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'Outsider' Cian O'Neill feels at home in the Kingdom

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Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice and selector Cian O'Neill, right. O'Neill insists Kerry have gone from strength to strength after overcoming setbacks

Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice and selector Cian O'Neill, right. O'Neill insists Kerry have gone from strength to strength after overcoming setbacks

SPORTSFILE

Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice and selector Cian O'Neill, right. O'Neill insists Kerry have gone from strength to strength after overcoming setbacks

CIAN O'Neill has been around too long to go into comparisons.

The Kildare native has been around the block a few times at this stage. Sunday will be the fifth time in six years that he has been involved with an All-Ireland finalist after stints with the Tipperary hurlers and Mayo footballers, so when he's asked what's different between the Kerry footballers and the other sides he has worked with, diplomacy is his automatic setting.

"I wouldn't compare teams," he demurs. "But what I can say about this team is technically they're an incredibly sound team. That goes for every Kerry team that has gone before us. That helps the coaching side of things. There's such an emphasis on the kick-pass.

"Coming up through the underage structure, it's a very familiar skill for them. A lot of people compensate in my opinion in not having that technical ability by playing a controlled hand-passing game or defensive game.

"I certainly think that Kerry would be one of the best teams technically in the country."

O'Neill's presence at the Kerry media day could be read as to a tip of the cap to the significance of the role he plays in the set-up.

He is both a coach and physical trainer, and that integrated approach has become a must as sports science takes ever deeper roots in the preparation of GAA teams.

Manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice acknowledged as much when he appointed O'Neill as one of his selectors. O'Neill is the first 'outsider' to carry out the role in Kerry.

When he first met the squad, he quickly realised he was the cuckoo in the nest. Apart from the handful of players he has managed as part of his duties with the UL Sigerson Cup team, he knew no one.

And there he stood alongside multiple All-Ireland winners Diarmuid Murphy and Fitzmaurice as well as a legend of the game in Mikey Sheehy.

Instead of being eyed with suspicion, O'Neill was surprised at what he found.

"A lot of people had said to me, 'there's a lot of players there with a lot of jingles in their pockets with their medals, you're going to find it tough to bring them on board'," O'Neill recalls.

"I found last year it was actually the opposite. They wanted more. Probably because of the disappointment of what had gone before, maybe they realised you can't do what you've always done or else you'll get what you've always got."

Two years on and Kerry are in an All-Ireland final. Physically and technically, O'Neill says Kerry are better than they were 12 months ago.

That work culminated in the replay win over one of O'Neill's former sides, Mayo. When it came to it, he could put aside any Mayo leanings quite easily.

"In terms of any emotional consideration, no, I'd be quite cold that way, I've been told. So that didn't affect my approach to the game," he insists.

"But if I wasn't with Kerry, I would have been bitterly disappointed because I feel that group of players deserves more than two final appearances. I think they're an exceptional bunch. Their time will come. Just not at the expense of Kerry."

Now Kerry face their greatest test in Donegal, who won their only Championship encounter to date back in 2012.

"You'd have to be impressed (with Donegal). I was up at the (Dublin) match. I felt they had a particular game-plan and they executed it very well," he says.

style

"They believe their style of play irrespective of what anyone else thinks of it. It's served them well two years ago.

"What I liked about the performance the last day was even when the game was going away from them, they stayed resolute. They believed in their plan and they continued to do what they'd set out to do."

While there's likely to be a clash of styles, O'Neill points out that Kerry have boasted the best defence in Division 1 in each of the last two seasons and insists when it comes to the crunch on Sunday afternoon, they won't be caught short.

"It's possibly something that's been thrown at Kerry teams in recent years that they don't close out tight games, when things go against them, they don't put themselves in a position where they can change that," he says.

"But they've been very resolute when things have gone against them. In a couple of league matches, and certainly in the Galway match when Galway had that purple patch and came back. And I think the two Mayo matches speak for themselves.

"Any time adversity stared them in the face, they were going to stare it back down again. That wasn't a trait that was associated with this group of players."

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