Declan Bogue: O’Neill’s class never in doubt
On Monday night at the Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards, I was fortunate enough to be seated beside Sean O'Neill and his wife Breege.
The theory goes that journalists are not supposed to hold famous sporting figures in awe. O'Neill is a different case though. Like many other Fermanagh folks, my grandfather followed the Down team of the 1960's avidly. O'Neill was the name that carried down the generations, a byword for adventure and daring.
Along with his accomplishments on the field, he has played a wider role within the Association. His study of media time and resources spent on covering Gaelic games in Ulster forced a change in attitudes and continues to be felt to this day, yet he feels there is more distance to be covered.
Throughout the evening, O'Neill jotted down notes of the prize winners and who presented the awards. On the back of his hand, some faint notes in biro ink were fading. He is known to carry a pocket book with him to Down matches and make notes while a game is in progress.
You get what I am saying — this is a man with a restless and highly active mind.
In deference to Mark Twain's wisdom that it is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one's mouth and remove all doubt, my role while in company like that is to sit tight, listen, and hope that some of it sinks in.
And O'Neill was terrific company. Generous in his thoughts, stories and opinions, he described in great detail how he feels that Mick O'Dwyer's achievements as manager has led to his ability as a player being underestimated.
He revealed how a favoured attacking movement of his Down team involved Paddy Doherty slicing a ball inside just at the point that O'Neill would cut through the middle. But it could not work against Kerry, such was O'Dwyer's awareness of space, speed and angles.
There was also an appreciation of how Mick O'Connell viewed playing football as an art form, relaying to O'Neill once that he played football for the feeling he got as his hands closed on a high ball.
As a key attacker on the Down teams of the 1960's, footballing historians place O'Neill's abilities in a bracket that few others share.
He has been recognised by his peers on both the Team of the Century, and the Team of the Millennium, joining 'The Gallant' John Joe O'Reilly as the only Ulster representatives.
Naming commemorative teams is always a subjective exercise, but O'Neill to an extent was vexed at the exclusion of current Down manager James McCartan from the recent Ulster GAA Writer's Association jubilee team. He has a point. As a schoolboy, McCartan produced superhuman performances for St Colman's College in winning the Hogan Cup. He was only 15 among a team of 18-year-olds.
Down had been listing and going through the motions until he arrived onto the county scene with a mixture of chutzpah and cockiness. After he played such an enormous part in their 1991 All-Ireland, Donegal and then Derry came along to chalk up their first All-Ireland triumphs.
Not happy with that, McCartan was back in 1994 in a different position, scoring the point of the year against then-reigning champions Derry on their home patch in the heat of Championship.
It was off the back of watching other counties become successful and mixing as students in the Belfast universities that Armagh, then Tyrone finally got their act together and dominated football for a period.
Joe Brolly once described McCartan as 'the most influential Ulster footballer of the past two decades' in the lead up to the 2010 All-Ireland final. He has a point. He also wrote, “The free-staters didn't give him an All-Star because he was a Northern upstart that had destroyed their assumption.”
Yet in that full-forward line picked by the Ulster writers, it is hard to know who he might displace. Would he edge out Oisín McConville, the record-holding scorer in the Ulster Championship who even now at 37 is going for his third club All-Ireland? Or Peter Canavan, who could slow the game down, matrix-style in his head while he produced magic?
Ultimately, it comes down to a debate between Mickey Linden, with his glorious long service, blessed with speed and skill but also lucky enough to avoid serious injury.
McCartan's candle burned brighter, but for much shorter, given the punishment he took. While he has a good case to be named most influential Ulster footballer of the past 25 years, his place on a team hangs in the balance, a victim of his ravaged body.
But as we said, these things are all subjective.