‘Every team he goes to, they improve’ - Cian O'Neill's impressive track record has Kildare on the rise
Cian O’Neill’s track record as an innovator in coaching teams is endorsed by the players who have worked with the Kildare manager
The Tipperary hurlers stood aghast. Their coach sat on the floor, wrapped his hands around two ropes and, with legs parallel to the floor, smoothly pulled himself up to the ceiling and back down.
Teaching by doing. No message gets across more simply than the one you can see. It’s something that rings true from Cian O’Neill’s academic background as PE Course Director at the University of Limerick and now as CIT’s head of Sport, Leisure and Childhood Studies.
As in his career, marking out the Newbridge, Co Kildare native’s sporting path has been a continuous upward trajectory. The occlusion glasses that he’s now using with Kildare highlight a scientific approach, punctuating a decade of progressive thinking. Be that through his focus on body movements, the latest technologies, ingenuity in the use of tennis balls during tackling drills, or long-term gym programmes.
He has learned from port to port, all the while leading teams from the dark ages into the spotlight of success. You can list the champion teams he’s worked with: Tipperary and Newtownshandrum in hurling, Monaleen and Kerry in football, the UL Huskies in basketball. Different codes, similar outcomes.
His first inter-county job was under Mickey Ned O’Sullivan with Limerick back in 2006. John Galvin recalls his UL students coming in to collect player data, their moving away from hard winter slogging, and the start of body-conditioning.
“The thing is, when you’re playing with Limerick you buy into everything,” says Galvin. “There’s no notions or anything about that in Limerick. If you’re told it’s right, you go with it. You depend on people with experience. He had an awful lot of study done on this, it wasn’t as if he was coming in talking sh**e. He was a lecturer in UL so he does know his stuff.”
O’Neill took charge of the UL Sigerson Cup team too; one that was down the pecking order within the university but, breaking with history, wasn’t long making it to finals weekends.
“I just noticed that what we were doing felt a lot more in tune with what football is,” says Galvin. “Things were done with a ball. You might do a 100- or 150-metre run in football up and down the field, but there’s no point in running around flags for a half an hour. Everything you did was part of gameplay.”
Next stop was Semple Stadium and a Tipperary team still in the doldrums by late 2007. Liam Sheedy, along with Eamon O’Shea and Michael Ryan, took the reins and brought the Kildare man in as fitness coach. Such was the length of his warm-up routine, it gave rise to rumours that the team went through full training sessions before matches. An easy mistake when there were sustained elements of physical, tactical and technical work. Then, as now, innovations were part of the parcel he presented.
“The warm-ups would usually have been straight lines jogging in and out, but he did it where it’s freestyling movement in a grid so that everyone has to move left, right, up and down,” says O’Neill’s former PE student in UL, and Tipperary corner-back Paddy Stapleton.
“That was getting into the whole way you’d be playing a match, getting out of the straight-line thinking. That would be before every training and match, which was very new.
“He got us the recovery pants which he brought in from Australia. They were a big thing now, because I hadn’t even heard of them at the time, because this was 2008. They were like magic though, unreal. He was very good with that.”
For the first time, the Tipp players were shown footwork. Just as boxers are taught to not cross their legs when side-stepping, it was coached into a side that would go from a shambles to winning three Munsters and a Liam MacCarthy Cup during O’Neill’s four seasons.
“He was great at tactics too,” says Stapleton. “We had small-sided games to get lads really thinking about where they should be and use of the ball in space. Eamon O’Shea gets a lot of credit but Cian was highly involved in that too. Moving off the man was never expressed like this, going off the shoulder, there was a lot more of this and that’s huge in hurling now. Before it was get the ball, puck it up to the forwards, they win it and try to score. Whereas now, it’s more integrated where everyone was moving for each other and that was a big part of Cian’s coaching.”
Tipperary was the beginning of six All-Ireland final appearances in seven seasons across two codes for O’Neill. Tipp came close in 2009 before landing the big one in 2010. Though Sheedy and Co left, O’Neill stayed on to give the team some continuity, with Stapleton stating it was a mark of the man.
In the meantime, James Horan had taken over a Mayo team that had been dumped out of the championship by Longford in 2010. By the winter of 2011, O’Neill came on board as his football coach. Enda Varley had been on the latter’s Sigerson Sup side, and echoes the words ‘professional, attitude, dedication’ so often used to describe O’Neill.
“He was big into NFL and American sports,” says Varley, who scored 0-2 in the 2012 All-Ireland final. “Obviously in NFL, there’s no such thing as a wasted movement and it’s all about the body mechanics: how you sprint and how you turn and how you get the most efficient movement on a GAA pitch. He’s massive into that, I know that from talking to him. He’s massive into basketball and he has that basketball background. Himself and (sports psychologist and sportswriter) Kieran Shannon used to have great conversations about it, he loved that.
“Our skill-set improved no end when himself and James came in, the improvements were huge. A lot of that was down to Cian as well.”
Another man who benefited hugely was Paul Geaney, who would win an All-Ireland title at Varley’s expense in 2014. Kerry knocked out Mayo in that thrilling All-Ireland semi-final replay in Limerick and would go on to beat Donegal thanks in part to an early goal from the Dingle sharpshooter.
“He’s an unbelievable coach,” says Geaney. “He brought coaching techniques to Kerry… at the time I was doing PE at UCC so I had seen some of the stuff. Tackling with tennis balls so you couldn’t grab jerseys and you couldn’t foul basically. You had to tackle with your hands but couldn’t grab with the tennis balls. He brought that into the sessions, and you see those things when you’re taught how to coach but it’s very seldom you see a coach that actually brings it into training. Other days he had warm-ups and he’d throw out different balls for your hand-eye co-ordination – tennis balls, rugby balls whatever.
“He brought those small things and you can see that what he had was a prototype with us, he had the occlusion goggles a couple of years ago. He’s brought those in with Kildare and I’m not sure how much they use them, but he’s progressive in his coaching. An excellent coach, to be fair, possibly the best in the country.”
The Moorefield clubman’s own football career was cut short by a serious injury and, though he could throw his back out by washing his hair, this self-professed data geek didn’t let it stop him. At UL, Stapleton recalls O’Neill doing handstands and rolling dives in front of the class. The Borris-Ileigh man had been part of the panel under Michael ‘Babs’ Keating before O’Neill came in, and noted the dramatic changes to come.
“He was very concerned about our fitness levels when he met us first, I’d say it was November 2007,” says Stapleton. “He didn’t start off the way I’m sure he’d start off with a team now, who I’m sure would have better fitness levels. He did a bleep test with us, a basic cardio test and say, ‘Their cardio isn’t high enough to move onto high-level endurance work’. He started us off on two five-minutes, two ten-minutes, two 20-minutes and then 40-minute runs. I really remember that because I hadn’t really done long-distance before that.”
And Geaney adds: “With Cian, he had a three-year plan or so and he monitored it weekly, individualised it. That’s another step because I know a lot of teams back then had a bulk scheme for everybody and that was it. Whereas we had different things for different guys at different levels. I was probably down at the very bottom of that when I started; I was basically doing push-ups and pull-ups and body exercises to get me strong enough to lift proper weights in the first place. Then I started off with basic weights and I went into lifting since. He was the first who brought that to my life so he has had a big impact – in my training and how I think and go about it. So I imagine he has been the same every place he went.”
“If you look at his PE background, he has sport science as well,” explains Stapleton. “He has both of those. That’s where you’re looking after the mental side of things, the enjoyment part as well as the physical part. So you have both sides whereas sometimes people are ticking boxes saying, ‘This is the way people should be’. But it doesn’t work like that; you have to be able to judge the players. It’s like how teachers can judge their students a lot of the time.
“But he also has the science background to know the fitness markers that need to be ticked. He has both the humanistic side and well as the science. He can see a trade-off there that maybe a team needs to be fitter, but maybe sharpness is more key. Whereas other people, if they didn’t know that, or didn’t know personalities as well, might just drive on and not be able to judge it.”
O’Neill endured a difficult first championship season with Kildare in 2016 but the signs are promising now after securing consecutive promotions and reaching a first Leinster final in eight years. To Galvin’s mind, in any other era without this juggernaut Dublin team, his old coach would certainly be heading for further silverware.
Daniel Flynn, one of the exciting Lilywhites in the current team, says the players are at ease under an energetic manager who encourages them to express themselves rather than be chained to a system of play. Flynn, who spent time with Port Adelaide in the AFL and knows a professional set-up, understands the value of an empathetic figurehead who he can simply call up for a chat. For a county that has been on the wrong end of heavy trimmings by Dublin and Kerry in recent seasons, they needed a strong appointment.
“There’s a positivity around the place and that comes naturally when you’re winning games. People start talking about getting belief again,” relates Flynn. “If you’ve been there and done that, lads are going to listen,” he adds, unaware of O’Neill’s six-finals-in-seven-seasons record. “He doesn’t ram it down anyone’s throat; he’d rarely harp on about different counties. The experience speaks for itself.”
Just 15 players can take to the field and a feature of O’Neill’s management has been a focus on the panel. Before games, he takes the substitutes into a huddle for a pep talk, explaining what he wants from them when and if they come on. For those who played under O’Neill, the consensus is that Kildare have the right man.
“Last year wasn’t fantastic but I think every manager needs one year to see from the sideline, when you give your players an agenda going out to the match, you have to see in the championship if they can carry it out,” says Stapleton. “It’s a little bit easier in the league, it’s a good bit easier in challenge matches to do, but he has to see championship. So he saw and he’s after rectifying as much as he can.”
“Every team he goes to, they improve,” says Varley. “Mayo improved in 2012, Kerry improved in 2013 and won the All-Ireland in 2014, and now he’s with Kildare in 2016 and they’ve been promoted twice and are in a Leinster final in 2017. Maybe they’ll put in a dent in the Dubs or a good performance.”