O'Neill tips Harte's Tyrone to throw down the gauntlet
When Tyrone were edged out 0-18 to 1-11 in the All-Ireland football semi-finals by Kerry last year, manager Mickey Harte lost no time in driving home the message that the progress his reconstructed side had made would "be no good" if they did not build this year.
Tomorrow the Red Hands get the perfect chance to take a step towards justifying the faith their boss has shown in them by overcoming Cavan in the Allianz League Division Two final.
Croke Park has been the scene of a series of iconic Tyrone triumphs during Harte's ground-breaking watch since late 2002 and if heartbreak was their lot last August, then the three All-Ireland titles, 2003 Allianz League honour and five Ulster crowns captured prior to that testified to a lucrative era in the county's sporting history.
Stephen O'Neill, a legendary forward who formed a lethal inside line in tandem with Peter Canavan and Owen Mulligan for much of the golden era, shared in those successes and believes that the county which he served with such distinction could be on the verge of another breakthrough.
It was in 2010 that Aughabrack clubman O'Neill (below) last pulled on the red and white jersey in the Dr McKenna Cup having previously announced what turned out to be his premature retirement in early 2008 only to find himself making a return for the All-Ireland final in which he was introduced as a substitute.
It is part of GAA folklore that an emotional O'Neill refused to accept a winners' medal because he had not been in the team for the greater part of their journey to glory.
Now, as he surveys a Tyrone side that is a rich blend of precocious youth and solid experience, O'Neill believes they could be on the cusp of better things after a six-year hiatus.
"Tyrone were very unlucky in last year's All-Ireland semi-final but I know they can't wait to get out onto the pitch," said O'Neill. "Victory over Cavan will help to further embellish their credentials for the Ulster title and looking further down the line I think it would be foolish to rule them out of the All-Ireland reckoning."
O'Neill has watched Cavan morph from a side that struggled in Division Three to become a much more confident and accomplished Division One outfit and warns Tyrone to be on their guard.
"Cavan will be tough opponents," mused O'Neill. "They have big men in key positions, break quickly from the back and a very significant factor in their progress to date is that they always seem to boast a wide spread of scorers."
But O'Neill feels that Tyrone's hunger, stamina and desire to atone for last year's lapse against Kerry will stand them in good stead. He cites the half-forward line of Martin Sludden, Mark Bradley and Ritchie Donnelly as a youthful unit that is laden with potential.
"These boys are ravenous to get a taste of success at Croke Park and I know for a fact that Sean Cavanagh is still intent on landing honours so you have players from different generations in there all sharing the same goal," pointed out O'Neill.
Cavan skipper Gearoid McKiernan, sharpshooter Seanie Johnston, talisman David Givney and Michael Argue are viewed as posing a major threat to Tyrone. Padraig Faulkner, Killian Clarke, Dara McVeety, Martin Reilly, Jason McLoughlin and the emerging Liam Buchanan are other players who have blossomed this year.
"When you look at the depth of talent within this Cavan side, you can see why they are going places," asserted O'Neill.
"The team has matured and they will not only want to beat Tyrone but will feel they can make headway in Ulster."
Tyrone beat Cavan earlier in the league by 0-10 to 0-8 in a match described by one Red Hands official as "a dog-fight".
There will much snapping of teeth tomorrow, too, as both sides aim to set down a marker.
O'Neill added: "Maybe in the past league honours were not seen as carrying great currency but when you consider the advance ticket sales and the fact that all other counties will be hanging onto every bit of the action, this shows you just how important they have become."
Tyrone: M O'Neill; A McCrory, R McNamee, C McCarron; R Brennan, Justin McMahon, T McCann; C Cavanagh, M Donnelly; N Sludden, M Bradley, R Donnelly; C McAliskey, S Cavanagh, R O'Neill.
Cavan: R Galligan; P Faulkner, K Clarke, J McLoughlin; C Brady, C Moynagh, K Brady; T Corr, L Buchanan; D McVeety, G McKiernan, M Reilly; D Givney, M Argue, S Johnston.
NFL Division Two Final:
Croke Park, Sunday, 1.30pm