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27th Jun 2023

Owen Mulligan speaking up for Stephen O’Neill in 2008 is the epitome of team spirit

Niall McIntyre

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“None of them were in it for themselves. And some of them are the best players I’ve ever seen play the game.”

In winning three All-Irelands between 2003 and 2008, the Tyrone team of the noughties are one of the best ever to have played Gaelic football.

Among them were some sensational individual talents, such as Peter Canavan, Sean Cavanagh, Stephen O’Neill and Owen Mulligan but above all else, the best thing about them according to Stephen O’Neill was their team spirit.

And O’Neill was directly affected by it in 2008, in a way that will live with him forever.

The Clann na nGael club-man was a guest on this week’s GAA Hour Show and on it, he told a story that perfectly captured the unity in the team.

Much to the surprise of the Gaelic football landscape, he had retired at the start of that year due to chronic knee issues.

Cycling was eventually discovered as the cure to his ills and while he had recovered in time for that year’s All-Ireland senior football final, he didn’t feel comfortable re-joining the panel when, to his mind, all the heavy lifting had been done.

So he turned down Mickey Harte. He said no to the team’s selectors. But it was his team-mates that brought him back.

“Mickey came down to where I was working at the time and spoke to me about it, I just felt at the time it was a bit too late,” recalls O’Neill, “And I wasn’t sure if the injury was 100% healed up.”

“Brian Quinn from Rockwell and Francie Martin from Carrickmore came down. Francie asked me to go up and speak to Mickey and he wouldn’t leave the house until I’d agreed to go and speak to Mickey.”

“So I went and met with Mickey, Tony and Fergal,” he recalls.

“I said I’ll definitely come back next year, but can’t come back this year.”

“It’s an All-Ireland final I said, it’d just be too upsetting for the players and things like that.

“And he just said, leave it with the players then. I said that’s fair enough.”

The Tyrone players had a meeting that week where, in it, Owen Mulligan stood up and spoke passionately in favour of the idea of bringing O’Neill back. This was despite the fact that, as a sub at the time, O’Neill’s return would likely reduce Mulligan’s own game-time.

“”I wasn’t part of that meeting, I don’t know what went on, but I had heard Mugsy had stood up and said, ‘Stevie is one of us.’

“I had played minor with Owen from ’97.

“He stood up and said this is about the team winning and that was basically it. Owen would know me and knew I wouldn’t be back for my own sake. 

“I can safely say about any of the them boys, that that was the thinking, there were no egos, everyone was there for the team cause.

“None of them were in it for themselves. And some of them are the best players I’ve ever seen play the game.”

As it turned out, Tyrone beat Kerry in that year’s All-Ireland final, with both O’Neill and Mulligan coming on as subs.

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