The news that former Footballer of the Year, All-Star and two times All-Ireland medallist Stephen O’Neill has been forced to quit the game at just 27 years of age is truly saddening. It would be easy to be flippant and to say that something like “well, at least he’s retiring with two Celtic crosses in his back pocket” but what sportsmen would want to be forced to quit at an age when he should be in his prime? Stephen was a seriously talented footballer and will be remembered as one of the stars of this decade. It goes without saying that he will be a huge loss to Tyrone and this latest hammer blow makes it ever less likely that the injury-plagued All-Ireland champions of 2003 and 2005 will feature in the shake-up this time round.
While I saw Stephen O’Neill ply his trade numerous times on the box (i.e. I was watching him on the telly, he was on the field), I only once saw him play in the flesh. That was in 2004 at Croker when we shocked the world, and ourselves, by dethroning the then All-Ireland champions in the quarter-finals. (I recall pitching up at Il Corvo up the Drumcondra Road with a friend from Foxford after that game roaring for steak and chips and, when asked if we had a reservation, giving the retort “No – we didn’t think we’d win!”).
On that day of shocks (Fermanagh had dumped out Ulster champions Armagh in the curtain-raiser), Stephen O’Neill was Tyrone’s best player, scoring 1-3 on David Heaney, and when he pulled his side level with a vicious, dipping shot to the net ten minutes into the second half, our goose looked well on its way to being cooked. As it was, Tyrone – still collectively traumatised by Cormac McAnallen’s death just a few months before – didn’t score again and we won by a handy four points in the end.
Despite our joy at that win, it never felt as if we’d really beaten the All-Ireland champions that day and the following month we were to discover in a very painful manner just how far we were from All-Ireland standard. Tyrone, meanwhile, proved their true worth the following year, finishing an eleven-match championship odyssey by thumping Kerry (yahoo!) in a memorable All-Ireland, in which Stephen O’Neill scored four points. Incredibly, at only 25 years of age, that proved to be (apart from a very brief cameo appearance as a sub in last year’s quarter-final loss to Meath) his last day on the big stage at Croke Park.