Lilies in a 'better place' after Wexford scare, insists O'Neill
Stepping out of the shadows to venture into management with his native Kildare has always been Cian O'Neill's dream but it very nearly turned into a nightmare in his first championship game last month.
O'Neill has been around the block a few times in his globetrotting coaching and strength and conditioning journey with Tipperary's hurlers and the footballers of Mayo and Kerry, but an unimpressive 0-9 to 0-8 win over Wexford threw a curveball at him.
The setting was familiar but the eerie atmosphere around Croke Park that Saturday evening was like nothing he had experienced before as Kildare limped to victory in one of the worst championship games in recent memory.
Their last three visits to Jones' Road had seen them ship a combined total of 14-51, including a seven-goal massacre against Kerry, and O'Neill admits their new defensive system often resembled a team playing with shackles.
"A lot of nerves set in I'd say in the second half out there. Some people don't get it, if you are not involved you probably wouldn't get it, that this gripping kind of fear or making a mistake or fear of failure, it can be very hard to break," he says.
"It was almost like that gripped us, it spreads then all over the field and it was very hard to unlock it. The irony is that the more you do that the more you invite the opposition on, and this is a team you feel you should be pushing against."
They parked their grief the following Monday with an open team meeting before releasing players back to their clubs and their response has been hugely positive with a hat-trick of victories in challenge games.
It'll be more than five weeks since the Model tie when the Lilywhites face Westmeath at GAA headquarters tomorrow with O'Neill (right) feeling that they're in a "good space" now and have turned a tricky corner.
"I don't think any amount of visits to a sports psychologist or squad meetings or any amount of victories on their own, 15 training sessions in 18 days; I don't think any one of those will fix it," he says candidly.
"But I think it's a combination of having the trust and belief in the squad that this is the system we are playing, and depending on whatever scenario you find yourselves in, you know the system is still strong. I think the lads are in a much better place now, if you want to call it that the monkey is off their back, with a championship win and a win in Croke Park. But that is done now. And we have moved on."
While always craving the transition to management, O'Neill acknowledges the demands of the role but he loves the challenge. And he isn't letting go of using his impressive coaching expertise.
"There's a lot more, just time wise and responsibility," the Head of Sport, Leisure and Childhood at Cork IT says. "When working as a coach you would never really appreciate what else they need to do because you wouldn't have to.
"Now you have another backroom of 16-17 people, as well as those players, county board issues. I enjoy it, I just think there's a huge amount that goes on in the background that people don't appreciate. I've been around a while and I wouldn't have appreciated it.
"It's a tough task but it's very rewarding. You may think I was really disappointed after the match and I was in bad form but still after about three hours when you go back to Kildare and you've won a championship match with Kildare, there's a bit of satisfaction there.
"It's days like that when you're spending time with your players that you really do enjoy it. I want to be out on that pitch, it's what I do, it's what I love."
For someone who was an outsider in other counties for many years, he's thankful to be far away from the hype machine around the plains of the Curragh on a daily basis. "It's quite bizarre the notion in Kildare that you should be winning every year when there's absolutely no evidence to point to the fact as to why that might be," he says.
"It is relentless, I've heard a lot, I've listened to a lot, I've read a lot, not all very complimentary, but we're doing our best with a super squad and a super backroom team, that's all I can assure people."