By Michael McMullan
SUNDAY will be Maria O’Neill’s first ever start on the hallowed sod of Croke Park and after bagging two semi-final goals this season, the Moneyglass starlet is hoping for a better ending.
With seven minutes to go in last year’s decider, she stepped over the Croke Park whitewash for the first time. Seconds earlier, Grainne McLaughlin had rocketed a shot to the bottom corner of the Wicklow net, but it was immaterial.
The Garden County’s six points without reply in the opening 11 minutes left Antrim giving a chase in a race they were never going to win.
“Leading up to the final, everybody was training really hard and it was very exciting to be there,” O’Neill recalls.
“Everyone was really excited. They were excited and serious at the same time. Walking onto the pitch last year, you don’t realise how big it is.”
By half time, Antrim were five points in arrears and in need of a huge second half performance.
“We were going in as underdogs,” she added. “The second-half just didn’t really play out, but I hope it’s not like that this year.”
The 2021 season was her first year of minor football and O’Neill got the call from manager Emma Kelly to join the senior panel ahead of their All-Ireland semi-final extra-time win over Carlow.
Sport was high up the pecking order and O’Neill, a Cargin native, played ladies football from u-13 level all the way up once he switched to Moneyglass.
“I started off with Cargin and played boy’s football until u-12 and then moved to Moneyglass,” she pointed out.”
She found it strange to have played at centre back with the boys and once she made the move to ladies football he was handed an attacking berth and has stayed there since.
“I think playing boy’s football helped so much, even going in for tackles it was a lot rougher and I really think it helped me,” she said of the increased physicality.
Sunday is Antrim’s third final since their 2012 win over Louth and O’Neill has fleeting memories of watching Longford hit the Saffrons for four goals in the 2016 decider.
“I remember it briefly, Longford pulled away in the second half,” she said.
Her father Ciaran was a Cargin and Antrim stalwart and spot was never far away during her childhood.
“I have been watching my uncles (Tomás and Michael McCann) playing senior with Antrim. My aunties (Geraldine and Mary McCann) played as well. We were always going to some sort of county game and if you weren’t, you were down at the Cargin playing football or camogie.”
They’ll all be cheering her on this Sunday in a fourth clash with Fermanagh this season. After losing to the Erne County in the league, Antrim turned the tables twice.
“It has been a tight game every single time, they are a really good side,” O’Neill said.
“In the Ulster final, we were five or six points down at half time but we came back and you never know what way it is going to go. I really think it is the toss of a coin.”