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Ronan O'Neill back in old routine for Tyrone

By Declan Bogue

Two thumping points from Ronan O'Neill against Donegal were neat illustrations of how the Red Hands have ambitions to shed their skin and refute the notion they are a crumbling team.

Sunday's win over the 2012 All-Ireland champions in Letterkenny was notable in that the Tyrone line-up contained no players with senior All-Ireland medals.

Neither Cavanagh or McMahon brother played, nor did Conor Gormley or Stephen O'Neill. Even established team players like Aidan Cassidy were absent.

By contrast, Donegal started with eight of the starting team that won the Sam Maguire 16 months ago. Manager Jim McGuinness was left with only 19 fit bodies for his squad with various injuries, however.

Still, as Mickey Harte commented after the 0-13 to 1-7 win: "I know people will say it is only January and it is only the McKenna Cup but I would rather be winning no matter what time of the year it is."

Ronan O'Neill is one of the men that he there is much hope for. To recap on his career, we must examine how brightly he burned as a youngster before the flame was temporarily extinguished.

He was one of the main figures in the 2010 All-Ireland minor triumph, coming in the midst of a five year spin when he was saturated with football, collecting Ulster minor and under-21 medals with Omagh St Enda's, back-to-back MacRory campaigns with his school Omagh CBS, as well as playing senior club action from he was 16.

After allowing a glimpse into his potential at senior level with a couple of early appearances in the 2012 McKenna Cup, Harte allowed him to resume duties as under-21 captain, before a sickening cruciate ligament injury on March 19, 2012, during an in-house game.

In the closing stages of the first National League match against Down last year, O'Neill came off the bench.

He chipped in with appearances here and there but when he replaced the injured Stephen O'Neill early in the All-Ireland semi-final against Mayo, only to be hauled off later in the second half, he vowed he couldn't let that happen again.

"I don't want to hear about any cruciate anymore because it is fine, my knee is fine," he said with obvious relief.

"I am getting back to where I was. I had a good long year last year and I thought I was there but I wasn't. That was the harsh reality but I worked hard throughout the winter and I am slowly but surely coming back."

There are footballers who will turn up and do what is expected of them, and then there are those who will do everything they can to better themselves. They are the star pupils.

O'Neill says this winter has taught him a lot.

"I took it in my own hands. It is not just done when the team is training, it has to be done in the off season as well," he explained.

"Last year I thought I was fit but the harsh reality showed that I wasn't. I learned the hard way against Mayo which was one of the lowest points of my career."

"To come on for Stephen O'Neill and then to be taken off again isn't what I wanted, so I just had to accept the harsh reality and go back to the club.

"I got seven or eight games with the club and tried to get my confidence back up again, and then I played with Jordanstown in the Ryan Cup and I just got back playing games."

In the midst of that came some salty comments in Owen Mulligan's autobiography, 'Mugsy', in which he scorned the latest breed of Tyrone forward that kept him off the panel last year, remarking that some were happy just to be there and accept the team tracksuit.

If there are players like that on the panel, O'Neill will maintain he certainly isn't one of them.

He explains: "It takes time for transition. I know it is alright for people to say that they are happy to sit on the bench, but it takes time.

"Slowly but surely those boys are coming through right now. Niall McKenna (pictured) is a perfect example; he was on the team and he was dropped and I thought he was excellenttoday.

"Those boys, Mugsy, Peter Canavan and Stephen O'Neill, were all part of the team of the decade, and now us younger boys are going to have to make a name for ourselves and just do it the hard way.

"We are standing here on a cold January day in Letterkenny, not on a great pitch, but nevertheless against one of the best teams in the country.

"We will just learn the hard way and we will make our own names through McKenna Cup and different ways."

Belfast Telegraph


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