Tyrone taking next step
The rest of the GAA world may be getting excited about the prospect of the National League, but in the world of Tyrone captain Stephen O'Neill, everything is calm.
While his personality is that of someone at peace and comfortable in his own skin, two moments during the McKenna Cup final against Monaghan highlighted both his grace and grit as a footballer.
On 23 minutes O'Neill hunted down a ball that was dropping into the grateful arms of Oriel goalkeeper Mark Keogh. Neither man conceded an inch and a tremendous collision followed.
Two minutes later with both men recovered, Joe McMahon played a ball inside that exploited Conor McAliskey's pace. It was worked to O'Neill and although under pressure and with no space to manoeuvre, he angled a beautifully-arced effort over the bar.
The crowd applauded. They love seeing Stevie get the ball and deliver special things.
This is his 14th season as a Tyrone player. “It doesn't feel that long ago,” he says.
“Nothing much has changed. The league is still the league.”
So how does he keep returning to the well?
“I am sport mad and I will be playing some sort of sport when I finish playing for Tyrone.
“I'll still be playing for the club as long as my injuries stay clear for the foreseeable future. I'll probably do a bit of cycling and maybe move into other sports.
“I'll just enjoy it and while you are enjoying it, why not keep on doing it and if your management is happy with what you are doing, why not keep at it?”
Now, the Clann na nGael man prepares to lead Tyrone into battle as captain for the second consecutive year.
His club may not be one of the more illustrious names in Tyrone football, existing as they do in the Intermediate ranks, but they have now held the county captaincy for 10 years.
It was Brian Dooher, of course, who took up the role after the untimely death of Cormac McAnallen in 2004, and on his retirement, after 2011, it was handed to O'Neill who led the Red Hands out in the season opener against Kildare in Croke Park.
Last Saturday he lifted the McKenna Cup and brought it down underneath the stand to answer questions with his teeth chattering and body visibly shaking with the cold.
You might have thought that he had a warm afterglow after another successful McKenna Cup campaign, but he sees the need for improvement as he assesses the input of the squad of newcomers.
“We had a couple of rough enough games performance-wise, but the young boys have done well since they have come in. Their performances have been brilliant,” he comments.
“They all get on with it, which is crucial at this time of year, and the boys have produced the goods in the matches. Hopefully that will continue but it will be a huge step up against the better teams in Division One.”
Ah yes. For all the encouragement that others have heaped on the younger members of the Tyrone squad, both Mickey Harte and O'Neill keep reminding us that they have yet to do it in the league.
There's no shortage of appetite for it, according to the captain as he eyes up Down in the first game tomorrow night in Newry.
“I am looking forward to it. I am sure Down will be looking to win their home games. They will be looking to put one over on us.”
He continues: “This year, it's going to be very different and hard to get a run at it. You could have a couple of tight losses and end up fighting relegation, and then you could have a couple of one-point wins and be challenging for a place in the league semi-finals.
“You want to be challenging yourselves against the best and they are the best teams in the country.”
And among their number is Donegal. They will meet in round three of the league and judging by comments coming from both camps, sparks will fly that day in Omagh.
“The All-Ireland champions are always at the back of your mind. You seen what they did last year and that's where you want to be. You want to be going in after the new year as champions,” O’Neill says.
“If we can become consistent enough it will hopefully give enough bother to Donegal come Championship time.”