Wednesday 21 March 2018

Cian O'Neill in new terrain as Kildare's main man

New Kildare manager Cian O’Neill with Eamonn Fitzmaurice in his role as part of the Kerry back-room team
New Kildare manager Cian O’Neill with Eamonn Fitzmaurice in his role as part of the Kerry back-room team
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

When newly-appointed Kildare manager Cian O'Neill takes his first steps as Lilywhite boss in the O'Byrne Cup in January, he will lead a county which, depending on your view, is ranked eighth, 13th or 16th in the country.

And, this time, the buck will stop with him, having completed stints on management teams in Kerry under Eamonn Fitzmaurice, Mayo under James Horan and Tipperary hurling under Liam Sheedy.

His periods with Tipperary and Kerry yielded one All-Ireland title each, while Mayo reached the 2012 All-Ireland final, losing to Donegal.

The Moorefield man has accumulated a vast amount of expertise on his travels, all of which will be badly needed in Kildare as it heads into a period of rebuilding.

Based on this year's championship, they are in eighth place on the overall rankings. Technically, they are in the fifth-eighth group along with Monaghan, Donegal and Fermanagh, who also lost quarter-finals, but Kildare's performance (27-point losers to Kerry) was the worst so they can have no complaints with an eighth-place ranking.

A bottom-placed finish in Division 2 last April dropped them into Division 3 alongside Westmeath - hence the No 16 league rating. And, according to the odds for next year's All-Ireland title, they are the 13th-ranked county.

It all points to the high degree of uncertainty in Kildare as they prepare for life in the third tier for the first time in many years. The tumble from Divisions 1 to 3 in successive seasons was followed by championship defeats by Dublin and Kerry by a combined total of 46 points.

However, Kildare beat Laois by 13 points in a Leinster quarter-final replay and Cork by eight in the qualifiers so it's very difficult to gauge where they actually stand.

Wherever it is, O'Neill's task will be to raise it. And, since he reputedly got the job ahead of a high-powered group, headed by Glenn Ryan, the honeymoon period will be relatively short.

Promotion from Division 3 will be the first target, but ultimately O'Neill will be judged on Kildare's championship performances, not just in terms of how far they progress in the All-Ireland race but how they fare in Leinster too.

They reached the All-Ireland quarter-finals in six of the last eight seasons, which shows solid consistency, but their record in Leinster is quite dismal, having qualified for only one final in the last 15 seasons.

The contrast between Kildare's capacity to survive on the lengthy qualifier road and their inability to negotiate the more familiar local tracks is baffling and will, no doubt, be a major area of exploration for O'Neill.

His comments after being appointed that he would be looking for players who wanted to win for Kildare rather than just play for the county will have flashed out a clear signal to the players.


It suggested that he has doubts about their obsession levels. If that's the case, he will either back himself to change the mentality or make wholesale changes to the panel.

There's some good young talent coming through the ranks and, with Kildare in Division 3 next year, it's the ideal environment to introduce newcomers to the senior scene.

O'Neill said that the first season will be all about setting the foundations, changing the mindset and instilling a high performance culture.

It might come as a surprise to Kieran McGeeney and Jason Ryan that O'Neill feels it necessary to mention those issues but, in fairness, he probably did so in the context of bringing his own personality to bear on the scene.

Of course, O'Neill himself is facing a very big personal test as he will now be the front man, as opposed to a support, albeit an important one, under a manager.

It's a different type of responsibility, not necessarily suited to everyone. However, having worked across football and hurling with Fitzmaurice, Horan and Sheehy, O'Neill has gained valuable experience.

His input has been publicly recognised in all three counties so it was only a matter of time before he decided to go it alone. That the opportunity arose in his native county made it all the more attractive.

He becomes Kildare's seventh manager since the start of the 1990s. Mick O'Dwyer presided for ten seasons in two stints (1991-'94 and 1997-2002), with the late Dermot Earley taking in the intervening years (1995-'96).

Pádraig Nolan managed for three years (2003-'05) and was followed by John Crofton, who led Kildare in 2006-'07. Kieran McGeeney reigned for six seasons (2008-'13), followed by Jason Ryan (2014-'15).

Irish Independent

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