decider.
However, they were thrashed by Cork in the All-Ireland semi-final, 5-10 to 2-4, albeit with three of the Rebels’ goals coming late on, and O’Neill stepped down.
“There was pressure of family, I had taken over the local [pharmacy] shop – I just hadn’t time. I also felt at that particular time we weren’t going anywhere.
“I didn’t think from the 70s until 2003 that we had a team capable of winning. We got close enough against Kerry [in the 1986 All-Ireland Final] and then blew it.”
Jody’s Junior captain from 1986, McRory, took Tyrone to their second All-Ireland Final in 1995, a controversial loss to Dublin.
When the Dungannon man stepped aside due to illness during his third spell in charge in 2002, he was replaced amid some acrimony by Mickey Harte.
“In 11 months’ time Mickey had won the All-Ireland,” notes O’Neill, “with the aid of Paddy Tally. I don’t think Paddy ever gets enough credit.”
Jody himself never managed Coalisland seniors, pointing out, “I had four sons all playing, it wasn’t the place to be.” However, “for 15 or more years me and Benny Corr took the minors, won three Minor Championships.”
He did venture just outside the county borders, managing Maghery in Armagh and Ballinderry in Derry.
His one short stint as provincial boss also illustrated both his strength of character and innate decency:
“One year I managed Ulster, it was [Down legend] Sean O’Neill’s last game. Someone had cried off, Sean was a sub. It would have made his eighth Railway Cup [medal]. I gave him the jersey at training, out at Clongowes on the Sunday morning.
“The boul’ Gerry Arthurs, who was [Ulster] Treasurer, he was most upset that I had given it to him. I thought the man owed Ulster and football nothing. I had a tiff with Arthurs especially.
“Arthurs then came to me and said ‘Look, I’ve no lift home, would you take me home to Armagh?’ So I took him home. That’s the way it should be.”
Now 87, Jody O’Neill is still going strong, still going to matches, club and county, in Tyrone and beyond.
He has grandchildren playing the game, at Minor and U20 levels, but, of course, doesn’t talk them up: “I’ll not say too much. I’ve hopes,” he comments with a slight smile.
If they’re a quarter as good as their granda they’ll do the O’Neill name and the O’Neill county proud.
The Devlins, Jones, McGuigan, Canavan - and Donnelly
Jody O’Neill didn’t have to look far to see two of the best Tyrone players ever – fellow Coalisland men, brothers Jim and Eddie Devlin. The latter only passed away, aged 92, less than a month ago; the former was murdered by loyalists in 1974.
Asked for contenders among the greatest Red Hands he played alongside, he said: “Eddie Devlin would have to come into it, although I only played a couple of years with him. He went back to his [dentistry] work. He was majestic.
“Eddie Devlin was a brilliant reader [of the game]. The ball was kicked and he was in position before it landed. He didn’t even let it land, he took it on the run. Very graceful movement. We used to have a lot of ‘ploughmen’ in those years…”
He recounts a tale of Jim Devlin’s athletic prowess: “Jim was at [St Patrick’s] Armagh. The Ulster Athletics Championships were at Blackwatertown.
They got him to run 100 yards, 220 yards, 440, 880, and the mile – and he won the five.
“Jim then went over to play in the Minor seven-a-sides, eight teams. I always can remember, he scored 33 goals. He was lightning fast.”
Another student at Armagh was a Dungannon Clarke’s star too: “Iggy Jones certainly stood out. Jones was, for his size, a remarkable athlete.
“A man that’s never much mentioned is Frankie Donnelly. Frankie was a fantastic player.
“Then Jack Taggart would have been the man. I played quite a bit with Mick Cushnahan in midfield. Mick was a grafter, a hard, hard worker – he worked down the coal mines in Coalisland. Paddy Corey of Omagh is another worth mentioning.”
Over all his years of playing and watching Tyrone football, from the 1940s onwards, he agrees that the best ever should include Peter Canavan, Frank McGuigan, and Iggy Jones – but he adds another name:
“For consistency of performance in those lean years, Frankie Donnelly would have to be there. He topped the scoring charts in a couple of seasons, maybe three years.
“Canavan, of course, and McGuigan, Jones, and Frankie Donnelly, they’d be my top four.”
As for opponents?
“Sean Ferriter of Donegal. There were only a few men in my lifetime who were like basketball players, that could rise from a standing start: Jim McKeever of Derry, Cathal O’Leary of Dublin, and Sean Ferriter.”
Restrict hand-passing, remove shoulder charges
Jody O’Neill has always been a thinker about Gaelic football. More than 30 years ago, in a 1992 interview with ‘Hogan Stand Magazine’, he spoke about the need for a split season, separating out club and inter-county schedules.
He’s not a nostalgic old man who lives in the past either, having often voiced criticism of the limited tactics in his playing days.
The Coalisland clubman also still regularly attends club and county matches. He’s far from a ‘it was better in my day’ merchant.
So his opinions on the modern game merit attention – and he believes hand-passing should done away with it, or at least be severely limited:
“I think [former Donegal star and manager] Brian McEniff started it all.
“Do away with the hand-pass. Problem solved. You can make a concession to that: allow a couple of hand-passes inside the 20-metre line, at both ends – but you must score with a kick.
“To me, that would be the biggest and best change. This yo-yo-ing across the field is terrible to behold.
“Maybe Kerry and Dublin are a wee bit more positive – but I couldn’t believe in the All-Ireland Final Kerry resorting to going across the field as much as some of the lesser teams.”
O’Neill would also like to see the shoulder charge removed from Gaelic Football. Getting the timing right is so difficult, and he points to another problem, speaking as a man over six feet tall:
“I couldn’t shoulder charge you properly either [because of our height difference].
“In Gaelic football, there’s nearly always a confrontation after a heavy shoulder charge. The elbow comes flying up automatically.
“It doesn’t enhance the game in any way. The shoulder charge has to go out of the game.
“Compare to Ladies Football, which is getting a bit more robust, there’s no shoulder charging in it. Hurling is atrocious, it’s confrontation that people sometimes appreciate more than a score. It’s scandalous.”
As for the tackle, he’s equally scathing, saying: “Players straddle, piggy back, there’s the odd knee-drag, the odd boot. They’re not tackling the ball.”