*Darren O’Neill driving on Éire Óg. Photograph: Gerard O’Neill

FAR AWAY HILLS are always greener and while time playing club football in Dublin aided Darren O’Neill’s growth, it also fortified his passion for his native Éire Óg.

Darren O’Neill is a powerful athlete, a player who has that most important of abilities and that is securing primary possession. On Sunday, O’Neill will be playing his third Clare SFC Final and he feels that all the sacrifices he has made will be rewarded once he walks behind The Tulla Pipe Band in Cusack Park.

He told The Clare Echo, “It’ll be a massive occasion, so looking forward to it. Let’s be honest county finals don’t come around that often. Last year was unforgettable, one of the best moments in life. After the whole pandemic, to see the crowd, to hear the support, it made the hair stand up at the back of my neck. All my family, friends, cousins were down and the smile on my face walking behind the band was huge. Looking into the crowd at my fiancée was just amazing”.

After the disappointment of losing the 2014 final to Cratloe, O’Neill headed for the capital, transferring to Naomh Olaf. “I was young, really raw and if I’m honest a bit of a hot head. Going to Dublin was the making of me both physically and mentally. It made me grow up, become a man. I was only 23 arriving there and I wasn’t anywhere near the maturity levels required to be successful. Naomh Olaf is a fantastic club. In Dublin you either sink or swim, the club football games there are just frenetic with a huge physicality. With so many teams you are basically playing matches all year round. I learned an awful lot about myself up there. It most certainly put me in the right place. Physically I became more powerful but even more so mentally I became tougher. I am so grateful for my time there. It put me in the right place to come back home to the town I love and help my teammates and friends”.

Darren’s journey has not been plain sailing and he has suffered more than most when it comes to injuries. ”I’ve suffered some really bad injuries over the years. I’ve broken both collar bones, had my cruciate done. I’ve had so many surgeries on both knees I’ve actually lost count and I’ve broken both legs”.

Given the setbacks endured, did the prospect of quitting ever enter his head? “Injuries are part of sport and as I said being in Dublin for years matured me mentally so I don’t let them get me down. I never feel sorry for myself but it does make me embrace every moment. Every second I have that Éire Óg jersey on it makes it all worthwhile”.

Commitment levels are constantly on the rise when it comes to club teams, let alone inter-county sides. No price can be put on the events missed in pursuit of glory but the success achieved is invaluable, he said.

“In my opinion the top club sides do as much preparation as inter-county teams. We have gym sessions, running sessions, recovery sessions, we have to follow a diet, follow a program and for me I do it to the letter of the law. All these people that Paul brings in are professionals, this is their area of expertise so I just do as they say. It can be tough missing out on stags, weddings, parties and so on. Social gatherings have to be planned. I’m extremely lucky I’ve a fantastic fiancée Emma who comes from a GAA family. She is so supportive which makes it easier and then sure when you walk behind that band, what a feeling, the adrenaline rush and then to actually lift Jack Daly makes it all the sweeter. Once you lift that cup nothing gone before regarding sacrifice matters. It’s just the most incredible feeling, winning with your own”.

Ennistymon’s attitude has been their most impressive trait for Clare midfielder Darren. “Ennistymon are a powerful fast well organised unit. They’ve been underdogs in the majority of games they’ve played and they wear that tag so well. They never give up. They will be a huge test for us. We will have to put in a full sixty minute performance. It’s really hard to get a full 60 minute performance as most teams have purple patches in games but we have to try to play for every one of those minutes because if we don’t we know Ennistymon will. Good teams win one title, great teams win two and the best teams win more. We have to try become one of the best teams and Sunday is another step in the right direction”.

Going to Dublin helped O’Neill with his maturity and developing as a footballer but it has also strengthened his love of Éire Óg and Ennis. “I love this club, playing here since I was a teenager and when I went to Dublin I always knew I’d come back here. The people are my people. We all love the town and we want to win for the town”.

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If you’re here, you care about County Clare. So do we. Did you rely on us for Covid-19 updates, follow our election coverage, or visit The Clare Echo every week for breaking news and sport? The Clare Echo invests in local journalism and we want to safeguard its future in our county. By becoming a subscriber you are supporting what we do, will receive access to all our premium articles and a better experience, while helping us improve our offering to you. Subscribe to clareecho.ie and get the first six months for just €3 a month (less than 75c per week), and thereafter €8 per month. Cancel anytime, limited time offer. T&Cs Apply. www.clareecho.ie.

Subscribe for just €3 per month

If you’re here, you care about County Clare. So do we. Did you rely on us for Covid-19 updates, follow our election coverage, or visit The Clare Echo every week for breaking news and sport? The Clare Echo invests in local journalism and we want to safeguard its future in our county. By becoming a subscriber you are supporting what we do, will receive access to all our premium articles and a better experience, while helping us improve our offering to you. Subscribe to clareecho.ie and get the first six months for just €3 a month (less than 75c per week), and thereafter €8 per month. Cancel anytime, limited time offer. T&Cs Apply. www.clareecho.ie.

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