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O'neill paints right picture for Tyrone

By Declan Bogue

All throughout the season, Stephen O'Neill's form has left fans of both Tyrone and their opponents in awe.

Earlier in the year – as far back as January indeed – we devoted considerable space to descriptions of O'Neill scores, knowing that television cameras were not always present.

Like when they faced Monaghan in the Dr McKenna Cup final and we said, "O'Neill added another point to his own canon on 25 minutes when he arched a shot over the despairing reach of two markers."

On Sunday, the cameras were there to capture O'Neill's four beautiful points forever. There was the balance and poise required when he turned inside for a shot underneath the Hogan Stand before selling Peter Kelly an outrageous solo dummy before straightening up to fade over from close to the sideline.

Minutes later he popped up on the other wing and showed serious strength to hold off his marker before kicking through the ball with the outside of his left to arrow it over. Pure artistry.

He wasn't getting carried away with it however.

"We needed a couple of points because Kildare were fighting back strongly. We were lucky to get them, there are days they go over and days they don't," O'Neill said with typical modesty.

That was as far as he was willing to go on the conversation, understated as he is. The benefit of having him in the team though has brought Tyrone to another league final, only the second of Harte's reign as manager but it will bring back memories of beating Laois in the final before going on to deliver the county's first All-Ireland a few months later.

The captain wasn't buying any neat comparisons between now and a decade ago.

"Listen, we are very happy getting the extra game to prepare for Donegal," he began.

"We are not looking past that Donegal game because they are the All-Ireland champions, down in Ballybofey, it's going to be a big ask to get anything out of that there.

"It's great experience playing in a national final and everybody would be looking forward to it. It's good to make the effort when you are winning and getting to play in showcases like that.

"We are a young enough team and it gives a chance for everybody to get another run out. It gives Mickey the chance to see boys in different positions."

Wonderful scores borne of that elusive mixture of timing and balance can enter the repertoire of GAA conversations.

We think of Diarmuid O'Sullivan's point in the 2001 Munster hurling Championship against Limerick that sailed over from 100 yards. Or Maurice Fitzgerald in the same year for Kerry against Dublin in a qualifier at Semple Stadium when he spliced the posts from a sideline kick with Dubs manager Tommy Carr in his ear.

In the season that he was crowned Footballer of the Year – 2005 – O'Neill delivered points week after week that belonged in that bracket. He memorably hit ten points in the drawn Ulster final in Croke Park against Armagh and the attentions of Francie Bellew, and also weighed in with 1-4 in the All-Ireland semi-final.

Thereafter, O'Neill plunged into the seven circles of an injury hell, eventually retiring early after an off-colour substitute performance in the 2007 All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Meath summed up a frustrating period for him.

His next start – having returned in time for the 2008 All-Ireland final – was the 2009 league opener against Dublin, a night that kicked off the GAA's 125th-Anniversary celebrations. He hit eight points that night, one with the left almost on the touchline of the Canal End an incredible moment.

That was to be his only appearance in that league however. In 2010 he never made a single league appearance having injured his elbow after falling on the frozen Brewster Park pitch during the McKenna Cup final against Donegal.

In 2011 he made four starts and one substitute appearance while last year he started five games and came on in another. There is no doubt that this current sustained run of games has allowed him to display his talents on a consistent basis.

Meanwhile, Dermot Carlin emerged from his first appearance since January's win over Antrim, having recovered from injury to start as sweeper. The Killyclogher man is now in a race against time to come up to speed in time for the Championship opener against Donegal.

"No matter what you do in in-house matches it's not the same of what you get in a match in Croke Park, especially at this stage in Croke Park. It's hard to replicate that in training at Garvaghy so a game like that is worth four or five training sessions to you," said Carlin.

Belfast Telegraph


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