O’Neill ready to embrace new challenge at Pomeroy

POMEROY’S new manager Gary O’Neill says he’s taken massive learnings from his previous role as manager of Division One Donegal team St Michael’s.

While he’s only 33 years of age, O’Neill has been involved in coaching or managing for more than a decade after the third of three ACL injuries sustained in his youth marked a premature end to his playing career.

The brother of Tyrone legend Stephen, Gary had two stints as manager of his native Clann na nGael as well as Craigbane, which is just across the border in Derry, before being snapped up by St Michael’s  in 2019.

They gave it a serious rattle in last year’s championship, losing a thrilling quarter-final clash against Kilcar, and O’Neill says that working with esteemed players like Christy Toye and Colm McFadden was an invaluable experience.

“St Michael’s had seven players on the Donegal panel which won the All-Ireland in 2012. It was a steep learning curve for me, coming up against the likes of Gaoth Dobhair, Glenties and St Eunan’s, so you had to work hard on how other teams were setting up.

“In my own opinion it’s improved my tactical approach and it’s also shown the levels of fitness needed to compete in the top flight.

“St Michael’s were great to work with, and senior lads like Christy Toye, Colm McFadden and Martin McElhinney were more than happy to help out with the tactical side of things.

“Hopefully I can bring that to Pomeroy and learn from their more senior players as well, but I recognise that it’s a new team and a new club so what worked in St Michael’s won’t necessarily work in Pomeroy.”

The Plunkett’s won the Ulster Intermediate title in 2016, and embarked on a giant-killing championship run the following year, reaching the semi-finals of the Tyrone Senior Championship, but a forgettable first-round defeat to Errigal Ciaran last year suggested that their progress has stalled.

O’Neill, who has family connections in Pomeroy, sees no reason why they can’t turn things around and make considerable improvements in the coming years.

“I’ve relatives from Pomeroy and my sister’s married there as well, so I’ve been to some of their matches with my brother-in-law down the years.

“I always wanted to get back involved with my own county, and I got approached by the club and had a good chat with the committee. I was very pleased to be asked and it should be a good challenge.

“I’d an interest in them already, and I think they can show that they’re more than just an Intermediate Championship-winning team. I think they can progress further, and as well as some top county players, they have a lot of good young players coming through as well.

“There’s a good blend there, and they can’t wait to get going. Before the lockdown, I had a meeting with them, there was good numbers there and they all seem eager to improve.

“I think Dungannon coming through as dark horses and deservedly winning the championship has spurred other clubs on – if they can do it then the rest of us are capable as well.”

O’Neill had rotten luck as a player and was forced to hang up the books after sustaining a third cruciate injury when he was only 22 years old.

He was despondent at the time, but he was asked to help out his club in a coaching capacity and he’s philosophical about how it’s all panned out.

“I dislocated my kneecap when I was 13 playing against Carrickmore and kept pulling ligaments on it, the knee was very slack.

“I tore the cruciate for the first time when I was 17, getting ready for the MacRory Cup with Omagh CBS.

“I came back playing when I was 19 and was told to give it up. I took up cycling and I felt I was strong enough to go again.

“I remember Enda McGinley advising me on it. He told me what training to do for another month and he looked at it again and said it’s up to you – you can go and play, the cruciate may never go again or you could be unlucky and you could tear it the first night you’re out, but that ultimately it was my decision.

“I was able to play for the next year-and-a-half but it happened again in a game against Eskra. I was carried off and the bench was dead quiet, I think everyone kind of  knew what happened.

“I remember welling up and I was taken to Altnagelvin – it was the sorest of the three times physically and I was in a cast from the hip to the toe.

“I knew myself that was me beaten. Paddy Ball, who was managing us at the time, asked me a week or two after my surgery if I could come and train our senior men’s team.

“At the very start I remember setting up drills while hobbling about on crutches, but the players were happy and they brought us back the following year. I wish I was still playing but coaching and managing is the next best thing.”

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