'I left my bedroom twice in five days... it worried my wife' - Cian O'Neill on pressure of inter-county management
Kildare manager Cian O’Neill said that the 2016 Leinster semi-final loss to Westmeath was the worst feeling he’s had since the passing of his mother in 2007.
O’Neill said that he left his bedroom just twice in the week after the defeat and that training for the Lilywhites round 2 qualifier with Offaly was the only outlet that offered him any sort of release.
“You mentioned the Westmeath match, the guys have suffered a lot of cruel defeats as players and you asked how did I feel after the Westmeath match last year?” O’Neill said at the One Zero conference at Croke Park alongside Tipperary hurler Brendan Maher and Dublin footballer Sinead Finnegan.
“As a manager, or as a coach, or as a trainer of any club or county team, I never felt like I did after that match. It was probably the second worst feeling I’ve ever had in my life, after the passing of my mother.
“It was really something I never foresaw. I’ve lost lots of big matches, we’ve all lost big matches, but after a day or two you kind of come around.
“But it’s obviously the fact that being a native, a Kildare man managing Kildare, it means that bit more. The pressure obviously is that bit more.
“But I literally didn’t get out of my bed, physically didn’t leave the room until the Friday after the Sunday, bar two times.
“The irony was the two times that I was able to pull myself out and have some semblance of normality, was training Tuesday and training Thursday, because we were getting ready for the backdoor.
“For those two or three hours that I was there with the players I felt free, I felt normal. That actually shocked me and it worried me, it worried my wife.
“I would literally call it depression. I was in a bout of depression and I had never felt that way before. That was scary that sport can do that to you.
“But thankfully it hasn’t happened since. That really made me think about what I was investing into and how it was having an impact on me mentally, physically and psychologically.
“I’m sure there’s lots of managers and players that feel quite similar, but that was the first time I ever felt that type of pressure in sport, it happens in work all the time, that had that impact on me.
“That’s frightening and it’s something that the supporters, or keyboard warriors, hitting you with personal slurs that say awful things about players and managers, that’s the side of the game people don’t see and I think a wider discussion is needed on that whole narrative.”
Finnegan said that acceptance was a big part in not letting pressure and defeat depress you, and that GAA players have to remind themselves more often as to why they play the game in the first place.
“As captain, sometimes you realise that people have a lot of struggles that the wider team might not know about,” said Finnegan.
“You see them at training and they’re giving it everything they have, but at the back of the mind they might have something really affecting their lives.
“Sport is a very powerful thing that can take you out of that, and that you do feel free when you’re playing sport, but on the other side it can also have that negative effect.
"Sometimes you are so passionate about something that you become obsessed about it and as a panel, after we lost those three All-Ireland finals [to Cork], we needed to accept that we weren’t the best on the day.
“We needed to put our hands up and that’s important. We didn’t get over the line because we weren’t good enough and we were up against a better team.
“I think as a team everyone needs to buy into that but then also throughout the year and afterwards people do struggle.
“It’s important for people to take some time out and I think sometimes as athletes, and county players, you’re seen as professional athletes but you’re working 9-5.
“You’re training in the evening and you’re putting all your focus on trying to win an All-Ireland and I think that sometimes you need to take a step back and go ‘oh I’m here because I actually enjoy this’.
“Sometimes people become so obsessed that they lose the enjoyment and the passion for the game. That’s one thing that I think is really important that we need to go back to - why we’re here - sometimes that can get lost in the journey.”
In relation to football, O’Neill said that Kildare need to target a place in next season’s Super 8’s and that the county need to do more to narrow the gap between the top tier teams and the rest of the chasing pack.
“For us it’s all about gradual improvement,” added O’Neill.
“It’s fair to say that we’eve some bit to go to catch the top three - and I just think there are three in my own opinion in Dublin, Kerry and Mayo, and they are a little bit ahead of everyone else. Then there’s the chasing pack and I think there’s quite a few teams in that chasing pack.”
“For us it has to be about gradual improvement and then for 2018 our goal would be maintaining our position in division 1, because a lot of teams tend to go up and rebound right back down again.
“It’s great to be there but it’s a really negative spin on your season before championship even starts if you go down again.
“When competing in Leinster, obviously when you have a team of Dublin’s level of success and experience and guidance, outstanding, 10/10 across the board, you always have to consider that elephant in the room.
“We challenged them this year, ultimately they were comfortable, they won by nine points, but we challenged them in different parts of the game.
“Can we replicate that over 70 minutes? That would be a plus for us. We probably let ourselves down this year because we thought a quarter-final was in our sights.
“That has to be a target for us this year, and ultimately that means the Super 8’s, so that’s a big thing for us.”