It was almost six years to the day since he’d played for Na Piarsaigh in their shock AIB All-Ireland club semi-final defeat to Ulster champions Loughgiel Shamrocks.
At the same venue, Parnell Park, and at the same stage of the All-Ireland series, they trailed the Ulster representatives by three points this time and O’Neill was furious.
So poor was the first half performance, that he couldn’t recall a worse one since he’d become bainisteoir.
“In my management career? Absolutely not, no,” said O’Neill. “It’s probably the most frustrated I’ve been. Because we didn’t play, we didn’t do anything that I thought we were going to do. We lost all the 50-50s, every breaking ball and if Slaughtneil had taken all of their scores, they should have been at least six or seven ahead at half-time. They had some bad wides and we just were not in the game at all. But the fact that we were only a goal behind meant you’re always in touch.”
The few minutes after the restart were even more bizarre than Na Piarsaigh’s unlikely first-half no show.
Trailing 2-6 to 1-6 upon the resumption, they then lost goalscorer Conor Boylan and wing-back Tommy Grimes to straight red card offences in the 33rd and 35th minutes. Down to 13 men, it felt a lot like Loughgiel all over again though the Limerick men, All-Ireland winners two years ago, drew on all their experience, good and bad, to conjure their best hurling from there on.
Free-taker Ronan Lynch, with a 14-point haul, substitute Shane Dowling, who hit a wonder-goal, and commanding full-back Mike Casey were all terrific in that half. It lent further credibility to the theory that a dismissal can often inspire a team.
“One might, two is just ridiculous,” retorted O’Neill. “I wasn’t concerned with the one, but when the second one happened, I was very worried. But we were doing all the hurling, we had all the momentum at that stage. I know it was only a few minutes into the second half but you could see that we had got everything together. It just goes back to leadership and work rate and composure.”
Slaughtneil, back-to-back Ulster champions and fighting for All-Ireland success in both men’s codes, brought their unique brand of hungry hurling to the first half. They led by that three-point margin, hit nine wides and had another decent goal chance through Brendan Rodgers, who set up Cormac O’Doherty and Brian Cassidy for their strikes.
Yet the half-time interval had the effect of flicking a switch for Na Piarsaigh who lit up the second half. They outscored Slaughtneil 2-9 to 1-2 in that period and used their reduced numbers sensibly, doubling down in defence and cleverly rotating their forwards who surprisingly thrived.
Former All-Star Dowling’s introduction at half-time, following a lengthy lay-off with knee trouble, was significant. He won a puck-out for Kevin Downes’ 41st-minute goal and then scored a brilliant one nine minutes later himself, dispossessing the goalkeeper before flicking the ball into the air and volleying it home in outrageous fashion.
“It popped up nicely,” said a coy Dowling of his sumptuous flick up.
“I could try that 10 more times and I could divot the hurley into the ground. You need that bit of luck. It was great that it happened because we needed something.”
Lynch was a lion-heart at midfield, shooting three points from play and 11 from placed balls and finishing up at full-forward as the players cleverly rotated the attack to conserve energy.
Na Piarsaigh’s reward is a March 17 club final clash with Cuala, a meeting of the last two champions. It is the final that all hurling supporters have hoped for though it remains to be seen which Na Piarsaigh turns up.
“The way we played with 15 men, compared to the way we played with 13 men, it was night and day,” said Dowling.
“When we play our A game, with the intensity that we bring, it makes things a lot easier.
“We’d want to start like that the next day or else we’ll be going home with our tail between our legs.”
R. Lynch (0-14, 11 frees); S. Dowling, K. Downes, C Boylan (1-0 each); P. Casey (0-1).
C. O’Doherty 1-3 (1-0 pen, 0-2f), B. Cassidy 1-2, G. Bradley 1-0, B. Rodgers 0-1, C. McKaigue 0-1, M. McGrath 0-1.
P. Kennedy; N. Buckley, M. Casey, J. Boylan; A. Dempsey, C. King (c), T. Grimes; R. Lynch, W. O’Donoghue; C. Boylan, D. Breen, D. Dempsey; P. Casey, K. Downes, A. Breen.
K. Kennedy for Grimes (24-25, blood); S. Dowling for A. Breen (h/t); K. Ryan for D. Breen (55); Kennedy for D. Dempsey (56); G. Brown for Downes (60).
O. O’Doherty; K. McKaigue, S. Cassidy, P. McNeill; S. McGuigan, C. McKaigue (c), C. McKenna; E. Cassidy, M. McGrath; B. Rodgers, C. O’Doherty, M. McGuigan; G. Bradley, B. Cassidy, C. McAllister.
G. O’Kane for McAllister (49).
J. Keenan (Wicklow).