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Dublin: 12 °C Saturday 26 May, 2018

12 months on from his darkest day as Kildare boss, how Cian O'Neill got them back on track

Kildare are back in their first Leinster final in eight years.

KILDARE’S LEINSTER SEMI-final collapse to Wesmeath 12 months ago was about as difficult a defeat as Cian O’Neill has ever had to deal with.

Cian O'Neill Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

They led by 1-9 to 0-6 on 41 minutes, but would score just a single point between then and the finish as Westmeath completed an incredible fightback.

It was a turkey of a game, spoiled by two teams too focused on stopping the opposition rather than beating them.  O’Neill later admitted Kildare employed the defensive tactics with one eye on a potential final against Dublin.

The loss took a while to digest.

“I never felt stress in my life, in any shape or form, like I did last year,” he told the Irish TImes last week. “I was physically sick for five days after that Westmeath game. Sick in my stomach. I had never felt like that before or after a game with any team in any sport. It was tough, it really was. It was failure. That was the feeling – failure.”

A year later, of course, Kildare are back in the Leinster final after torching Meath with a display of attacking brilliance. They’ve become everything they weren’t against Westmeath last year – a team with a clear attacking strategy and one with a perfect blend of power and guile.

Cian O'Neill Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“We really were disappointed last year,” O’Neill said after the game. “We let ourselves down. But in fairness to the boys, everything was different about this year. From the very, very start. They followed up a good performance against Laois with a great performance today. But that’s all it was.”

O’Neill freshened things up by introducing youth, including nine players who were U21 this year or last year. The return of several key players from injury, and Paddy Brophy from Australia, has allowed him play a far more expansive game in 2017.

Rather than going with the conventional 3-3 in attack, Kildare’s forward unit lines up more like a 2-2-2 system.

Wing-forwards David Slattery and Fergal Conway almost play like wide midfielders, funnelling back to the half-back line when they lose possession, but breaking forward to attack at every opportunity. That releases the wing-backs to cover the central channel of defence when Kildare are defending.

Pauric Harnan and Graham Reilly tackle Paddy Brophy Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Niall Kelly and Daniel Flynn provided an outlet for a kick-pass on the half-forward line and Kildare kick the ball into the space left behind Slattery and Conway.

Brophy and Cathal McNally act as the target men inside. More often than not, when the inside duo received possession they turned to take on their man, or had a runner coming off the shoulder.

A commanding half-back line and midfield backboned the performance by owning the kick-outs, winning 11 of Meath’s 21 restarts in the 70 minutes.

O’Neill credits his backroom duo of Enda Murphy and Ronan Sweeney, who joined the camp in November, for helping develop Kildare’s attacking play.

“We’d a new management. Enda (Murphy) and Rolly (Ronan Sweeney) have come in. They’ve been absolutely fantastic. The three of us have a really relationship. And all we do is lay the plans out. The players execute and work as hard as they can.

“But you saw it in January. They were playing well. We’d a really good league, They brought it into Laois. Freak results don’t happen too often. For me this was just a lot of hard work and they’ve got the juice.”

Donnacha Tobin congradulates David Slattery Source: James Crombie/INPHO

It represents another step in the right direction for Kildare under O’Neill, who has enjoyed significant success working as a coach with Kerry and Tipperary in the past.

Kildare are back in the top flight of the league for the first time since 2014 and now back in their first Leinster final since 2009. They also ended a run of six successive semi-final defeats on Saturday.

“D’you know what, that’s just not good enough,” O’Neill said of their eight-year absence from a provincial decider.

“That’s not good enough for a county like Kildare that prides itself on its football. And listen I was part of that last year because I managed a team that didn’t get there last year either when we should have.

“So it’s great that we are back there. And everyone from players, backroom, county board, Club Kildare deserves credit because a lot of work goes in behind the scenes to make today happen.”

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Kevin O'Brien

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