Tuesday, July 16, 2019

WHEN so much water has passed under the bridge in four years, it’s easy to forget Kildare’s position, and also Cian O’Neill’s, when he was appointed to the role of manager of the senior football team in October 2015.

Cian O’Neill watches on at the 2015 Kildare county final between Sarsfields and Athy shortly after his appointment as Kildare manager
Photo: ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Kildare were coming off the back of two disastrous seasons that had seen them slip from Division 1 to Division 3 and also ship heavy defeats in the Championship to Dublin and Kerry.

Confidence among the squad, and supporters, was at a low ebb so when it was seen as a major coup to convince O’Neill to leave his role as coach with Kerry to link up with his home county. It wasn’t without its risks though, Glenn Ryan and his legends management ticket would have been a hugely popular choice and O’Neill had no top flight managerial experience. Still though, he had a glittering CV and his involvement in All-Ireland winning set ups both in hurling and football marked him down as one of the most sought after coaches in the country.

O’Neill’s first job was to get Kildare out of the backwater of Division 3 and that was done with ease. Kildare proved far too good for that level of football and won six of their seven games.

However, there was disappointment in Croke Park in a closely fought league final at Croke Park against Clare, disappointments in Croke Park and in closely fought games were unfortunately to become a recurring theme under O’Neill.

Heading into the Leinster Championship, Kildare were placed on the opposite side of the draw to Dublin and from the off, O’Neill obviously targeted meeting them in a final.

Playing a defensive system wasn’t really his style, nor was it really compatible to the players at his disposal but Kildare adopted a system with two sweepers going into the quarter-final against Wexford. It led to game that surely ranks with some of the very worst played at Croke Park but ironically enough, the 0-9 to 0-8 win was O’Neill’s only win at GAA HQ as Kildare manager.

The same system was in place against Westmeath but in one of the great missed opportunities under O’Neill, Kildare let a six point second half time lead slip and missed out on the Leinster final that had been planned for.

Kildare recovered in the Qualifiers and ran up a score of 1-22 when beating Offaly in St Conleths but an away draw to Mayo made progress unlikely.

Peter Kelly and Cian O’Neill celebrate after the Qualifier win over Offaly in St Conleths Park in 2016
Photo: ©INPHO/Tommy Dickson

Lessons were learned from that year and Kildare made a blistering start to the league in 2017. Consolidation was perhaps the aim after promotion the previous year but Kildare played some wonderful football to beat Meath, Cork, Fermanagh, Down and Clare in their six games to secure Division 1 football with still a game to spare.

It meant that O’Neill could shuffle his pack going into the last round of games in Salthill but Kildare’s second string were only beaten by a point by a Galway side gunning for promotion. Kildare returned to full strength a week later when in the Division 2 final in Croke Park against the same Galway team but there was more frustration in a two point defeat.

June 2017 was perhaps some of the best football of O’Neill’s time and with Daniel Flynn beginning to come to the fore they beat Laois by 14 points and Meath by 9 in matter of weeks in Tullamore, Flynn scoring 2-7 in those games, to reach the county’s first Leinster final in eight years.

By now, a style of play was starting to form.With Kevin Feely start to develop in the centre of midfield and an attack built around the mercurial talents of Flynn, there were no thoughts of going into the final solely to nullify Dublin. On the back of their promotion and superb Leinster Championship, Kildare were confident of standing up to anybody and they certainly weren’t disgraced in a nine point defeat, scoring 1-17 in the process.

Despite the size of the gap on the final scoreboard, Kildare emerged from that game with huge credit and were seen as the one side in Leinster who might eventually be able to halt the seemingly unstoppable Dubs.

Kildare had two weeks to lick their wounds before facing Armagh but it was to prove to be another missed chance. Kildare led by a point going into the final 15 minutes but Armagh, managed by O’Neill’s predecessor Kieran McGeeney, proved too tough and too streetsmart in the closing stages and won by a goal.

The Qualifier loss to Armagh in 2017 was a tough one to take
Photo: ©INPHO/Donall Farmer

Still, the year was a positive one and 2018 was greeted by great enthusiasm as Division 1 football returned to the county.

The likes of Feely, Flynn, Paul Cribbin and Paddy Brophy had all spent time out of the country playing professional sports at different time but were all back and fully fit heading into 2018 and with players like Fergal Conway, David Hyland and Eoin Doyle really establishing themselves as top class players, confidence was high.

Dublin in Croke Park was as tough as it could get to resume life in Division 1 but Kildare put in a creditable first half display before slipping to a seven point defeat. Still, it would the home games that would decide Kildare’s fate.

But there was to be no luck for Kildare when they fell to two one-point defeats against Monaghan and Tyrone on successive Sundays in St Conleth Park that February. It really feels like those two games were hugely pivotal to O’Neill’s reign and things could have worked out very differently had they won even one of them.

Another close defeat away to Donegal followed in a game that Kildare played for over 50 minutes with 14 men after Eoin Doyle’s sending off for not wearing a gumshield.

Kildare were eventually relegated after losing all seven games but Kildare and O’Neill’s year still hadn’t reached its low point.

That arrived in Tullamore when Kildare fell to a humiliating defeat to Carlow. It was Kildare’s first Championship loss to the Barrowsiders since 1953 and going back to the previous year, was Kildare’s tenth consecutive loss in the League and Championship.

Kildare were a wounded animal going to Owenbeg to play Derry in the first round of the Qualifiers after that but credit to O’Neill and his players, they showed a real desire that day and Daniel Flynn scored another goal of the season contender in an eight point win.

An away tie in Longford followed and although Kildare weren’t always convincing, they managed a three point win that sunny Saturday evening. Nobody leaving Pearse Park that evening could have foreseen what to come the following week.

The Qualifier draw that Monday morning saw Kildare drawn first to Mayo in what was assumed to be a home game for Kildare. What followed was one of the most amazing weeks in the history of the GAA, and certainly in Kildare sport.

It was announced that because of health and safety concerns over Kildare’s home venue in St Conleths Park that the game against Mayo would be played in a neutral venue in Croke Park.

Cue uproar and the beginning of what became known as the ‘Newbridge or nowhere’ saga.

The Kildare county board announced that it was indeed Newbridge or nowhere and that they wouldn’t be togging out at Croke Park. Then followed the remarkable sight of O’Neill appearing on the 6pm RTE news to reiterate Kildare’s stance that they would be in St Conleths Park the following Saturday evening no matter what they were told by the GAA.

It was a show of leadership that galvanised a county, and the GAA fraternity outside of Kildare too. On the Wednesday, the GAA finally relented and agreed that Kildare were justified in the stance that the game should be played in Newbridge.

It was a huge victory for O’Neill and the county board and that victory was followed by Kildare’s first win over genuine All-Ireland contenders in almost two decades when Mayo were defeated by 0-21 to 0-19.

Cian O’Neill on the sideline during the famous Qualifier win over Mayo
Photo: ©INPHO/James Crombie

It will be a long time before the scenes and atmosphere in St Conleths Park before, during and after that game are replicated. Quite simply, it was totally unique occasion and O’Neill played a huge part in Kildare’s wins, both on and off the pitch.

Fermanagh were then blitzed in Navan in one of the best performances under O’Neill and Kildare found themselves in the inaugural Super 8s series. However, the three games just served up more what if scenarios for O’Neill.

After a tough run of games through May, June and July, Kildare looked off the pace against Monaghan in Croke Park and lost by 2. Galway visited St Conleths Park next and Kildare were chasing the game from early on, Flynn’s second half in the second half put paid to their chances. That meant there was nothing left but pride to play for when Kildare visited Killarney to play Kerry but with Flynn suspended, Paul Cribbin had his best game in a Kildare jersey and the team played some scintillating football in the first half before another red card, this time to Neil Flynn, ended their momentum and they ended up on the wrong side of a heavy defeat.

That brought O’Neill’s agreed three year tenure to an end but after a number of weeks, an agreement was reached between the manager and the county board to extend that by at least a year. Looking back now, perhaps the emotion of that Mayo win played a big role in that decision and maybe a parting of ways would have best suited all parties then but O’Neill had earned the right to have another crack with what looked to be one of the most exciting young squads around, especially as it would be supplemented by the U20 All-Ireland champions.

O’Neill suffered a massive blow before the 2019 season even started when Daniel Flynn announced that he wouldn’t be committing for the year. Under O’Neill’s management Flynn had developed into one of the most electrifying footballers in the country and from full forward had garnered himself a highlights reel of some of the best goals of recent times. He was nominated for All-Stars in the previous two seasons and his absence hung over the team throughout the year.

Not only was Flynn unavailable but his Johnstownbridge clubmate Paul Cribbin played only 20 minutes in one league game through the year. Two players who would have walked onto any team in the country and who were such a massive part of all the good that Kildare in 2018, it was no wonder the team suffered without them. Kevin Flynn’s injuries were also a massively overlooked blow and the team really missed his pacy runs from the half back line. Niall Kelly travelled for most of the year and Paddy Brophy struggled with injuries and for form.

The Kildare attack had to be rebuilt and in fairness, Adam Tyrrell and Ben McCormack did their best to deliver.

Kildare never found the same sort of attacking rhythm though. They were inconsistent at best during the early stages of the league but still found themselves in with a chance of promotion to Division when away to Donegal in the final round. Kildare put in a dismal display though.

That form scarcely improved in the Championship and after scraping by Wicklow and then Longford, after a replay, Kildare were well beaten in the Leinster semi-final by Dublin.

The team briefly flickered in the Qualifiers when a hammering a poor Antrim team but just like McGeeney before him, defeat at home to  Tyrone in the Qualifiers proved to be O’Neill’s last game in charge.

Cian O’Neill shakes with Mickey Harte after a defeat to Tyrone that proved to his last as Kildare manager
Photo: ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Overall, Kildare are certainly in a stronger place than when O’Neill arrived and the job is sure to be much sought after given the talent that is there and the potential of the young players coming through. There were times during the first three years that O’Neill looked very near to harnessing all that talent and he created an exciting and attacking team but one that couldn’t couldn’t quite make the breakthrough to the top bracket of teams in the country. There were some great highs but ultimately it is the near misses that live longer in the memory, apart from that amazing win over Mayo.

O’Neill, though, can leave with his head held. He represented his county with distinction and never gave anything less than his best in his attempts to get Kildare competing with the top teams in the county. Four years is a long time in the highly pressurised world of inter-county management when work life, family life and everything else is taken into consideration, especially when O’Neill was making the long drive from Cork on a regular basis. The time was right for a change for all concerned but after a well earned rest, there is no doubt that O’Neill will be once again a highly sought after coach and manager.

For Kildare, the search for his successor starts now.

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