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O’Neill a man on a mission for Tyrone

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Tyrone’s Stephen O'Neill (left) flew the flag for Ulster at the official launch of the 2010 GAA Football Championship. He was joined by Mayo's Trevor Mortimer, Kerry's Micheal Quirke, Cork's Michael Shields and Dublin's Alan Brogan

Tyrone’s Stephen O'Neill (left) flew the flag for Ulster at the official launch of the 2010 GAA Football Championship. He was joined by Mayo's Trevor Mortimer, Kerry's Micheal Quirke, Cork's Michael Shields and Dublin's Alan Brogan

Tyrone’s Stephen O'Neill (left) flew the flag for Ulster at the official launch of the 2010 GAA Football Championship. He was joined by Mayo's Trevor Mortimer, Kerry's Micheal Quirke, Cork's Michael Shields and Dublin's Alan Brogan

Name the footballer who featured on the winning team in three All-Ireland finals but still has only two All-Ireland medals?

It is, of course, Tyrone's Stephen O'Neill, who steadfastly refused to accept a medal for the 2008 All-Ireland win over Kerry despite featuring as a first-half replacement for the injured Colm McCullagh.

O'Neill has effectively erased 2008 from his memory bank, a year he'd rather forget after withdrawing from the county squad at the end of the previous season when persistent injuries got the better of him.

An arrangement for the Clan na Gael man to return between the 2008 All-Ireland semi-final and final was brokered between players, management and the O’Neill himself.

But the medal didn't matter to O'Neill, who reluctantly joined his colleagues on the steps of the Hogan Stands to celebrate the victory.

He just didn't feel part of it.

“I don't count it. It was a brilliant year for Tyrone and it meant a lot to everybody in the county, me included,” he admitted.

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“It was great to see the team doing so well but for me it wouldn't be one of my personal best years and I'm just looking forward now to this year.”

Since coming out of exile, the 2005 Footballer of the Year is still burdened by injury problems and has managed to play in just one of Tyrone's 14 league games in the last two seasons.

It didn't prevent him being named as Tyrone's only All Star in 2009 but the frustration felt at missing a second league campaign was evident after he dislocated his elbow in the McKenna Cup final last January.

It was only over the weekend that he made his competitive return from that injury with his club and is glad that it is behind him now.

“It was definitely frustrating but these things happen,” he conceded.

“You just have to get on with it and work with the physios as best you can.

“I can remember the ball was down on the ground and I went to pick it up. I missed it and just as I landed then I got the bang and felt the pain. I knew straight away that it was out when I felt it, and it was a sore one.”

The match was delayed for almost 15 minutes as medics stretchered him away. With him, in hindsight, went Tyrone's safeguard against relegation.

O'Neill admits losing their Division 1 status has shaken confidence but not enough to have them doubting themselves as real championship contenders. The return of some of the more senior players has helped eased concerns.

“It's hard to put a finger on it, if we knew that, we wouldn't have been relegated,” O'Neill continued.

“People are disappointed and we're disappointed ourselves but we're going to try to use that disappointment as a bit of motivation to kick-start things for 2010.

“But hopefully we're getting our zip back and our minds are focused firmly now on the Antrim game. A few of the senior boys are back now and it's a big boost in training to see them back out.”

The positives for Tyrone out of the campaign is the number of young players they believe they have put into the position where they are considered genuine contenders for championship places — Kyle Coney, Peter Harte and Ronan McNabb among them.

“I suppose the blooding of young players was positive, most of the young lads did well and they're settled into the panel so it was good to get to know them and train with them over the last few months.

“Hopefully they'll be able to push on now and the senior boys will push on along with them and do well.”


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