Cian O’Neill unflinching in his optimism about Kildare football
Manager believes his side can upset the odds and beat All-Ireland champions Dublin
Cian O’Neill is in his third season in charge of Kildare. He believes Kildare have regained something of the ruthless streak they showed last summer. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Cian O’Neill is undoubtedly a glass-half-full kind of guy, which is a good thing, because no one in Kildare needs a whiff of any pessimism right now.
Some people might suggest Kildare don’t have half a chance against eight-time defending champions Dublin in Sunday’s Leinster football semi-final: they haven’t beaten Dublin in the championship in 19 years, losing nine straight games since, the last three by an aggregate of Dublin’s 11-57 to their 2-40.
Dublin won their three games in Leinster last year by an average of 20 points, and opened up this year with a 26-point win over Louth. Kildare very nearly blew their quarter-final against Longford, requiring a replay in Tullamore last Sunday before they closed out 12-point winners.
All of which made O’Neill’s assertion in the immediate aftermath of that game as sounding overly optimistic: “We are going to win that match” he said, without flinching. Really? “You have to go into every match believing you can win. It doesn’t matter who it is. The nature of the game of football is that in any one day if you perform to your best you are in with a shot.
“This time last year we were four weeks away from the Super 8s, and if it wasn’t for couple of decisions, the bounce of a ball, a bit of discipline we could have come out of the Super 8s into an All-Ireland semi-final.
“I know we haven’t reached those heights this year yet, but beating Longford was a good step in the right direction. There’ll be no fear there, but there’ll be respect for the quality of team they are, and how they have performed over the last number of years.”
It’s easy to see where O’Neill gets some of his optimism from. He has an impressive CV, having first made his name as fitness coach with the Limerick football team that gained promotion to Division One in 2006, then moved into hurling, part of Liam Sheedy’s Tipperary backroom team that won the 2008, 2009 and 2011 Munster title, and 2010 All-Ireland.
After the 2012 season with Mayo, the year they also made the All-Ireland, O’Neill moved to Kerry, a selector with Eamon Fitzmaurice as they won Munster titles in 2013, ’14, ’15, and the 2014 All-Ireland. After finishing with Kerry in 2015, he’s been with Kildare since, last year, his third season in charge, testing his optimism to the absolute hilt.
After losing the 2017 Leinster final to Dublin, 2-23 to 1-17, still the highest score put against Dublin that summer, they lost their qualifier game to Armagh, then began 2018 on a 10-game losing streak that including two in O’Byrne Cup, all seven league games, and a first championship defeat to Carlow in 65 years.
That made it a 12-game losing streak in all, before suddenly turning it around in a qualifier-winning run that saw them beat Derry, Longford, Mayo and Fermanagh to make the Super 8s. They ended up losing all three of those games (to Monaghan, Galway and Kerry) but again O’Neill believes Kildare have regained something of the ruthless streak they showed last summer, especially in the “Newbridge or nowhere” showdown against Mayo.
For Kildare captain Eoin Doyle, O’Neill’s optimism is all well and good, but ultimately it’s up to the players to deliver on what they believe is their own potential. Doyle, a member of the Kildare squad since 2012, has overcome a series of hip and groin injuries to emerge as a leader and anchor to their defence at centre-back.
“Potential is the word that is bandied around a lot with us and it’s a dangerous word,” said Doyle.” I’m cautious of it. I’ve been hearing that word a lot since I was involved with Kildare for seven or eight years now. And it is absolutely true, but we need to start realising that.
“There’s definitely a part of you relishing the opportunity (to play Dublin) but we have to err on the side of caution as well. Every team always goes out to win and beat any other team, but Dublin are very, very good.
“And they have proven that not just in Leinster but throughout the country the last five or six years, so you have to get your recovery going and be very clear on what you are doing and you have to execute it.
“That is down to the players. You can talk about management, trainers and physios, but the players on the pitch have to turn up and execute what they are able to. Too many times I’ve come out of there (Croke Park) and felt we’ve not played as well as maybe I felt we could have played. Now that’s down to other teams stopping you playing. Dublin are good at that, they are very good at defending and controlling the game and controlling the ball.
“But you have got to learn, whether it was the league last year or the Leinster final two years ago, you have to learn from it to try and catch up with them.”