Is a trophy now top of that to-do list? He isn’t so sure.
O’Neill will lead Kildare out at Croke Park for the first time this evening in the Allianz National Football League Division 3 final against Clare.
Everything about O’Neill’s philosophy makes him a one-game-at-a-time man, but out of necessity, his thoughts are already drifting to his next trip to HQ, the Leinster championship opener against Wexford on May 21.
“It’s an interesting one, from a coaching and management point of view,” he reflects.
“Of course, you want to win a league title. Any time there is silverware, especially national silverware, up for grabs you want to take that but it’s also four weeks out from championship. It wouldn’t be a clever thing to say that we are switching into championship mode after the league final if you have only four weeks.
“It would be different in Munster where you have an eight or nine-week gap. From a training perspective and from what we are doing with the players, it’s very much championship focus now. We’ll treat that league final with all the respect it deserves but we’ll be training hard right up to it and through it,” he added.
Kildare will go into the final buoyed by a league campaign that saw them win six of their seven games and on a wave of positivity that has been generated by their new manager.
O’Neill learned his trade working in the background with the likes of the Tipperary hurlers and Mayo footballers and most recently, under Eamon Fitzmaurice at Kerry.
However, when his county came calling last October, O’Neill swapped life working with some of the best players in the country to deliver Kildare back to Division 2.
In terms of where they were playing their league football, O’Neill joined Kildare at their lowest ebb for some time after two successive relegations under Jason Ryan. But he also inherited a talented squad that was expected to bounce back straight away.
That brought about its own challenges for a manager in his first job but if he felt under pressure, he didn’t show it.
“Personally, I didn’t view it as pressure, it was more the challenge of it,” said O’Neill.
“I’m very process driven in everything I do, and coaching is no different. We honestly took it one game at a time and I think that was reflected in our team selection. The fact that we picked a different team for each game meant that we treated it as a standalone fixture. We set targets for the players within that match as opposed to points on the table. You might view that as a risky strategy, I felt it was the appropriate strategy and I think it worked out.
“We got promotion, we got players on the pitch, so we are all happy.”
Getting players out on the pitch is something that particularly pleased O’Neill. He was able to marry giving players game-time and the opportunity to impress with winning enough games to secure promotion.
“I think we need to look back and view the league as a success in terms of the objectives that we set for ourselves. Promotion was a key target. It wasn’t a burden or a pressure that we wanted to put on the players, nevertheless, we were in a division that we felt we shouldn’t be and it was great to come out after the seven matches knowing that we are promoted to Division 2 for next year. Without looking too far ahead, that’s exciting for the guys.
“The second priority was to really get a lot of football into a lot of players. We used 34 players across the league campaign, that was a positive thing. In many cases, guys that were given a chance stood up and took that chance. There’s a lot of positivity there, the mood in the camp is good and we are looking forward to Saturday,” said O’Neill.
Some of those players who have caught the eye have come from the under-21 team which was beaten in a thrilling Leinster final against Dublin.
O’Neill worked in tandem in with the U21 manager Bryan Murphy, who is a selector with the senior team, and allowed the likes of Neil Flynn and Ryan Houlihan concentrate solely on their underage duty after featuring in the opening two rounds of the league.
Flynn scored 10 points in that provincial final, after scoring 11 in the previous final, and is set to make his Croke Park debut in a Kildare senior jersey at corner-forward. Kevin Feely is another one set to play his first game at Croke Park. The former professional soccer player nailed down a place in midfield during the league phase but is named at full forward for the final. O’Neill feels the benefits of some of his more inexperienced players getting a chance to run out on the hallowed turf will be seen later in the year.
“I think you can never play in Croke Park enough, nor can you get the experience of playing there enough. It is different, in many ways. The stadium effect, a full Croke Park is very different to an empty Croke Park, players need to learn that too. Obviously, the further you go in the competition, the more crowds are attending matches so they need to be able to distinguish between that and perform independent of that. The pitch surface, people wouldn’t know this unless they’ve been on the pitch and played on it, it’s unlike any other pitch in the country. The more you are there, the more players get used to it. It won’t be a dress rehearsal for championship but it will be a great opportunity for players to get out and express themselves,” he said.
Mark Donnellan, Peter Kelly, David Hyland, Ollie Lyons, Ryan Houlihan, Fergal Conway, Ciaran Fitzpatrick, Paul Cribbin, Tommy Moolick, Adam Tyrrell, Niall Kelly, Eoghan O’Flaherty, Alan Smith, Kevin Feely, Neil Flynn.