The past number of seasons has seen a number of breakthrough stars come to the fore in Gaelic football.
Dublin’s all-conquering Championship side was built on the foundation of youth stretching back to Jim Gavin’s first All-Ireland run in 2013 when names like Jack McCaffrey, Paul Mannion and Ciarán Kilkenny were rightly tipped as stars of the future.
Fast-forward seven years, it’s Brian Howard and Con O’Callaghan who look set to dominate the next decade.
Kerry have followed suit, building a side capable of winning All-Irelands with an attack led by young maestros David Clifford and Seán O’Shea. The Kingdom duo’s performances last season were justifiably recognised as both were nominated for Young Footballer of the Year.
However, it’s not just the top teams who are placing their trust in youth as the man nominated alongside Clifford and O’Shea was Armagh’s Rian O’Neill.
The Crossmaglen stars form was scintillating in 2019 with his Young Footballer of the Year nomination made more impressive by the fact that Armagh exited the Championship in Round 3 of the All-Ireland qualifiers.
O’Neill burst onto the scene in last year’s Ulster Championship win over Down kicking 0-8 on his derby-day debut. From there, O’Neill was quickly targeted as man-marker after man-marker was detailed to curtail the youngster.
However, the versatile attacker, in vintage Crossmaglen fashion, relishes that challenge that comes with it.
“The Championship game against Down, Championship is where you want to be playing, and the first ball I got it went over and that sort of set the tone for the day. It could have gone the other way had that ball gone wide, I mightn’t have taken the other shots.
“That’s just the way it went and I was happy enough just to get that debut under the belt.
“As the season went on their best marker was coming to mark you. But that’s a compliment too at the end of the day that they think he’s worthy of marking you. I like to challenge myself as well so I wouldn’t be shying away from whoever is marking me.”
Of course, there’s more to being an ace-attacker than having to put up with sticky corner-backs. O’Neill has had to learn to keep the red mist at bay after encountering the dark-arts of defending on many occasions.
Fortunately for him, the unforgiving nature of playing for Crossmaglen Rangers taught O’Neill how to keep a calm head when everyone is out to get you.
“Aye, there was a few rows throughout the years with corner-backs and stuff. I suppose that’s just part and parcel of it. When you’re young that’s something everyone gets, that treatment. They’re trying to intimidate you really and it’s just how you react to it and keep playing the game.
“I suppose when I was younger I was a bit more hot-headed and had a good few right tear-ups and stuff. I suppose over the last few years I’ve sort of calmed down and realised I’m no use sitting on the line. It’s just about using the head.”
Keeping the head amidst all the attention can be tough for marquee forwards. Fortunately, at county level, O’Neill is learning under the tutelage of one of the best minds in the game, as well as one of the biggest legends.
There’s no better fella that you can learn from. His attention to detail and his professionalism, there’s not really many other people in the GAA that would be as professional as he is. And his live for Armagh football and wanting to see them do well is massive too.
I suppose there is an element of both. You’d express yourself too but know at the same time when you need to take a step back or slow the game down or not go for that killer pass when you’re ten points in front, it’s just about the game management. but Kieran’s been great to me and let me express myself on the pitch so I am thankful to him for that.”
Kieran McGeeney has also provided O’Neill and his teammates with opportunities to learn from some of the best coaches in the world.
Given the All-Ireland winning captain’s ties with Straight Blast Gym Ireland and his love of Brazilian Jui-Jits, McGeeney has brought John Kavanagh in to both speak to and train the Armagh squad.
With all the furore surrounding Kerry club Kilcummin and their MMA-style training ground kerfuffles last week, O’Neill contends that Armagh’s trip to SBG was no more a team-bonding exercise, however, he couldn’t stress enough how invaluable it was to learn from someone who is a world-class coach in his field.
“I suppose it was more of a team-bonding thing. Anytime you get to work with one of the best coaches in the world which he is, it’s a great achievement even just to listen to him talk.
“There are messages that can be translated from both sports, both on and off the field about discipline and all that and I suppose it’s just great to hear from someone like that.”
And what of his famous club? With the outbreak of COVID-19 sending the nation into lockdown, the next chance we might get to see one of Gaelic football’s next big stars could be in the club championships later in the year.
Despite winning 19 out of 20 county championships and six All-Ireland titles between 1996 and 2015, O’Neill came on the club scene at a time when the famous club’s grip on Armagh football seemed to be waning. However, following two trophyless seasons in his first two years, he’s now collected back-to-back county titles with the south Armagh club.
Having grown up in an era where Ulster and All-Ireland’s were the common goal in Cross, O’Neill believes it is time for his club to start dominating the provincial scene again.
“Yeah, I suppose when I was growing up, Crossmaglen were winning Armagh’s and Ulster’s and All-Ireland’s near enough every year.
“Then the first two years I came on the team we didn’t even win Armagh so it was a big thing to get that title back. So now we’re really looking to push on outside Armagh and get back to dominating Ulster I suppose because we feel the last two years, we haven’t really done ourselves justice in Ulster.
“We got badly beat by Gaoth Dobhair and then we got beat by Clontibret this year and we really feel we’ve the players there, it’s just about pushing on and making the most of the chance when we have it.”
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