O’Neill reflects on shared journey with late Tyrone captain Cormac McAnallen

By Niall Gartland

TYRONE legend Stephen O’Neill has spoken about how his life became ‘intertwined’ with that of the late Cormac McAnallen during a period of unprecedented success for the Red Hand County.

O’Neill and McAnallen were integral figures on the celebrated Tyrone minor side that landed All-Ireland honours in 1998, and that was only the start for a golden generation that landed the biggest prize of all, the Sam Maguire, in 2003, 2005 and 2008.

McAnallen’s own story was cut tragically short on March 2, 2004, when he died suddenly of an undetected heart condition at the family home in Eglish, sending shock-waves reverberating across the entire GAA community and beyond.

O’Neill was a close friend of Cormac’s – not only were they long-standing teammates in a particularly tight-knit group, but their personalities were broadly similar in nature.

They first came across each other at underage level with their respective clubs, even marking each other.

The Clann na nGael clubman said, “Cormac and I played against each other at U16 level.

“We got the better of them in a league final in Carrickmore and from memory they [Eglish] beat us in a championship semi-final in Eskra.

“Both of us lined out in midfield and we marked each other. Even at that age he really stood out, he had physical size, leadership beyond his years, he was their main player.”

It wasn’t long before they were lining out alongside each other at underage level with Tyrone and they claimed All-Ireland Minor honours in 1998 with Cormac as team captain. They added back-to-back All-Ireland U21 titles in 2000/01 before reaching the promised land at Senior level in 2003, and O’Neill recalls the abiding feeling of brotherhood that typified his own personal friendship with McAnallen.

“We lived on opposite ends of the county and initially I just knew him as a very important player for Eglish.

“It’s funny then how our lives became intertwined over the next six or seven years.

“We saw each other four or five times a week – I saw more of him than the friends I’d grown up with at home. We’d a good friendship, we became close to each other and were a bit similar in terms of our outlook, we took things relatively seriously.

“Cormac was going out with Ashleen Moore, she lived in Faughanvale and I gave him lifts to Donemana after training to make things handier for him. Situations like that brought us closer together.

“He was a brilliant teammate and a brilliant person to have around.”

Elaborating on McAnallen’s qualities on-and-off the pitch, O’Neill singles out his exceptional leadership qualities on a Tyrone team that was hardly lacking in that respect.

“He was always steady. Roy Keane has spoken about Denis Irwin always being an eight out of 10, and Cormac was in that mould.

“You never had to worry about his level of performance, he always went out and did his job very well.

“He was a great organiser even at that age, telling players where to position themselves.

“He was sensible, never chatting rubbish or talking for the sake of it, there was always a point to everything he said.”

Cormac’s death in March 2004 was a devastating set-back to the Tyrone set-up.

They had lost their captain and friend, but they knew the folly of making a crusade of honouring his memory.

Still, he was never far from their thoughts and just over 18 months later, Brian Dooher dedicated their second All-Ireland final win to their fallen comrade in an emotionally -charged yet perfectly-pitched acceptance speech in Croke Park.

O’Neill said, “We’d played alongside Cormac for so many years, that it was always in the back of your mind after he died.

“It was spoken about a bit at the time, but there was never a crusade or anything like that. But his memory and the lessons we’d learnt from him were always there.

“When we did manage to win the All-Ireland again in 2005, I suppose a lot of it came to the surface, and we knew we’d been driven on by the words he’d said to us at his first meeting at captain – that he didn’t want to just win one All-Ireland, he wanted to win two.

“In that environment it was all about the next game and getting our performance right, but Cormac was certainly in the back of people’s heads and it was extremely emotional for us all when we won the All-Ireland that year.”

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