Cian and very able

Before Kerry faced Galway in Croke Park, their coach was scraped up, stretched out, then eased across the back seat of a car.

Cian and very able

It is as well he has seen enough of the road, because he could barely lift his head.

The back. Always the back.

Dr Cian O’Neill has had more painful spins in a car. The back first buckled in the pile-up in 2002 that wrote off his playing career, just as he was set for another shot at the Kildare panel.

A drunk driver rammed him in 2009, in case he was getting sure of himself. Two more discs gone.

This summer, he had a three-level-fusion operation done. Look it up. Lads don’t tend to go there unless they’ve chewed pills, packet and all.

“It’s just been getting worse and worse. I put it off and put it off. It has improved. The surgery went fine, but I’m having a lot of related problems.”

He’d like to be right for his wedding in December. Though medical advice didn’t factor an All-Ireland quarter-final into his rehab.

But the back has never stopped O’Neill making it to Croker.

His CV is a soft, introductory question now, at table quizzes. Which coach has made it to five All-Ireland finals in six years, with three teams in two codes?

His connections are piling on the miles this September too. The day before the hurling final, he is grimacing, stretching, limping but set to travel to watch Tipp — wishing a few old friends a second medal to add a shine to the one they landed in his time.

“Ah, I’ve great time for those lads. I’ve been up there at a good few weddings since.

“Eamonn (O’Shea) and my own philosophies are very close, having worked together. We’re very different personalities and characters in terms of how we run sessions, but very close in terms of our belief in movement, space creation, and players as agents of change on the pitch.”

We’ll come back to those philosophies. Stellar CV or not, O’Neill was an agent of change in Kerry before he landed at all. A blow-in getting them fit is one thing; but a say in who is thrown a jersey? Eamonn Fitzmaurice bucked precedent, last year, with his selection ticket.

“A lot of people told me that there’s a lot of players there with a lot of jingles (medals) in their pockets. You’re going to find it tough to bring them on board. But I found, last year, it was the opposite.”

He knew, he says, in the first meeting, that these guys would buy in and invest heavily.

“I was probably the only stranger in that room. Obviously, they’d have known Murph (Diarmuid Murphy) very well. And Mikey (Sheehy) is a legend. But I wouldn’t have had a personal relationship with them, bar the five or six that I managed at Sigerson in UL.

“What I got from the meeting that night was a huge desire, a huge drive that this year was going to be different.

“Any concerns, or fears about what people were saying; that what worked with other teams may not work with Kerry; that was gone out the window the very first night.

“They wanted more, probably because of the disappointment that had gone before. Probably, they realised that to win another All-Ireland, you can’t do what you’ve always done, or you’ll get what you’ve always got.”

Doing what they’ve always done hadn’t served Kerry too badly over the years. But when you meet him, O’Neill is a man who carves his first impression. He carries himself as confidently as the spine allows. He has, if he wasn’t a results man, the ready charm and answers for politics. It’s easy to imagine him selling science convincingly in a strange room. Word is, he was in no way intimidated by the glamour posting.

In demand, professionally too — he is now head of the Department of Sports, Leisure and Childhood Studies at Cork IT, having moved from UL. O’Neill is confident players know his ways “aren’t built on a foundation of bullshit”.

“The conditioning side comes naturally to me because it is my job. My coaching comes from a real passion and being a student of the game.”

He is infatuated with elite athletes. “I’m very lucky. I’ve worked with great teams and great players. You could look at any of the teams I’ve worked with and there’s been phenomenal leaders; from the Muiris Gavins and John Galvins and Michael Reidys; the Corcorans, Kellys, Fannings, Corbetts, Mahers; into Mayo, serious leaders there again. That makes your job very easy, working with great players.”

Yet, he is acutely aware of a coach’s value at the controls.

“I don’t think there is any significant difference at elite level between the top players in the top five or six teams in the country. Often it comes down to those one-percenters. Those small minor details that one team can do better, plan better or execute better on a given day.”

What Kerry did last year almost worked and has now brought them a step further.

“I think there is a natural progression there anyway. You always look at the training age of a player. So they might be 26, but have a training age of zero because they’ve never been put through a proper regime.

“So the guys are effectively in year two of a training programme. They’ve certainly progressed.”

If any doubters were junking the science of the new regime, the epic squeeze past Mayo drew fresh converts. Particularly since many worried, going in, the team being conditioned by former Kerry coach Donie Buckley would pack too much power.

“I was conscious that was out there,” admits O’Neill, “but I guess we couldn’t control what Joe Bloggs in the street was saying or what the media was saying. All we could focus on was how our game was and how we were going to execute our plan to maximum effect. I think we did that.

“Looking back, because we won, it’s incidental who won that battle. But I can certainly say we were very happy with how we competed in the middle third and all over the pitch.”

Despite spending just one season in James Horan’s camp, before the back screamed its protest at the driving, O’Neill built bonds there too.

“In terms of any emotional considerations, no. I’m quite cold that way, I’ve been told. So that didn’t affect my approach to the game. But after the fact, if I wasn’t with Kerry, I’d have been bitterly disappointed, because I feel that group of players deserves more than those two final appearances. I think they’re an exceptional bunch and their time will come, but just not at the expense of Kerry.”

If those two matches made dozens of lodgements in memory banks all over the country, O’Neill has squirrelled away a second-half point by Donnchadh Walsh the first day. A blue-chip return on buy-in and heavy investment.

“When you saw the ball go into the corner... and then he’s cutting through on a late run from midfield, half-forward. That type of thing, as well as being individual brilliance, it’s rehearsed.

“It’s not rehearsed as in; you go there, you go there. It’s not quite basketball or American football. But it’s rehearsed in the sense that guys; we want the ball moving, we want ye running into space, and the ball will arrive there. If it doesn’t, the next runner is in.

“When you see the movement patterns and support play exactly where you wanted it to be and it comes off; that’s a thing of joy to watch. There’s a sense of pride there.”

To bring training into games, O’Neill has always believed in bringing games into training.

On The Sunday Game, the day after the semi-final replay, Tomás Ó Sé, in his droll way, reminded us why the game was called football, and suggested that Kerry were handy enough at it because they tend, lo and behold, to kick the blessed thing to each other in training.

O’Neill agrees, to a point. He told, this year, that the “one thing you will never see is one Kerry player standing kicking the ball to another and him kicking it back”.

On Tuesday and Thursday evenings, nothing is done at their leisure.

“I guess the big thing we do is practise everything under pressure. We do spend so much time on developing our skills and people often say over the years; and I would have said it as a youngster growing up in Kildare; why is their skillset so high in comparison to other teams? The bottom line is; because they practise.

“They’re not born bilateral in terms of handpass and kick-pass. At county level, people think why would you practise that? I would say you need to do it even more. The biggest thing is the understanding to take a modified game and to get them to envisage how that would be in a large-scale game.

“So you work on modified small-sided games. The challenge then is; take away those grids and this could be any segment of the pitch.

“So when you go into a match and you don’t do what you just spent 15 minutes on; that’s a great coaching opportunity to say, guys, just imagine that grid around you now. It’s the same thing, but there’s 100 of those grids all over the pitch.

“That’s probably one of the biggest challenges in coaching; getting that transference from conditioned or modified game play into open football. But once they get the connection, they always have it. They won’t lose that.

“Whereas in a drill, because drills are premeditated and there’s an absence of decision-making, which is what our game is all about. I know when I kick the ball here, I’m going to run to the back of that line and so on… there’s no thinking involved there.”

That replication of problems faced on gameday mean matches find it hard to keep secrets from O’Neill. David Moran’s tour de force in Limerick? “Were we surprised? Absolutely not. None of that is ever a shock for us, because we see it tenfold, twentyfold every single night at training. It was coming and there’s so much more to give from that guy.”

Still, however deep the thought and sweet the science, margins were slim both days against Mayo. Can you really plan to win tight games of football?

“We worked a lot all week on scenarios — one-nil, two-nil, three-one. For every scenario, we had a game plan.” Not James O’Donoghue or Fionn Fitzgerald but John Terry after Chelsea’s win over Paris Saint Germain in the Champions League last season.

Jose Mourinho’s playbook envisaged sharp changes in approach, depending on how that second leg was developing. Has Gaelic gone that way?

“I think that’s very real. I really do,” says O’Neill. “I don’t think it’s as specific in terms of the scoring, but a lot of it is time-related. If there’s 10 minutes left and you’re two points down, do you continue playing as you were? Well, it depends. Were you six points down?

“I think everything is based on context. But can you prepare for all eventualities? I think with a bit of creativity and innovation, you most certainly can. You get the players to believe this is the scenario you’re working in; you set the constraints and then let’s see how they problem-solve.

“The reason we’ve come out of tight games this year is that the players have solved it in most cases. On the pitch, themselves. Okay, there’s been slight positional changes or a sub has come in, but in general terms, the way the game has gone and moves so fast, the players have to problem solve on the pitch in real time.”

So, how do you solve a problem like Donegal? After all, even Mourinho, last season, found, in Diego Simeone, a man with a better plan.

Let’s get out of the way, for starters, any notions about peaking for this one.

“It’s no different than getting them right for the semi-final. Or for the quarter-final. People talk about peaking for the final. In my opinion, that’s pure rubbish. You’ve to peak for every game you play. Otherwise, you won’t get through that game.

“We’d a three-week differential. It almost plans itself. Week one: recovery and regrouping. Week two is when you focus your work and week three is your taper week and then it’s game on. I don’t think it’s particularly difficult at all.

“The main thing in those three weeks is protecting the players from all the sideshows and keeping them focused on the main thing, which is their performance.”

Week two, then. Any clues?

“Constantly working on the accuracy of our play, the precision of our play. That could be something like discipline in tackling or making sure the ball sticks first time. Those things can be improved all the time.

“In terms of physical and conditioning gains, it’s just about keeping them explosive, powerful. And they do that themselves. They drive that bus themselves. I facilitate it.”

What about tactics? Are the Kerry subs lined out in complicated swarming blankets, detonating all manner of traps to prepare the first 15 for the worst?

“I’m not being in any way evasive, but we will focus on our own game. One of the disappointing aspects for me, with modern Gaelic football — not so much hurling — is that teams focus too much on the opposition. And by focusing too much on the opposition, they really lose what it is they’re about themselves, what their game is all about.

“I can safely say that will never be this Kerry team. We have a philosophy of how we want to play. We train to that philosophy, every night.

“Yes, we throw in scenario A, scenario B and C. But it’s not that we change how we play. We just modify how we are going to execute. We focus on our game and what we need to do to execute it as best we can.

“You’ll have slight tweaks and you’ll have to deal with certain specifics; a player, a kick-out strategy. But in terms of how we play, we’ll stick to our own philosophies.

“It’s got us to a final, so why would you change everything that’s made you successful?”

Some would argue a lot about how Kerry’s play changed the moment a certain lighthouse reappeared at the edge of the square to guide them home.

“I think we’ve always prided ourselves on viewing every attack as it comes. If you look at the last match, as many balls went in low or to the wing to Kieran (Donaghy). If you’re one-dimensional in any way, it’s quite easy to defend or stop that. It would be a very naive way to approach a game.

“If they’re stepping back off us, we’ll approach it as certain way. If they’re playing a high line, we’ll approach it another way. We certainly won’t have one strategy, but what we’ll have is a group of players who’ll know exactly what their role is and know exactly how to execute it. Ultimately, we’ll live or die based on that.”

He’s endured pain on the way home from Croker too. Those three final defeats. What keeps him putting the back into 30 to 40-hour weeks on top of the day job?

“I love it. I absolutely love it. Obviously, I stopped playing quite young so this is just fantastic for me, to be involved in any way, shape or form.”

Not too involved. With persistent worries about encroachment from the sideline, his is one bib authorities won’t see careering into trouble inside the lines on Sunday.

He’s not moving that freely yet. But he’s there again. Right to the end.

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