Thursday 14 December 2017

'The problem with the lack of analysis is that people are afraid of what they don't understand'

After a rocky first season, Kildare football boss Cian O'Neill is hoping to drive the Lilies down the right road

Kildare manager Cian O’Neill is looking forward to the challenge of facing Laois tomorrow. Photo: Sportsfile
Kildare manager Cian O’Neill is looking forward to the challenge of facing Laois tomorrow. Photo: Sportsfile

Michael Verney

When you come away from a conversation with Cian O'Neill, it's hard not to feel enlightened, and it's easy to see why success has followed him at every turn throughout his coaching career.

Stints with Tipperary's hurlers and Kerry's footballers led to All-Ireland honours, and his reputation was such that "10 to 15 inter-county offers" were put on the table. Only one could tempt him away from his role with the Kingdom, however, and he left to take the reins as football boss with his native Kildare.

The chance to step into management with the Lilies was one he couldn't pass up. There are drawbacks, with huge time spent on the road between his Limerick base, his role as department head of Sport, Leisure, and Childhood Studies in Cork IT and managing Kildare, but he makes it work.

It's a balancing act juggling everything, including his marriage to Tammy (who appeared on the Voice of Ireland in 2013), while still performing at his best. During his one-year stint with Mayo in 2012, which involved a five-hour round-trip, his appreciation of time management hit new heights.

Everything about O'Neill's approach is underpinned by efficiency, and time spent on the road is time well spent.

"You can't write in the car so I'm a big fan of the dictaphone and putting my thoughts into that, whether it's something I want to say to a player or to the group," O'Neill says.

"You always have a few minutes when you get up there where you can transcribe that and make sure you know what you want to do that night. The most important thing is the use of your phone calls, whether it's ringing players to review a match.

"Or talking to Rolly (Ronan Sweeney) or Enda (Murphy) about the session or to the medical team about a player who might be an injury doubt. It is tough but you can make it easier on yourself in terms of being better with time management and planning.

"Even after games I always like to reflect immediately to get my initial thoughts and emotions. Coming home from Derry this year I had to have the match analysed before I got home, I'd have it on my laptop, I just couldn't wait until the next day and waste time.

"I'm always facing a drive back to Cork so I couldn't get it done that night. On the bus I'd have it done, watch the match back and forth, stop, pause; I couldn't not do it, it's just me."

While promotion to Division 2 last year got his managerial reign off on a high, things went downhill from their last-gasp Division 3 final defeat to Clare and a disappointing summer ensued. O'Neill copped a lot of flak but he's his own harshest critic.

As a qualified PE teacher, he practises what he preaches when it comes to critical self-reflection and that often made for grim reading, especially when Kildare looked crippled by fear when scraping past Wexford, 0-9 to 0-8, in one of the worst games in recent memory.

"Even when we were winning last year I wasn't happy with how we were performing," he says. "I'm questioning 'are we right with selection here? We're very happy with the players, is it a training issue? Is it a psychological issue we need to work on?'.

"Straight away after the Wexford game you're thinking, 'this is a phase we're supposed to push on from and we haven't' so you're questioning everything, questioning myself, am I doing the right thing? Do the players understand their roles?

"Is there more we can do as a management? That's constant. What's been more pleasing this year is we've been playing really well in most cases. You're constantly asking yourself can you be better, and unless you ask those searching questions you're never going to get better."

Having a fully fit squad at his disposal with the likes of Daniel Flynn, Kevin Feely and the Cribbins, Paul and Keith, all to the fore this year ensured the giant leap to Division 1 was taken.

Both Galway and Kildare shipped criticism in the wake of a disappointing Division 2 final, a curtain-raiser to the epic Division 1 final where Kerry pipped Dublin and put paid to their 36-game unbeaten run, and O'Neill wasn't happy with some of the punditry after their 0-18 to 0-16 defeat.

"It's too easy and a faulty logic to just to compare a match and say 'they're miles apart'. I saw some very poor matches in Division 1 this year, some absolutely atrocious matches in every division," the Sarsfields man says.

"Galway played with 14 men behind the ball; I found that difficult and the players found it difficult to break down. Fermanagh did something similar against us and we scored four goals so it's a little bit too simplistic to compare the two.

"It's not as black and white as people make out. Kerry, Dublin, Mayo, just those three in my opinion are that bit further ahead of everyone else. We're not hiding away from the fact that it was a poor performance and a poor match.

"But we scored the third highest number of goals in the four divisions this year, we only conceded three goals in eight matches, we had some really positive statistics so we know we can play some really exciting football, and one match won't change our opinion on that."

As one of the new brigade of inter-county managers O'Neill is helping to take preparation to new levels. The use of laptops for statistical analysis is scoffed at by those who long for 'the good old days', but O'Neill feels it would be foolish to ignore a valuable tool.

"The problem with the lack of analysis with games is they actually don't know what they don't know," he says.

"They cast aspersions because of one incident and presume that 'managers these days are x, y and z' because they saw one manager do one thing or make one comment.

"There are valuable nuggets to be taken from your stats. At half-time you have three minutes to review what just happened - you leave the players off, they'll work together and figure things out.

"When you bring them back in, you might have another two minutes before you go back out so you've a very short quality period, and if you want to maximise impact, you need to be clear. You need to be concise, it needs to be evidenced-based.

"And that's what that is for. There might be 20 stats but there might be two really important ones like 'we penetrated their '45 ten times but we're not pulling the trigger enough, can we work out how we can get more shots away?' Something as simple as that.

"There might be one or two that are crucial at half-time, and I've a rule, three messages.

"I'd never say more than three points to a group ever, whether that's before, during or after a game; you're just trying to see can you refine what those key points are. It could be something like kick-outs.

"With all the other things going on in a game, how are you supposed to decipher in your brain all the details and make the right decisions without some help?

"People are afraid of what they don't understand, if they've never done that or they don't get it then that feeds into their opinion."

Twelve months on from their Croke Park horror-show against Wexford, O'Neill is confident that the Lilies have matured and as they hit O'Connor Park tomorrow against Laois, he hopes to see stats-based evidence on the pitch.

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