Tyrone v Monaghan: O’Neill’s 10 of the best
Stephen O’Neill will chalk up a significant landmark in his playing career when he steps out with Tyrone against Monaghan in the Ulster senior football championship at Healy Park, Omagh on Sunday.
The match will mark the 10th anniversary of his introduction to the Red Hands squad and the Clan na gael clubman believes that he already has reason for starting his celebrations early.
“The fact that I am injury-free at the moment is something for which I am grateful and is something to celebrate from my perspective.
“It’s great to be getting ready to face a Monaghan side who have progressed over recent years and who will be very anxious to make up for their defeat in last year’s Ulster final,” observes O’Neill.
He missed a sizeable portion of the National League during which Tyrone were unable to make the leap into Division One and indeed few players have spent as much time in the company of medical staff and physiotherapists in recent years as sharpshooter O’Neill.
A whole series of injuries ranging from hamstring problems to a dislocated elbow have disrupted his involvement with Tyrone yet a decade down the line he is still viewed as one of the most potent forwards in the country, a supreme finisher both from open play and frees.
Three All Ireland medals and four Ulster Championship gongs with Tyrone along with Inter-Provincial championship honours with Ulster and a host of individual awards testify not only to his skill but to his resilience and strength of character in overcoming his injury woes.
Yet there was a dark period in his county career when he withdrew from the panel “fed up with injuries”, as he now puts it, and was thought to have retired prematurely at the age of just 27.
But wise counsel prevailed and today 30-year-old O’Neill exudes the same enthusiasm and confidence that were his hallmarks when he first donned the O’Neill county jersey.
He is now one of several senior citizens in what is regarded in some quarters as an ageing side but is still viewed by manager Mickey Harte as a very focused, hungry outfit.
While O’Neill is hopeful that Tyrone can deliver a third Ulster title on the trot, he is conscious that there is a greater awareness within the province of their particular strengths.
“Teams are more organised now and the playing field is more level. Tactics still play a huge part in games obviously but every team needs those players who can make things happen,” insists O’Neill.
“There is a lot of thought being put into the way that teams are set up and obviously the creative players who can help to break the deadlock are very valuable.”
To this end, the intensity level of Tyrone training sessions has been stepped up considerably while the challenge that younger players are mounting for starting places is also helping to keep the more experienced campaigners on their toes.
O’Neill said: “There is no doubt that the younger players are providing the rest of us with a level of competition that ensures we stay on the alert.
“If you are not seen to be producing the goods you will be left on the bench.
“While experience can count for a lot when the manager sits down to pick his team, I know that these new guys are all very talented and bring great qualities to the table.
“While some of us have been around for a while, I think we would like to remain for a little longer so we won’t be riding off into the sunset just yet.”