The Saffron Gael Speaks to St. Gall’s hurler Niall O’Neill

St. Gall’s defender, Niall O’Neill is looking forward to Sunday’s All Ireland Intermediate Club Hurling semi-final against Oranmore /Maree of Galway at Parnell Park. O’Neill is one of a number of duel players on the Milltown side. He was a 17 year old on the St. Gall’s panel when they won Antrim and Ulster in 2009 before losing in the All Ireland semi-final to St. Lachtain’s, Kilkenny and he is determined to go one better this time.

O’Neill looks certain to be one of the first names on Sunday’s team-sheet and has been a regular on the side all season and his strong, energetic performances have helped his side on their journey through Antrim and Ulster this year.

I spoke to the affable St. Gall’s man in the week leading up to Sunday’s eagerly awaited encounter and posed the following questions to him.

Saffron Gael: Niall as Sunday approaches how are you feeling?

Niall O’Neill: I’ve been feeling good and just enjoying the buzz around the team and the club as the Semi-Final draws ever closer. It has been a long wait since the Ulster final back in November, so I am looking forward to the game on Sunday and getting back in action in the blue jersey.

Saffron Gael: Although you’ve been a regular on the St. Gall’s team for a number of years you would probably still be regarded as one of the younger players on the side. When did you start playing for the St. Gall’s hurlers and what honours have you won with them?

Niall O’Neill: I take a bit of abuse from the lads for being the oldest amongst the younger lads in the team, so it’s nice to still be called young now again that’s for sure. I started playing for the hurler’s right from the beginning when I was introduced to St. Galls from around age of 4. We won a couple of juvenile titles but there was unfortunately a few years where success was limited.

I was lucky enough at age 17 to be a member of the panel in my first year of playing Senior Hurling when the club won both the Antrim and Ulster Intermediate Hurling titles and reached the All-Ireland Intermediate Hurling Final (2009). Ten years on and I’ve been fortunate to play a bigger part in the same campaigns and to win those titles for the second time.

Here is hoping that the club can reach another All-Ireland Intermediate Hurling Final and get one more, big day out in Croker.

Saffron Gael: St. Gall’s have come through a number of tight battles on their way to Ulster success this year. What are your most vivid memories of those games?

Niall O’Neill: The whole campaign of getting where we are now has not been an easy one. You could say we trickled our way through the Antrim Championship but we credited our efforts throughout, having come up against some tricky opposition. We arguably stole the game against Creggan in the Antrim final, but it was our experience that helped get us over the line. The Ulster championship was as expected, tough right from the off. We began with a physically demanding game against Lisbellaw before an extra-time victory against Swatragh in the semi-final. We even had our backs against the wall in the Ulster final playing with 14 men for the majority of the second half against a very strong Keady side. Thankfully the mix of youth and more experienced players swung the game in our favour and we were able to bring Ulster success to the club. The guys have really dug in deep and fought for each other when needed and as a team we have gotten the rewards.

Saffron Gael: How has the training been going since your Ulster success? Have you been doing anything different in training and have you played any challenge games in the build up to Sunday’s final?

Niall O’Neill: Training has been going well and we have been training regularly throughout the winter period (on some extremely cold nights and mornings may I add). The majority of our lads have been training non-stop from the beginning of last year including when we were training with the footballers so hurling training up until now has really been focused on keeping the eye in and working on our stick work and speed on the ball as always. We played a few University teams before the Christmas Break including Jordanstown and Queens, which proved a good workout for both camps. Any game in winter conditions will always prove beneficial for any team. We have quite a big panel so it was a good opportunity for other lads to stake their claim on to the team.

Saffron Gael: Gearoid McInerney and Niall Burke are the two Galway men who are best known of the Oranmore/Maree side. What do you know about the Galway and Connaught champions?

Niall O’Neill: In truth I don’t know much about Oranmore other than they are from Galway and there will be no doubt that they will be a very good hurling side. Oranmore are believed to be under achievers in Galway for the past few years so that tells in its own right that this year has been no fluke. They have some standout and exceptional players like Gearoid McInerney and Niall Burke who of course will help lead their charge but that is not to say there aren’t others throughout their team who can help make the difference. Oranmore have had a very successful year and I am sure they will be looking at ourselves as one final hurdle to pass in order to reach the All-Ireland Final but that is exactly how we will be seeing them ourselves. All we can do is prepare as a team and be ready for the challenge ahead.

Saffron Gael: How do you see Sunday’s game going and who are the players who can get you over the line in Parnell Park on Sunday?

Niall O’Neill: I see Sundays game being a battle right from the first whistle. For me the game will be decided by who wants it more and who is willing to dig that little bit deeper. It will be one of the biggest games in the majority of our lads’ careers but a game that they will be ready for and extremely look forward too.  To be honest the entire team will play its part in helping us get where we want to be on Sunday. Everyone has put their shoulder to the wheel this year and drove us on game by game. We have plenty of players with dual experience such as Karl Stewart, Kirean and CJ McGourty, Aodhan Gallagher and Sean Burke to name a few that can help drive us on. Tomas O’Ciarain will prove valuable for scores and help give us the extra edge we need.

Saffron Gael: Who have been the biggest influences on your hurling and football career with St. Galls?

Niall O’Neill: I would have to say my brother Terry and my father. They have always encouraged me from an early age to take part and strive to be better. I still play alongside my brother with the Senior Footballers and have been lucky enough to share some great memories of winning silverware together. My dad always jokes that I am footballer / hurler or on a different day a hurler / footballer.

Saffron Gael: You are of course a member of the St. Gall’s football side as well and a couple of years ago you were a member of the Antrim panel. What are your thoughts on your time with the Antrim footballers and have you any ambitions to return to the saffron jersey?

Niall O’Neill: I enjoyed my time playing for the Antrim Footballers and have every ambition to play again in the near future. I was asked on to both football and hurling panels respectively this year but unfortunately I was not able to fully commit to either one. In my work as a Sport for Development Facilitator we are required to work flexible and unsocial hours limiting my time and I also travel back and forth to London, every other weekend to visit my girlfriend. It is unfortunate and disappointing but for now my focus is on the club.

Saffron Gael: Anything else you would like to add.

Niall O’Neill: I just want to thank my own club for their support throughout our championship campaign and I hope the supporters are back out in force again this Sunday for one final push. I also want to wish St. Enda’s good luck in their semi-final and hope both teams return with memorable wins.

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