by Guy McCulloughh
John was certainly a fanatical rugby follower all his life, a fact borne out by the massive collection of rugby memorabilia which adorned his house on Circular Road. And he was a very loyal member of the club he loved so dearly, throughout a very long period of involvement. Indeed, Rugby Football, and the Ballymena club, were simply a major part of his life. He was also a very generous man, being ever quick to support any fund-raising effort launched by any section within the club. He may have been a man of limited stature, but he had a huge heart, and with a great sense of humour.
John maintained that he had been ‘a full-back of some considerable ability, with great hands’, and those were his own exact words. Well, I did mention his sense of humour. However, his playing exploits were mostly confined to the lesser sides at Eaton Park, being captain of the newly-formed Third XV in 1949. He often recalled, though, playing on the wing one day for the First XV against, I think, Instonians, or maybe it was Malone, and he admitted that conceding three tries that day, all scored by the much bigger winger he was marking, convinced him that he was never going to scale any great heights as a player. He always said though, that he probably had the necessary skill, but not the necessary size.
What a character he was.
But what he certainly did have was a great understanding of the game of rugby.
And so he became the club’s official touch-judge, a post that he held for many years, while at the same time, he also became involved in assisting with arranging the fixtures for all the club’s sides, and the travel arrangements for the First XV. When the club developed to the point of producing seven teams, as Match Secretary, John ensured that all team players were each notified weekly throughout the season, and that all the relevant teams took the field each Saturday – a huge task and a massive achievement in those days, which of course, were long before the arrival of e-mails and other social media.
He was a hard-working member of most committees formed at Eaton Park. His employment with J.P. Corrie made him an automatic leader of the Grounds and Property committee; his undoubted knowledge and experience of financial matters made him a distinct asset to the Finance committee; and his strong, honest and forthright manner was always clearly evident, and beneficial, during his long tenure within the Executive committee. He always said what was on his mind, and, if some people disagreed with him, then so be it. But what he said was always in the best interest of the club.
Another game in which John alwaysprofessed to have real ability, was Indoor Bowls, in which he represented the club for many years in the local league. Personally, I am not sure about his skill level, but I do know that he was always ready and willing to give plenty of advice to the others in the team, but of course, being John O’Neill, he always gave that advice in very humorous fashion.
In 1975, he was elected as Vice-Chairman, and two years later, he became Club Chairman for a further period of two years. He was a dedicated leader of the club during that time, and his close connections with the business world, made him the perfect person to seek, and successfully obtain, much-needed sponsorship for the club, especially necessary during the time leading up to our Centenary in 1987. In that respect, his record-keeping, part of which he actually showed me just a few weeks ago, was incredibly detailed and meticulously kept. John’s relationship with local building contractors was vital in the organising of various extensions and refurbishments to the club property over the years. He always kept a keen eye open for any improvements to our property, which he thought to be necessary, and once an idea was born in his head, he always pushed hard to bring it to fruition. He also kept a critical eye on any such building work as it progressed, and he was quick to offer advice on anything he thought required some amendment. His assessments were invariably accurate and very relevant.
But, it was as a loyal, popular and devoted supporter of the club, especially of the First XV, that brought John O’Neill most recognition throughout the length and breadth of Ireland, and further afield. He was always one of the first to volunteer to travel with the team to the more distant away games, and the number of these increased with the birth of the All-Ireland League in 1990. How he enjoyed our trips to the likes of Cork, Limerick, Dublin and Galway. After the games, John could be seen in the host clubrooms, standing up on a chair, utilising his undoubted chorister ability and experience, to organise the Ballymena players, officials and supporters, and conduct them in a sing-song, with renditions roughly ranging from ‘The Wild Rover’ to ‘The Holy City’. It was great fun, which no-one enjoyed more than John himself, even if, from a musical point of view, the performances may have been rather unimpressive. John and I sometimes, in fact quite often, shared a bedroom during these trips. He always slept well, but boy was he an early riser, and on some occasions, I must confess that I truly wished he would just lie on in his bed a little bit longer in the morning. But he always liked an early breakfast.
John also greatly enjoyed our trips to clubs in the UK, which, due to the influx of professionalism into the game, have now virtually disappeared. He often recalled our travelling to the likes of Nottingham, Leicester, Richmond, Bridgend, West of Scotland, Stewart’s Melville, to name some of them, and how he loved our previously regular fixtures in the Scottish Borders to play Hawick, Kelso, Melrose or Gala. Of course, the Borders was an area in Scotland for which he had a special affection, and to which he and Meta regularly travelled for a holiday in their camper van. Although he himself was always full of fun, especially in his earlier days, John had high standards as to how people should behave, and he insisted that our players should never do anything to bring themselves, or the club, into disrepute. I well remember during a trip to West of Scotland, he considered, and quite rightly so, that a few of the lads were just not behaving quite as he would have wished, and although he was well short in stature compared to those concerned, but not lacking in courage, he marched over to them and, in spite of having to look up at these quite large individuals, he still told them, in no uncertain terms, what he thought of them. What he did certainly worked, as their behaviour for the rest of the tour was quite impeccable. That also showed the respect in which the players obviously held him.
Undoubtedly for John, and also for the rest of us who travelled, the pinnacle of our rugby trips was the club tour to Canada in 1980. Again he and I shared a room in some of the hotels where we stayed. He certainly enjoyed that tour immensely, and often since then, he would reminisce about the fun we had, and the people we met, with the bus-trip across the Rockies remaining especially vivid in his memory.
I earlier mentioned John’s generosity, and in no other respect was that more evident, than in his insistence to take his car to many of the away games in Ireland. He was a careful, or it may be more accurate to say, a rather slow driver, but he always got those of us who travelled with him safely home. Willie John McBride, to whom he accorded real friendship, even hero-worship, can testify that, when he joined the club as a young lad, John took him under his wing, and looked after him very well, regularly giving him lifts to the games. Of course, in later years, driving to away games became more difficult for John, although he was still very keen to do so. A couple of seasons ago, he and I arranged to travel to Dungannon. I offered to drive, but he insisted that he would, saying that he knew the way very well. He chose to go up past the airport, but when we reached the airport, John suddenly turned into it, which meant we had to go through the barrier, round the car-park and then through the exit barrier to proceed on our way. After the game, John said we would be coming home by the same route. I warned him not to make the same mistake again. John assured me that would not happen, but when we reached the airport, guess what happened. Didn’t he again turn into it, and we had to go through the same procedure to get out. John was a bit embarrassed, but we laughed at the mishap, and he simply blamed my navigation. From then on, I insisted upon driving to any away games we attended. We had already made arrangements for going up to Queens next Saturday. But sadly that was not to be.
Although he had seemed virtually indestructible, John has been taken so suddenly, as only Saturday week ago, he thoroughly enjoyed attending the lunch prior to our game against Rainey, and meeting all his friends from that club, some of whom are ex-Ballymena players, and who were very pleased to see him again.
So, Ladies and Gentlemen, John has sadly gone, and, on behalf of myself and all at Ballymena Rugby Club, I offer sincere sympathies to his sister Kay and to all his family circle. He will be sorely missed by all of us who had the great pleasure of knowing him, and listening to his wise council, over so many years. He was truly unique – there will never be another John O’Neill. The club will never have another member so loyal and so dedicated.
As for myself, I will miss him greatly.
Today, all at Ballymena Rugby Football Club bid farewellto John O’Neill, who was our longest-serving active member, and a loyal and faithful servant, in so many ways, for so long, and personally, I say good-bye to a devoted club colleague, a great neighbour, and a very dear friend.