Kildare has a tradition of producing midfielders but Padraig O’Neill breaks the midfield mould – and he’s needed more than ever now that Gary White’s no longer part of the fold.
Maybe it’s just a fact of football like one of Newton’s laws of motion – every great team must have a great midfielder. It begins from the earliest age group when more often than not the biggest and the best are given the midfield berths. Although the goalkeeper wears number one, the game begins in midfield. It is Gaelic football’s oldest rule of thumb: win midfield, win the game.
Of course it still matters but it takes different skills to win that battle nowadays. Think back to 2003 when Tyrone ambushed Kerry in their All-Ireland semi-final and the GAA world was introduced to swarm tackling and the blanket defence. It was the birth of ‘puke football’ in one Kerryman’s eyes.
At the time Kildare were served by big, imposing men like Alan Barry and Killian Brennan while Dermot Earley, when injury-free, was the apple of every watching eye – tall, elegant and effortlessly plucking balls out of the air.
Earley, as much as the ingrained optimism of the county, has given cause for Kildare supporters to dream about great glories whenever they see him take to the skies and fetch a kickout. In that moment everything is alright with the world and anything seems possible. In 2009 he dragged Kildare over the line against Wicklow in the All-Ireland qualifiers and almost took them beyond the All-Ireland champions in Croke Park. The following year his presence might have taken them to the All-Ireland Final but as has happened too often in his career, injury stole him away from Kildare.
In the meantime men like Mick Foley and John Doyle have been asked into the breach – the former an All-Star defender, the latter an All-Star attacker. Despite the fact that it is no longer a straight-up contest between four men, and the supporting half-backs and half-forwards have become just as crucial as those who wear eight and nine, the starting midfield still carries a big burden.
That burden is all the greater because of the men who have gone before. In Kerry you operate in the shadows of Mick O’Connell, Jack O’Shea and Darragh Ó Sé but in Kildare the task is just as difficult when you consider that the likes of Niall Buckley, Willie McCreery and Earley are some of the most revered men to have ever worn the white jersey.
Yet ever since his championship debut as a 19-year-old against Wicklow in 2005, Padraig O’Neill has looked unflappable. Although he started out life as a hard-working half-forward, he has been become a regular member of the midfield over the last 12 months where his understated style is almost tailor-made for the breakdown – Kildare’s equivalent of Tyrone’s Brian Dooher.
That same style, much like Dooher, has also made him look old before his time. It is almost as if he has been here before in a previous life. It is not in his nature to make a fuss so he quietly gets on with the job and more often than not, he’s one of the most effective players on the field.
Against Cork in the second round of this year’s National League, he was the most effective player on the pitch. His second half tour de force was a huge part of the reason why Kildare won so convincingly against the Munster champions. There wasn’t much glamour about the fixture on a miserable night in Pairc Ui Rinn but O’Neill rose to the occasion like his life depended on it.
You could understand why his manager was so impressed by his man-of-the-match performance.
“The amount of possession the man went through was serious. He put in a great shift for us in both halves,” said Kieran McGeeney after the game, who appreciated O’Neill’s workrate because he knows that such performances are vital in the accumulation of invaluable league points.
In the first half O’Neill continually popped up on the right wing to bring the play forward and relieve the defence. There was little he could do in the air against the giants of the Cork airforce but he didn’t put a ball astray in the opening half while nonchalantly striding forward to kick a point in the 21st minute.
After half-time he just clicked into another gear. He was on the ball 21 times, scored a second point and assisted in another 1-1 but one of his finest contributions was a tackle in the 57th minute that took ball and man. He sacrificed himself to free up possession for a teammate and delivered a powerful statement to the opposition at a time when the game was still up for grabs.
In the final ten minutes, O’Neill was on the ball nine times – even when the game was decided he continued working hard, which says much about a player who rarely looks affected by what’s going on around him.
“We kept slogging away,” said O’Neill after the game. “This was a big game for us.”
O’Neill never stops working and plays every game like it’s important – that’s what makes him such an asset in a midfield that has had to adapt to a changing game.
PADRAIG O’NEILL VERSUS CORK
Plays F-Pass H-Pass Shots K/O Won Fouls Frees
1st half 13 2/2 10/10 1/1 5 1 0
2nd half 21 4/5 10/10 1/3 4 1 2
Total 34 6/7 20/20 2/4 9 2 2