NOT for the first time in his Kildare career, the removal of Padraig O’Neill from the action was a major talking point after a defeat.
In the 2010 Leinster championship against Louth, O’Neill was withdrawn before half-time despite scoring 1-1 and on Saturday night against Tyrone in round three of the Qualifiers, O’Neill departed with 15 minutes remaining. O’Neill is the metronome in the Kildare midfield. He is the one who keeps everything ticking over with simple passing. Only two of his 20 passes went astray but really it is his hard work that sets him apart.
The 27-year-old covered much of the St Conleth’s Park pitch as exemplified in the 14th minute when he chased back and dispossessed Martin Penrose with a perfectly timed tackle.
Less perfectly-timed was the shoulder barge on Aidan McCrory in the 32nd minute. It was a frontal charge on a player not in possession of the ball and a yellow card was probably the right decision.
O’Neill kicked one of Kildare’s nine wides in the first half but was again to the fore as Kildare got on top in the early stages of the second half. He also scored a terrific point not long into the second period when he became the first player to link up with Tomás O’Connor.
His game was to change in a 30-second spell in the aftermath of Shane Connolly’s penalty save. Kildare quickly burst forward and moved the ball into the hands of O’Neill who was pretty much unchallenged as he shot for a point from just inside the Tyrone 45. With St Conleth’s Park buzzing from Connolly’s save it was a chance for Kildare to move ahead for the first time since the very early stages. There are few players that Kildare would like to see shoot more from that position than the trusty O’Neill but his shot dropped short.
Perhaps it was frustration that led to the next incident he was involved in. Tyrone worked the ball to the left wing and if Mark Donnelly evaded O’Neill there was a lot of ground to run into. O’Neill prevented that happening with a cynical foul that many referees may have seen as a yellow card offence. Instead McQuillan clearly made a note in his book and gestured towards O’Neill that he was on his last warning. Seanie Johnston was immediately sent to warm-up and replaced O’Neill.
While some people may say that McGeeney should have taken a risk to leave on a player who was playing so well, those same people might have a different opinion had O’Neill been sent off in the game. There were others on yellow cards who remained on the pitch but O’Neill was on his last foul and midfield in a close championship game in the final 20 minutes is not a place for somebody walking on eggshells.