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Links with Munster rugby, the drama of summer 2018 and the inconsistency of Kildare football

Cian O’Neill looks ahead to another championship with Kildare.

Cian O'Neill with his Kildare players before last summer's game against Mayo.
Cian O'Neill with his Kildare players before last summer's game against Mayo.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

THERE WAS A time before he nailed his colours to the Kildare mast for another season, that loose talk flared of a different sporting trail beckoning for Cian O’Neill.

On Saturday evening he lands in Carlow with Wicklow first up in the Leinster football exams that Kildare face.

They were ranked one of the best eight teams in the country in 2018 but after their race was run last year, it was a position with Munster rugby that O’Neill was linked with filling.

The head of the department of Sport, Leisure and Childhoods Studies at Cork IT, O’Neill has embarked on an inter-county journey that has brought him into contact with the Tipperary hurlers along with the footballers of Mayo and Kerry.

But he’s unsure where the notion of working with Munster rugby sprung from.

Returning to the Kildare hotseat has consumed him in 2019.

“It was a big decision to come back because I came initially for three years and myself and Enda (Murphy) and Roli (Ronan Sweeney) had put quite a lot of preparatory work into the next year.

“Then Enda changed jobs and had a lot of travel involved. Roli set up his own business and that changed between the end of the year and the start. So the question was do you have that hunger and desire an to just to put a panel together but a management team together?

“Having chats with people of the calibre of Alan Flynn who came on board as coach, Tom Cribbin (and) Karl O’Dwyer it really made the decision a lot easier and it re-energised me having lost Ronan and Enda because we are such good friends and a really solid team. 

“So it was a big decision to come back but the Munster thing? Maybe it was because of the different relationships at work at CIT and some research work we are doing but I have honestly no idea where it came from.”

Ronan Sweeney and Enda Murphy with manager Cian O'Neil Kildare boss Cian O'Neill with selectors Ronan Sweeney and Enda Murphy last summer in Longford. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

He went through quite a range of experiences as Kildare boss last year. The disappointment of a league with a string of seven defeats and winding up relegated. The  misery of being dumped out of Leinster early on by Carlow. The recovery through the qualifiers, the euphoric nature of their Newbridge success over Mayo and an invite to the inaugural Super 8s party.

A dramatic summer to put down?

“That’s one word you could use,” reflects O’Neill.

“Listen we had the worst possible start to the championship with the defeat in the quarter-final in Leinster and it just goes to show you, you never actually know where you are until you play that first game which is why I’m quite happy to have a preliminary round fixture this year.

“But to be fair to the players, the backroom, the management, everybody, we grouped together strongly. It’s interesting how the perception on the outside can be very different to where things are at to the perception on the inside. The build through Derry to Longford, obviously Mayo in Newbridge was a very special occasion and that lead to our best performance of the year in Navan against Fermanagh.

“That really was a great five-week period there and it was great to get to the Super 8s but ultimately we came out with no wins there even though we’d two two-point defeats in tight matches. There’s still a lot of room for improvement.”

Kildare fans celebrate Kildare fans celebrating last summer's clash with Mayo. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

He talks of the contrast in how a squad can be perceived by those watching on and those immersed in the preparations.

“When teams are losing matches, you might still be moving in the right direction. Performances might be good but for different reasons, missed chances or freak incidents in games that can go against you. You’re relegated on zero points, it kind of looks from the outside that must be catastrophic. It actually wasn’t, it was huge disappointment, no doubt about it.

“Then after Carlow you’re probably thinking is this going to be a destructive time, whereas in fact on the Tuesday night once we blew all the dirty fumes out of what happened in the performance, it was the best two or three weeks ever in terms of getting back on track. There’s no doubt everyone was devastated and there were harsh words said at different times.

“Going into that Derry match, lads just wanted to play and wanted to get back on the pitch. I think it showed in that performance. That Derry match was very rewarding for the lads for all the work they put in after the defeat against Carlow.”

Players from Carlow and Kildare battle for possession in the air Action between Carlow and Kildare last summer in Tullamore. Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

That run of results struck at the heart of Kildare’s key issue of late. Perfectly capable of conjuring up a rousing showing that yields a win, perfectly capable of hitting a slump after that peak.

“I think the biggest blight on Kildare on Kildare over the last, I suppose you could go back 19 years to 2000 really has been the inconsistency of performances,” says O’Neill.

“In the late noughties there when there was serial quarter-final appearances, there was defeats to Wicklow and Louth in the first round of Leinster and they bounce back and have great back door series.

“Under Jason Ryan’s time they beat Cork in Thurles but the next week they are beaten by seven goals by Kerry. In my own time we put in a decent performance against Dublin and two weeks later under-perform in a last 12 match. It’s that inconsistency that has been a killer. And last year was probably the best example to lose the way we did early on and then bounce back.

“Is it psychological? There’s obviously a part of that no question. Is there a belief issue? That’s something we are constantly trying to work on. Belief in (the) most pure form can only really be developed by consistent success and performance and if that isn’t there, then that has an impact on belief. I never think it’s just one thing, it’s a combination of things.

“Ny wife who studies psychotherapy has often said what other people think is none of your business. So you have to take that on board as a coach or player.”

He’s not thinking of long Leinster campaigns or battles with the elite in the All-Ireland series. They start out on the 2019 road against Wicklow and that’s the first step they will focus upon.

Gavan Casey, Murray Kinsella and Bernard Jackman tee up Saturday’s Champions Cup final and look at the backroom problems in Munster.:

Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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Fintan O'Toole

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