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Final key man Ronan almost gave up on Tyrone dream

By John Campbell

Ronan O'Neill has a vivid recollection of watching the great Tyrone team of the last decade collecting Ulster and All-Ireland titles but never thought that he might get the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of his heroes.

On Sunday, though, the 23-year-old Omagh St Enda's player hopes to put the seal on what has been a dramatic return to top-flight action by sampling the same success as that enjoyed by players he continues to look up to as heroes.

"Growing up as a supporter, I recall standing in Clones looking on as people like Peter Canavan, Brian Dooher and others lifted Ulster titles," reflects O'Neill.

"I remember thinking as a youngster then that's where I want to be. I am very fortunate now to be part of a Tyrone team that has a great chance of winning a title this Sunday but we will be up against a quality side in Donegal."

Getting to this stage of his career has been anything but easy for the modest and unassuming O'Neill.

A combination of injuries kept him out of the Red Hands side for a lengthy spell following St Enda's success in the Tyrone championship in 2014 and he has little difficulty in cataloguing his minimal contribution to his county's championship campaign last year.

"Getting four minutes against Kerry in the All-Ireland semi-final and three minutes against Donegal was extremely frustrating so I just took it upon myself to knuckle down, train hard, lose a bit of weight and see where that might take me," explains O'Neill.

But he admits that doubts in relation to his future began to form in his mind, particularly after last year's All-Ireland final.

"I suppose you would have to say that thoughts cross your mind about whether you want to be here at all or not. I was questioning whether I was wasting Mickey's time or was I wasting my own," confesses O'Neill.

"But what really drove me on was my desire to prove people wrong. You can't control what people say but lots of them had much to say, as it happened. I wanted to really prove that I can play for Tyrone and that I can be successful with the team. That's what really pushed me on for this year."

"Luckily enough, I got a few games in the O'Fiaich Cup and then in the McKenna Cup and on into the league and as a player all you want to get is a run of games. If you start to play well, then this brings confidence and that's very important when you are a gaelic footballer."

"Happily, things have fallen into place for me and I'm pleased with the way they have gone so far. But I'm under no illusions that if I don't perform the next day then that's what I will be judged on."

O'Neill's desire to bring his personal 'A' game to the Ulster final is palpable given the injury heartbreak that he endured last term.

But he is quick to point out the formidable challenge that those who are perceived to be first-choice players face in holding down their places in the side.

"I've said before that this is the most talented and competitive Tyrone squad that I have been involved in," maintains O'Neill who is currently undertaking a Primary school teaching course at the University of Ulster, Coleraine.

"There are players who may not even be in the match-day squad of 26 who are capable of coming in and doing a job if required. Training is both intense and ferocious, players are anxious to hold down their spots in the team and it's probably great to have this strength in depth."

"We maybe did not have this over the past couple of years but now it's terrific for the squad. You know that after about 50 minutes you are going to have potential game-changers coming on from the bench and this can happen again in the Ulster final on Sunday."

O'Neill has morphed into a dynamic corner forward having initially made his name at county level at centre-three-quarters and as well as being a lethal finisher, he is also adept at creating chances for colleagues.

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