Cian O'Neill - taking success on tour
BY SHANE STAPLETON
Success follows Cian O’Neill everywhere he goes, but you get the sense he may also be dragging it along by a leash.
When Kerry lined out for the 2015 All-Ireland final against Dublin, the Kildare native was then preparing an inter-county team for an All-Ireland final for the sixth time in seven seasons.
That was across two codes. The first was Tipperary under Liam Sheedy (2009-10) and then Declan Ryan (2011), before James Horan (2012) with Mayo and then Eamonn Fitzmaurice (2014-15) brought him back over to football.
Having first joined Tipp in their breakthrough Munster-winning season of 2008, O’Neill has now been a key facilitator of seven provincial crowns across two sports. Now, in his second season with his native county, the Lilywhites, he is aiming for yet another title: the Leinster football crown.
That would be three of the four provinces ticked off, with Munster in both codes. His roles have changed over the years. He started off as a coach and trainer with Limerick under Kingdom legend Mickey Ned O’Sullivan for a couple of seasons before taking on a role with a Tipp side looking to re-establish itself under Sheedy.
Little surprise when the Premier went from a poorly prepared team to Munster champions on year one, All-Ireland finalists for the first time in eight years in 2009, and then champions in 2010. Remaining on for one year under Declan Ryan, Tipp retained the provincial crown and came up short against Kilkenny in September.
Speak with any of the Tipp players and O’Neill’s work is lauded. The Moorefield club man’s own playing days were cut short by a back injury but he has tooled up away from the field. After a stint in UL, he is now the Head of the Department of Sport, Leisure and Childhood Studies at Cork Institute of Technology.
After Tipp came Mayo under Horan. He helped them to a Connacht title and an All-Ireland final, one where an early scoring burst from Donegal presented too wide a gap to bridge. Job opportunities came O’Neill’s way frequently and he estimates that between ten and 15 were offered since 2011.
When O’Neill decided to throw his lot in with Mayo in 2012, it summed up the obstacles being placed in front of the team even now. Dr Ed Coughlan has since been involved with the Connacht side and spoke about how the huge commute between Mayo and where their players are situated — often in the capital — hurts their chances.
For O’Neill, that role meant getting home from training at 1:30am at night and being up for work at 7:30. Moving to CIT and taking on training with Kerry in Killarney meant just an hour’s commute, and a more manageable balance.
For the Kingdom, his first season coincided with regaining the Munster football title, and year two it was retained. Later that season, now also as selector, he was to come up against the same Mayo group he had been involved with under Horan. After a replay in Limerick, Eamonn Fitzmaurice’s men made it through.
"It was great,” said O’Neill at the time of the Mayo players. “Andy (Moran), Dillo [Alan Dillon], Keith (Higgins), Colm Boyle, Mickey Conroy, Enda Varley, brilliant. The texts came in, just wishing me the best.”
It was at that stage that the Moorefield man had completed the distinguished feat of preparing teams to win All-Irelands in both codes. “It's fantastic that it happened but I've never thought of it that way. For me if you're working with a group of players, that's your sole focus. It's not about where you've come from or where you're going, it's the moment. It's nice but it wouldn't be the driving point for me.
“On a personal note, I was the physical trainer or athletic development coach with Tipp and that was a defined role as such. Then you had the management team who I worked closely with.
“Whereas in Kerry when you’re a coach and a selector as I was (in 2014), you’re part of that team. It’s almost a greater sense of responsibility and, because you win, it’s almost a greater sense of pride if that makes sense.
“The relationship with the players and the group of warriors you work with is no different at all.”
So after turning down so many jobs, the progressive coach and selector was finally tempted into management by his home county. Year one was a building block, getting a defensive structure in place after a couple of seasons where they had been conceding heavily. Now they're pushing on.
For a county that had been losing players to the AFL. Daniel Flynn and Sean Hurley — who is working through injuries with his club Johnstownbridge — are home while Paddy Brophy has returned from a stint with the West Coast Eagles. In many ways, Kildare football has never looked so good in recent times and that was rubber-stamped with a convincing win over Meath in the Leinster semi-final.
Now it’s all about getting his team to peak for a first provincial final in eight years on July 16. “I don't think it's particularly difficult. It's about protecting the players from all the sideshows.” Given his CV, no man seems more qualified to bring the best out of Kildare.
O’NEILL’S COACHING JOURNEY AND ACHIEVEMENTS
2016 - Present: Kildare Senior Football Manager
- Division 3 Promotion
2013-2015 Seasons: Kerry Senior Football Coach
- All Ireland Champions 2014
- Munster Champions 2013, 2014, 2015
- McGrath Cup Champions 2013
2012 Season: Mayo Senior Football Coach
- All Ireland Finalists
- Connacht Champions
- Division 1 League Finalists
- FBD League Champions
2008-2011 Seasons: Tipperary Senior Hurling Fitness Coach
- All Ireland Champions 2010
- Munster Champions 2008, 2009, 2011
- Division 1 League Champions 2008
- Waterford Crystal Champions 2008
2006-2007 Seasons: Limerick Senior Football Coach & Trainer
- Promotion to Division 1 2006
- League Finalists 2006
2014 Season: Moorefield (Kildare) Senior Football Coach
- Kildare Co. Champions
2010 Season: Monaleen (Limerick) Senior Football Coach
- Limerick Co. Champions
2009 Season: Newtownshandrum (Cork) Senior Hurling Coach & Trainer
- Munster Club Champions
- Cork Co. Champions
2011 Season: UL Huskies Basketball (Limerick) Fitness Coach
- National Cup Champions
- Superleague Champions