Friday 23 March 2018

O'Neill eyes Down hurdle after Kildare sidestep 'mental block'

Daragh O Conchuir

Padraig O'Neill has put the importance of Kildare's All-Ireland quarter-final victory over Meath into context, saying that if they had lost at this stage for the third year in a row, "it could have become a mental block".

Getting to the last four has been the ambition of this group since the start of the season and they have recovered from a slew of crippling injuries to achieve that goal.

"It's a great feeling," beamed O'Neill. "The target was to get to the semi-final after the last couple of years in the quarter-finals and we're just delighted to get there.

"It could have become a mental block (if we had lost again). This is a big step for us. Down were good and it'll be another step up for us but we're looking forward to it. They were impressive to beat Kerry by that much so they'll take watching."

While the typical slow start isn't doing much for the nerve-ends of supporters, O'Neill isn't concerned, especially as the players have a steelier resolve than was the case prior to Kieran McGeeney's arrival.

"It's better to concede the scores early than late. We never panicked. We got the goal and a couple of others got a couple of scores to settle us down and we gradually got back into the game. We were tipping away and Jimmers (James Kavanagh) got the goal and we were back in it then.

"I suppose we would have dropped the heads a couple of years ago but you learn from it. We've been in those situations before; we've been in that situation in the last two matches so we knew we had to keep plugging away."

O'Neill is one of the unsung heroes of this Kildare team, fulfilling the type of role that Paddy McKeever did with Armagh in their pomp, with a selflessness that McGeeney has always admired. It is the industry of the St Laurence's man that facilitates the names of others being put up in lights.

On Sunday, he did all that was asked of him in that department but also kicked two excellent points, including one trademark booming score from distance, while also setting up Alan Smith's crucial goal just before half-time with a strong run and intelligent pass.

A gifted footballer, he has no problem running himself into the ground on behalf of his colleagues, particularly as the same is required of every player.

"Every lad that goes onto the pitch has to do hard work. Attack, harry, put them under pressure, everyone has to do it. Go out there a couple of times, make turnovers and get scores out of it and it knocks the stuffing out of the other team sometimes. It's tough going but we're well able for it," he said.

The approach certainly knocked the stuffing out of Meath and now Kildare's fans are dreaming of All-Ireland glory. O'Neill preaches caution but is relishing the chance of playing on the biggest stage.

"We haven't won anything yet so we'll keep the feet on the floor. There'll be a bit of hype but you have to deal with that. These are the games you want to play in. You get to prove yourself against the best."

Irish Independent

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