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Ronan can fill Stevie's big boots, says Mickey Harte

Tyrone boss backs youngster to grab limelight after retirement of O'Neill and Penrose

By Declan Bogue

Tyrone manager Mickey Harte has spoken for the first time over the impact retired attacking duo Stephen O'Neill and Martin Penrose had over the course of his managerial reign.

While O'Neill is notoriously media-shy and modesty has so far prevented him from granting any interviews since he called a day on his inter-county career, Harte, who first came across O'Neill in the mid-90s as a county minor, has never hidden his admiration for the Clann na nGael man.

Together, they won Ulster minor Championships in 1997 and 1998, landing the All-Ireland in 1998 after O'Neill, along with Brian McGuigan, convinced Harte to stay on in his role as manager after several fallow seasons.

They were then reunited in 2000 and 2001, where they won Ulster and All-Ireland titles in both years at under-21 level.

Famously, O'Neill had retired at the outset of the 2008 season, citing injury frustrations as the reason. However, once they cleared up he made a dramatic late return to the Tyrone squad prior to that year's successful All-Ireland final win over Kerry.

"The biggest tribute that I can pay him is that he always developed his game right throughout his career," said Harte of O'Neill.

"When he first came along, he had a wonderful left foot and he didn't use his right at all. But he took it upon himself to know that as the game developed and things got to a more difficult stage, that it wasn't enough to be a one-footed player in the modern game.

"Some of the scores he got with his so-called weaker foot would take your breath away. He had that determination to continue improving his own game. He hated losing and you would see it in his face when he didn't succeed that he knew he needed to do something more."

Harte continued: "He was a great influence around the place and a great lad off it. He was a model man for any child and he is a teacher now and he can pass that on to many young people. The way he lived his life in a very controlled manner - that's what stood to him.

"He was unfortunate with some of the injuries he got. If he wasn't injured we really could have seen more of the great years. But despite the injuries and the setbacks, he will still be remembered for some of the best scores that have been kicked for Tyrone."

The Red Hands attack will certainly have a different look to it without the effervescent Penrose also. Harte was keen to underline his contribution.

"A wonderful player too. Probably came along a bit after Stevie, so I didn't have him as a minor but he was part of a very successful minor team as well. And then he took a little bit of a dip in form at a stage and he considered pulling away from county football," said Harte.

"But eventually, with a wee bit of a chat to him, he discovered he had a lot more to offer and he added to his game as well. Marty used to be a player who would get the ball, threaten a score with his searing pace and that was all he expected of himself."

He added: "Then he discovered he could be a very good tackler, and he became one of the best tacklers we had - and that's across the field, back forward, midfield, anywhere.

"He's a good lad, and I am glad he was there for some of the best and most successful days of our decade."

On the back of those retirements, Harte is urging Ronan O'Neill to step up and display the qualities that the wider public could see during Omagh's march to the Ulster club final.

Asked if he could become what some term a 'marquee' forward in the vein of an O'Neill, Harte responded: "I've been telling him that for some time now. I believe he is one of those forwards and I think it's a cruel thing that his cruciate came at a time when it did, because I think he would be that kind of a forward just now.

"But that took a year out of his career, and took another year nearly to get over it. Very few players come through cruciate injuries unscathed in terms of getting back to the level that they might have been at."

Tyrone open their season with a clash against Armagh in the McKenna Cup on January 4 and Harte is clearly looking to another generation of Tyrone players to develop into leaders.

"This is a big year for Ronan," he added. "If he stays injury free he can prove that what he was doing at club level he can do at county level too."

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