If there was an award for ‘Resurgent Team of the Year’, Kilmaley would be wide margin winners for 2018.
Relegated from senior in 2016, they cruised to intermediate success in 2017 and pushed Cratloe to the brink in the 2018 senior semi-final, narrowly losing out by a point.
One of the key players through their fall and resurrection has been Mikey O’Neill. The 26-year-old primary school teacher is now getting his reward for such endeavours by being granted consecutive starts on the Clare senior team against Cork and Waterford.
While O’Neill did not score, he was influential, causing havoc at every turn and was effective when dropped back towards the middle of the park in the second half of the Waterford game. O’Neill admits he thought he had scored a goal, only for Waterford ’keeper Billy Nolan to make a stunning acrobatic save to tip the shot away at the last minute.
“I thought he was way further out than he was and I was pretty sure I had tucked it into the corner but he pulled it off somehow and it was some save, to be fair. You have to give credit where it is due.
“Overall, though, we were very happy with our performance. After the Wexford and Cork games, we knew we started slowly in both games, so we targeted the first 20 minutes against Waterford to try and just play well and thankfully we did that,” he said.
O’Neill has been on the periphery of the Clare squad for the last two seasons and while he came on in a number of games, this season’s Munster Hurling League game against Cork was his first time starting for the senior county team in a competitive fixture.
“I got the call from Donal and Gerry halfway through 2017 and, to be honest, you are never really going to say no, so I went straight in that year just before the Limerick game. I had come on in a load of games and started some challenge games too but the Cork game was my first start in a competitive game for the senior team.
“It is a fantastic opportunity, no-one will deny that. If you get that chance, you’re going to take it and try to put your best foot forward for the rest of the year and show them that you can do something,” he explained.
The Clare hurlers now face into a mouth-watering mid-January clash with bitter rivals Tipperary in the final Munster Hurling League, after narrow victories over Cork and Waterford. While there will be no tears for the loser or wild celebrations from the victor, there are no illusions that this game will be anything other than extremely competitive.
“When you’re playing Tipp in a final, it’s Tipp in a final. It doesn’t matter the time of year. When you look at their squad, and they’re under new management now too, they will be looking to make a point and when you look at their team, there are lads there that are trying to put their hands up and make a case for themselves for further on in the year.
“We are really looking forward to the game. It’s a great game to have early on in the year and we are looking forward to the challenge,” he added.
Not only does O’Neill have the badge of honour of playing for his county, he also brandishes two Fitzgibbon Cup medals from his stint in Mary I, where he completed the masters in primary teaching, which enabled him to get a job closer to home, a job that allows him to dedicate a significant portion of his time to hurling.
“I’m teaching in Ennis CBS in the primary school there. I did the masters in Mary I, did two years in there and got into the CBS then, thankfully. We won two Fitzgibbons while I was there too, so that is nice to have.
“We finish in the school at 2.30pm because we start early but a lot of days I will stay until 4pm to have the next day’s or week’s work ready before you even sit into the car and when the big games come, you are usually off at that time of year too, so it is ideal in that sense,” he confessed.
While his focus is solely on aiding Clare’s cause in 2019, O’Neill is also sowing seeds for the future by coaching the youngsters in Ennis CBS.
His competitive side can’t be hidden when he remarks, “We got to the semi-final last year and were beaten by Quin National School”.
“They’re a very good team to be fair, though,” which was said with an air of unfinished business. Watch out Quin in 2019.
A role in coaching is something O’Neill sees down the line as a distinct possibility.
“When you’re finished playing, it would be hard to just walk away from the game totally. So it is something that I could definitely see myself doing.”
An unassuming and hard-working man, he also has a sharp sense of humour. When asked for a fact or story about himself that may not be known to the public, he finishes with, “We’ll leave it there; none of those could ever be published!”
Clare v Tipperary will throw in at 2pm on Sunday in the Gaelic Grounds, Limerick in the Munster Senior Hurling League final.