Cian O’Neill admits keeping ‘circus’ away from Kildare players was key

Lilywhites boss thrilled with atmosphere in Newbridge as Mayo knocked out


So home advantage counted for very little or absolutely everything, depending on the moral of the story out of Newbridge on Saturday evening. Kildare manager Cian O’Neill sounds like he’s caught somewhere in between but he is certain of one thing: nothing beats the winning feeling, no matter where the game is played.

“They’re related, but they’re not the same thing,” says O’Neill, juggling the impact that home advantage had in beating Mayo, last year’s beaten All-Ireland finalists, after a thoroughly complete thriller at St Conleth’s Park

“I don’t think it contributed to the performance, but it contributed to the atmosphere. It contributed to the Kildare fans, who were amazing, we really heard them. What contributed to the performance was hard work, resilience, character, leadership, things people have doubted from us in the past. I think the important thing is we kept the circus, if that’s what you want to call it, totally away from the players themselves.

“We really just wanted to come and play and perform. The lads just did that, they were brilliant. The bottom line was, we honestly, I’m very clear, we were not going to play that match anywhere but here, end of story. Simply because that’s what the rule stated.

“Next week there’s a match and it’s going to be decided by the CCCC and that’s perfect because the rules state that they decide where that is. That was the only reason we wanted our voice to be heard, it wasn’t anything got to do with ‘we don’t want to play in Croke Park’ or so on so forth. We were entitled to it, we f***ing earned it. We went to Owenbeg, we went to Longford, small crowds, did our best so it wasn’t going to be taken away from us.

“It was definitely seen internally as a positive for us. I was the one saying a few things, but it was a players’ decision. This wouldn’t have happened unless the players were 100 per cent sure that they were not rolling over on it.

O’Neill is no way bitter towards the GAA on their original decision to fix the game for Croke Park, citing “health and safety matters”, reckoning the Association’s director general Tom Ryan had intervened on the matter to ensure the game went ahead at St Conleth’s Park, as was Kildare’s right.

“I know he wasn’t front and centre, but I’m pretty confident in my own head that the intervention of Tom Ryan was critical to this being resolved the way it was. I don’t know the man, never met the man, but I definitely know he’s a reasonable man. And I think what happened with the county board working really hard behind the scenes with the GAA, it definitely wouldn’t have happened without his intervention or his recommendation.

“I’m no fool, I’m sure the media had two narratives written. If Kildare win the match you had the opening paragraph done; if Kildare lost the match you had your opening paragraph done.

“For me, all it’s done is put us into the fourth round. There have been many false dawns for Kildare football over the years, including the last three when I’ve been here. What it’s done is put us in the bowl for Monday morning. There’s no secret to the success there today for the players bar hard work, dedication, resilience.”

Even in making the last 12, and one win away from making the Super-8 quarter-finals, O’Neill is also sure his team won’t be dwelling on their victory for long.

“Maybe that was a bit of learning last year after a Leinster final – we were getting pats on the back for a game we lost by nine points [to Dublin] and then underperformed the next day out.

“There’s a lovely quote that someone gave to me this week ‘experience is what you gain when you don’t get what you want’. We definitely didn’t get what we want in Leinster, but we gained experience through the last three rounds.”

Mayo manager Stephen Rochford, in charge since the 2016 season and at the end of 2017 given a three-year extension on the term, also put Kildare’s home advantage aside: it was a factor, only not the decisive one

“It’s hard to quantify that,” he says. “The reality is two teams played on the same size field, both teams went at it hammer and tongs, we embraced the game, the fixture that was put to us, and both teams served up a titanic battle which we just came out the wrong side of.

“We absolutely fought extremely hard, never relented from the fight, but our qualities weren’t as strong as we would have liked them to be.

“We probably turned over ball at different times in the game in a tension-filled, tight game, so that was inevitable, but just going into that final stretch we turned over a couple of balls inside the Kildare half that allowed them to counter-attack and stretch the lead. We found it very difficult to claw that back in the last six or seven minutes.

“We always knew that they were going to come out with all guns blazing, no matter where the game was played or under what circumstances. It didn’t surprise us. They were just that bit better a team than us on the day and all respect for that. We lost the game. Would we rather it in Castlebar or Croke Park is inconsequential now at this stage.”

Any talk of an end of era, or indeed his management position, is premature.

“That’s been something said since about 2014, so somebody was going to be right with it. I don’t necessarily think that’s going to be today. That group, there are four or five guys came into that group this season in their very early 20s.

“There are a lot of good quality players, Mayo have just won the [Connacht] Under-20 title. There may be some of them that won’t be available next season, but Mayo football will be competitive in 2019 – I have no doubt about that. The group will dust themselves down over the winter and look to re-energise to come again in 2019

“We have two years left on our term so I don’t want anyone reading into that either way. It’s just a case of reflection, which would happen if you went to the last Sunday in the competition as well. In fairness to Kildare they played hard and tough but fair and got their just rewards.”

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