Crusaders goalkeeper Sean may enjoy playing pranks but no-one is more dedicated or competitive – and he’s the medals to prove it
Sean O’Neill is one of the Irish League’s colourful characters. He’s viewed as a joker, a party animal, someone who isn’t shy when there’s fun to be had.
Look closer and you will see someone who is focused, driven and passionate about football. You will find a leader, a motivator and most of all, a winner.
Who is the real Sean O’Neill, the Crusaders goalkeeper who has won every medal in Irish football including a Setanta Cup and relished European battles with Fulham and Wolves?
“I’d like to think I’m a winner,” says the 33-year-old. “I’ll give everything and I want to win. People will see me messing about and see a funny man but they won’t see the hard work I’ll put in. Any manager that I’ve played under and any of my team-mates will say that I work my absolute socks off and my mentality hasn’t changed.
“From my time with Ballymena United to now I want to win. Stevie (Baxter) says he wants to win even if it’s a game of marbles and I’m cut from the same cloth. I am competitive and if it’s a game of table tennis or pool I want to win. First and foremost I’m a winner.
“I think I have good leadership skills as well. I’m a voice in the changing room and while the fun side brings everyone together there’s another side to me when the going gets tough. I just want to be a serial winner.”
The former Antrim GAA keeper is a winner with the north Belfast club and their supporters. Adored by the Seaview faithful, he presented young fan Jack Boyd with his County Antrim Shield winners’ medal after defeating Linfield 4-3 in a memorable decider in 2019. He’s won the Irish Premiership title three times, Irish Cup, League Cup, two County Antrim Shields and the Setanta Cup.
It’s been a career blessed with success and few regrets. Away from the pitch, there have been further highlights.
His Any Given Sunday Al Pacino ‘Inches’ speech delivered for his Davitts GAC teammates on his Portugal stag do went viral. But there have been more uncomfortable moments. After the Crues’ title success in 2015 – the club’s first championship since 1997 – Sean embarked on what could be described as a wild drinking spree with pals and team-mates.
It’s important to celebrate in the good times but Sean was left embarrassed when a photograph appeared of him with his pants down beside a mural of Linfield manager Warren Feeney and Blues ace Grant McCann during the duo’s Northern Ireland days.
The photograph was never meant for public consumption but it was posted on Twitter to the amusement of some and anger from others.
“I don’t regret the celebrating after the first title win,” added Sean who lives on the Glen Road in west Belfast. “I think I regret the photograph with Grant McCann and Warren Feeney. We were young and immature back then and some people might say I haven’t changed! Whenever the picture of me at Grant’s mural appeared we got a lot of stick about that. People said I was a bigot but in my mind it was a bit of craic with someone we knew.
“In football terms I probably would have got my operation earlier. Once I dislocated a shoulder I wish I had operated on it the year I did it instead of doing all the strengthening.
“I ended up knocking my shoulder back in during games and playing through the pain.
“I think I could have given myself more game time if I had the operation done earlier. I could have cemented my place in the team more but these things happen. I’ve won everything you can win in this game.”
Goalkeepers are in the firing line when the fans want to shout abuse and now players are exposed to it on social media as well as at matches.
Crusaders supported the recent boycott of social media in support of calls to tackle abuse and even though Sean has always loved the banter at matches, he accepts some supporters will take it too far.
“During the game I think the banter is brilliant,” he says. “I love a bit of grief from the supporters but they are good to give it out and not so good in taking it back!
“Sometimes it does cross the line and these days you have it on social media as well.
“It can be difficult for people to deal with. Players have families and you never want them to read unacceptable stuff about you. Social media is now a huge part of our lives now and I did think the recent boycott by clubs was the right thing to do. I love to see clubs backing their players when they are targeted with racist abuse.
“There’s a value in social media, giving players a chance to share opinions, but there is a line that shouldn’t be crossed.
“But we all missed the fans last season. Saturday was their day out and it’s not nice to take that away from them during mentally tough times.”
Despite winning every domestic prize since joining the Shore Road side in 2011, it hasn’t always been calm waters for Sean at Seaview.
A new two-year deal was confirmed in March, with a testimonial on the way but in December, 2018 there was a transfer request.
“If Stephen (Baxter) had said to me you will play over 350 games for Crusaders, win everything in this country will you take that?, I would have snapped his hand off but when you get a taste of it, you want more,” he said.
“Hopefully there are more big trophies to come. One thing that I am very proud of is that over all the years, even though people doubt you, goalkeepers have come and gone at Seaview but I’m still there.”
As for the main positive influences in his life and career, there have been many.
“Stephen (Baxter) has given me everything I want in football,” added Sean who was at Dungannon Swifts before he moved to the Sky Blues.
“He brought me to Seaview where I have won everything. He has been absolutely brilliant with me. There are times when I have been out of the team and frustrated but the respect and love I have for that man is strong and I would go to the end of the world for him.
“He sticks with me because he knows he has that loyalty and commitment from me.
“Roy McDonald (former goalkeeping coach) has also been a massive influence on me. I won’t lie, when I came to the Crues I looked at ‘Mac’ and I thought what’s this guy going to know about goalkeeping? Oh my God, how wrong was I. The man lived and breathed it and changed so much about my game such as positioning.
“Tommy Wright was a big influence on me in my younger days and Jim Grattan at Greenisland was nothing short of a genius. I came in from a GAA background and he transformed me into an under-21 international and I’ll always thank him for that.
“Before that, a school teacher called John McCormack got me into football.
“Outside of those guys my parents Sean and Una brought me up the right way and I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
The Irish League showed it’s true colours during the Covid-19 pandemic. The players risked injury in the demanding fixtures schedule but no-one could ever question their commitment or dedication.
“I’m the biggest cheerleader for the Irish League,” says Sean. “I love everything about this league from the honesty of the players to the increased media coverage. The game has come on leaps and bounds and is so much better technically. Players have gone across the water and when that happens I love to see that.
“Guys like Stuart Dallas, Mark Sykes, Liam Boyce and Gavin Whyte have shown the league is a great stepping stone and clubs realise it’s hard for teenagers to make it but they can get a good grounding in the Irish league, get a taste of men’s football and then go over prepared to give it a crack.”
Sean understands the sacrifices players have to make. Family and football are the two significant passions in his life.
Wife Niamh, children Orah (4) and five months old Bria are his focus away from the game.
“I’d be lost without my wife, she has been the rock in my life,” he adds. “I’m out a lot because of football and she’s left with two children, she deserves a medal. People don’t really see how much of the family lives the players miss.”
You won’t be surprised to hear that Sean could write a book on the light-hearted moments of his career.
Perhaps not all the stories are suitable for publication but there’s a few that spark a laugh everytime he replays the moment in his mind.
“One of my favourite incidents goes back to when we were playing in Copenhagen,” added Sean. “It must have been 3am and we had just been tanked by them. Myself, Gavin Whyte, Matthew Snoddy and David Cushley were walking back to our hotel which must have been about five miles away.
“A guy came along pedalling a Tuk Tuk. We offered to pay double if he took four and he said it could only take three. We persuaded him, the four of us squeezed into the back but 100 yards up the street the whole thing collapsed. Tyres went everywhere and the guy wasn’t impressed we had destroyed his tuk tuk. For the rest of the trip we were waiting for the Danish police to come along and lift us.”
And if Grant McCann’s brother Ryan thought he could escape Sean’s pranks he was mistaken.
“I turned up at Crusaders with new Puma trainers and when I went to train Ryan McCann cut triangles out of them,” says Sean. “The boys thought this was a geg so I had it in my mind to get him back.
“I waited a full year, it was the night of the Setanta Cup win when we got on an open top bus. We went to the Park Avenue Hotel for some food and the chairman (Stephen Bell) ordered a bus because the fans were down at Seaview waiting for us. The bus went along the Sydenham bypass and it was freezing. I thought this is my last chance to get him back.
“I took my top off, waved it in the air and started singing ‘tops off for the champions’. Everyone took their top off and I saw Ryan take his off. I grabbed his T-shirt and jacket and threw it off the bus. It must have been minus four, it was freezing and I told him I would get him back. He said: ‘my phone and wallet are in there’ but the bus went on and everyone was so happy no-one cared about it.
“About two weeks later we were going to Edinburgh for an end of season trip and we drove up the Sydenham bypass and found Ryan’s coat still there. He cancelled cards but still hadn’t returned for it, he must have too much money! It was a great revenge story.”
Sean O’Neill – a man who works hard and plays hard. And he’s a winner too.