Sunday is the first year since 2008 the Kildare man hasn’t been involved with a team competing in a senior All-Ireland final.
Having trained Tipperary’s hurlers for three years, he was coach to Mayo when they lost to Donegal 12 months ago.
As in previous appearances, it’s been suggested the ghosts of recent All-Ireland finals past could come back to haunt the Connacht champions.
James Horan takes a different view and talks of how the 62-year gap to the county’s last All-Ireland title is an opportunity for his players to be their own trailblazers.
Knowing the players, O’Neill is certain there are no hang-ups. “A lot of that is a manifestation of what’s out there in the media. The people who matter in the dressing room know it’s different. It makes a good story, that’s all.
“Back in 2008, the story coming into the Tipp game in Cork was they hadn’t beaten Cork in Páirc Uí Chaoimh since 1922. But you look at the stats and there were something like only four bloody matches in that time and one or two of them were draws.
“Conor Mortimer put it well earlier in the week when he said a lot of these guys weren’t around in 2004 or ‘06. Those who were, the Andy Morans, the Alan Dillons, are serious guys and what happened won’t be affecting them.
“The first 11 minutes of last year’s final had nothing to do with history. It was never an issue going out onto that field.”
Parallels can be drawn between Mayo and Liam Sheedy’s Tipperary who went from semi-finalists to finalists to champions over three seasons. Mayo are on course to follow the exact same trajectory.
Like they did when O’Neill was involved, Mayo have spoken of games numerically as opposed to stages.
Knowing the people involved preparing them, he has no doubt they will be ready both physically and skill-wise in three days.
“Mayo would have aspirations of reaching the quarters every year and they need to be ready when they get to that stage so they can go on another level. You can do that only if you have the right people. One of the core personnel driving the whole bus for Mayo is Ed Coughlan. He’s in year three with those boys and you can see how they’ve improved. He’s involved in just their conditioning but their skill acquisition too. He’ll have them humming for Sunday in addition to what Donie (Buckley) is doing. Everything will be spot on.”
Tactically, James Horan and Buckley will lead the charge. Stephen Cluxton’s kickouts are an obvious matter of importance. But having shown with Kerry earlier this month how they can be targeted, O’Neill anticipates Dublin will have to resort to a plan B.
“It’s well documented that Dublin place a huge reliance on their kick-outs. It shouldn’t be overstated, though. They have many more strings to their bow performance-wise.
“He acts like a quarter-back but when they are put under pressure they will need to have a plan. Last year, we got it right tactically both in league and Championship against them.
“The Dublin management will have their say but it’s important that it comes from the players. It’s going to be interesting how they offset the offset.
“I never had an issue with blanket defences because it was a way of trying to find a way to beat the other team and as a coach that’s what you’re there to do.
“Dublin will have to do something different on Sunday in terms of how they deal with the counter offensive tactics of Mayo. I’m excited about what they have in store as obviously, I don’t know what they’re going to do. How they deal with Mayo trying to close out their kick-outs in first phase will be worth watching.”
O’Neill wants Mayo to end their years of hurt — and knows they can too — but appreciates it doesn’t always work out that way.
“It’s their natural turn to win an All-Ireland but sport isn’t like that. Lads will have to work harder than they have in any of their previous games. They’re an exceptional bunch of players and there’s no doubt they deserve to but sport can be cruel as we found out in the semi-final. No doubt Dublin feel they deserve it too.
“As I have had a personal relationship with the Mayo players, I really hope they do it. To say they deserve it is actually too clichéd and almost patronising. I just hope they perform better than Dublin. But Dublin will be hungry. All this talk that they won an All-Ireland two years ago so they may not have the hunger — that’s rubbish. They’re well-drilled, well-organised and unlike previous years there is no soft centre when they’re under pressure. There was zero evidence of it in the semi-final two weeks ago.”