YOU often heard him before you saw him, especially when he was on the sideline in charge of a team, and he was in charge of many during his lifetime.
Terry O’Neill was never a mentor who stood silent on the line as the players tried to implement the instructions he had given them. He never needed a loud-speaker either as his voice carried from one end of the field to the other, whether in his own pitch in Bantry for an ordinary league game or in the vast surrounds of Páirc Uí Chaoimh for a county final.
When we refer to a person as being a character, we usually mean he is larger than life. In the world of Cork GAA, Terry O’Neill was a character. A native of Castletownbere, where football is a second religion, Terry never made the headlines as a player but when he moved to Bantry to work in the post office, he soon forged a reputation as one of the best sideline mentors and coaches in Cork football.
Castletown’s loss was Bantry’s gain as O’Neill became a central character in the Blues GAA club, guiding the underage teams to numerous successes. He never really bothered with the official side of the club, leaving the management to his brother, Barry, but he had no equal on the sidelines as he made his way up through the ranks to intermediate, where the county title was landed in 1975.
The 1980s were building years as the young charges O’Neill had guided, matured into county-winning U21 and intermediate sides at the start of the 1990s. When the first glorious county senior football title was landed in 1995, with the late, lamented Dr Denis Cotter as manager, O’Neill worked away quietly in the background to ensure everything was just right for the winning of that never-to-be-forgotten title.
O’Neill took some time out after that to test the waters in America but when the senior team was in danger of sliding back, he was back in Bantry to manage the side in 1997. The county title was regained in 1998 when he roped in the Doc and the legendary Florrie O’Mahony to help him. He was a proud man that day, as team manager, watching his son Damian, a Bantry football legend who wore the red shirt of Cork, accepting the Andy Scannell Cup as captain of the Blues.
Following that triumph O’Neill, who had served different periods as a Cork minor selector, was drafted on to Larry Tompkins’ management team of the Cork senior team and a great friendship was forged between the two.
Both were passionate about football and loved talking football and they spent many an hour dissecting Cork football as they led the team to the All-Ireland senior final in 1999, the team captained by young Bantry Blue, Philip Clifford. Unfortunately, a game that could have been won against Meath, was lost but it didn’t deter O’Neill.
Meeting him in those days one was always greeted with the same words, ‘What rubbish have you written about the Cork team on the Star this week?’ It never offended us because with O’Neill what you saw was what you got, no beating about the bush. It was said straight to your face or not said at all and we admired him for that. We managed some good arguments about the Rebels in those days.
In 2010, Terry was a selector on the Cork senior football team, managed by Conor Counihan and captained by Bantry’s own Graham Canty, that won the All-Ireland title. The scenes when Terry and Graham brought the cup back to Bantry the Tuesday after the All-Ireland are memorable.
Behind it all, O’Neill had a heart of gold. One only had to ask and it was done. He could never refuse, especially if it was a GAA request. He did many a favour with only the recipient being aware of the good deed and he never broadcasted his deeds. He found it impossible to refuse a club that came looking for his help and he served stints on the sideline with clubs like St Colum’s, Tadhg MacCarthaigh and Ilen Rovers.
One wonders how the present players would fare under O’Neill’s unique style of management when nobody was spared for the sake of the team. But O’Neill wore his heart on his sleeve and was highly admired for that.
Many the time we saw him on the line shouting his team on and then, when things started to go wrong, he would stand back against the wire, very quiet, as he sized up the problems and decided how to solve them. O’Neill had a great football brain and knew how to get the very best from his players.
During his time as a Cork selector, he would be seen at matches all over the county, watching players and judging their ability, whether they could contribute to the Cork team or not. In recent years O’Neill had go involved in coaching West Cork development squads and was really enjoying that.
His short illness and untimely death took us all by surprise and there was genuine sadness in GAA circles that one of the great West Cork GAA characters was gone from us too soon, with so much still to contribute.
Our loss is heaven’s gain and the Doc and O’Neill must be now scheming something great with the many old Blues of Bantry’s proud past. He is in good company and the sympathy of all Gaels goes to his family and the Bantry club.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam uasal.