For O’Neill, Saturday was about restoring pride in Kildare football.
The shock Leinster SFC loss to Carlow was the latest kicking in a miserable 2018 for the Lilywhites following relegation — without a point — from Division One. It’s fair to say neither O’Neill nor his players were winning any popularity polls around Newbridge.
And while the eight points win against a Derry side who will be plying their trade in Division Four next year represents only a modest shift in the right direction, it is still that and something O’Neill’s is determined to build on.
“It’s a first step,” explained O’Neill, “I mean, if there wasn’t a win, there would be no step to take. It’s a starting point for the players. To come to Derry was a challenge in itself, so there is a lot of positivity to take from the match and it’s great to have two weeks to start working on things that can take us hopefully through the next step. Bit by bit, you’d like to keep progressing.
“This was about more than football. It was about pride, about integrity. It was also about the pride in Kildare football.
“Not just for the lads on the pitch, we let the county down; I let the county down as manager with that loss against Carlow when so much was expected of us and that’s not where I, or we, wanted to leave it this year.”
O’Neill continued: “We needed a win, and that’s being brutally honest. We had the added challenge of the road trip which I actually think suited us. It gave us a chance to bond but we knew this was our season in a nutshell.
“You talk about seasons and then you’re talking about your own future as players and as management, so we needed that win badly but we are delighted.
“Of course you feel the pressure. That wasn’t just a defeat out of the blue against Carlow. We came off seven defeats in a row in the league. So we just needed a massive win to get us back on track.”
Daniel Flynn and Niall Kelly were the Kildare goalscorers in the eight-point win made more comfortable by a dubious late red card for Derry’s Mark Lynch which helped seal victory.
Leading 1-12 to 2-7 at half-time, Kildare had an escape when keeper Mark Donnellan and Mick O’Grady superbly kept out Emmet Bradley and Shane McGuigan within seconds of the restart. It proved a game-defining moment and O’Neill’s men built on it.
They may have been cynical at times in their tackling, as testified by black cards for captain Eoin Doyle and David Hyland, but few of their supporters will have complained.
“The players were absolutely top class from the start,” added the Kildare manager, “They were measured, they were calculated. We scored 1-12 in the first half and we missed 1-9 or 1-10 the last day against Carlow in the first half so that was pleasing.”
So does O’Neill now have his sights set on Super 8 redemption?
“Absolutely not. We will target where we are in 13 or 14 days time and we’ll take it one game at a time.”
For Derry it was a frustrating end to what has been a frustrating first season, dogged by player unavailability, for Damian McErlain who only got his full squad together on April 2 following Slaugthneil’s extended club season.
“The season has to end before Christmas or January at least,” said McErlain.
“We had the Slaughtneil players, who want to be here and are big Derry men, they want the opportunity to do play both and play for both properly instead of coming to the county exhausted after their club campaign. I think it will happen eventually but it will probably happen at a snail’s pace like everything else.
“That would be the big thing for us. In terms of Derry going forward, we have to have a full deck together from the start of the year, preparing together, developing an understanding of each other and not trying to do it when the clocks change.”
E Lynn (2-2), E Bradley (0-5, 5f), P Cassidy (0-1), J Doherty (0-2), M Lynch (0-2, 2f), SL MCGoldrick (0-1), S McGuigan (0-1).
F Conway (0-4), D Flynn (1-1), N Kelly (1-1), P Cribben (0-2), K Feely (0-2, 2f), T Moolick (0-2), K Cribben (0-1), J Murray (0-1), M Donnellan (0-1, 1 forty-five), D Slattery (0-1), N Flynn (0-5, 2f) , J Byrne (0-1).
B McKinless; P McNeill, K Johnston, M McEvoy; L McGoldrick, C McKaigue, SL McGoldrick; C McAtamney, P Cassidy; J Doherty, E Bradley, P Coney; E Lynn, S McGuigan, M Lynch.
J Kielt for S McGuigan (Blood sub) 32mins - reversed HT; B Rogers for P McNeill, HT; T O’Brien for C McAtamney, HT; C McWilliams for P Coney, 42mins; J Kielt for S McGuigan, 51mins; M Bateson for L McGoldrick, 59mins; N Toner for SL McGoldrick, 71mins;
M Lynch 65mins
M Donnellan; P Kelly, D Hyland, M O’Grady; J Murray, E Doyle, K Flynn; K Feely, T Moolick; F Conway, P Cribben, K Cribben; D Slattery, D Flynn, N Kelly.
N Flynn for K Feely, 47mins; C Healy for K Cribben, 59mins; E O’Connor for N Kelly, 67mins; F Dowling for F Conway, 71mins;
K Flynn, 51mins; T Moolick, 58mins; E O’Connor, 73mins;
E Doyle 15mins (replaced by Johnny Byrne); D Hyland, 65mins (replaced by M Hyland).
David Coldrick (Meath).