The Lilywhite manager also slammed claims he had lost the dressing room following their Leinster championship defeat to Carlow, pointing to the spirit shown in the qualifier defeats of Derry and Longford as evidence of a united camp.
“They’re a brilliant group of players,” said O’Neill. “They’re super to work with. Myself, Roli (Ronan Sweeney), and Enda (Murphy) and all the backroom, we love it and we love working with the players. I don’t know who writes that (claims of division) but they’ve never stepped inside our dressing room or they’ve never been at one of our training sessions.
“Sometimes you can have a totally abject performance where nothing works for you and that’s what Carlow was. It’s still difficult to explain. They shot 100%, we shot 32%. I would hate for that to be a reflection of the work we’ve been doing this year.
“This bullshit about ‘we play for the manager’ — no they don’t. They play because they’re working their ass off all year and we all see ourselves as one team. I think it was most important for them to back up Derry with a big performance today ’cos it shows they wanna be here and they wanna not just wear the jersey, they wanna win with the jersey.”
Feely demonstrated that desire just to get on the pitch for the black-carded Fergal Conway, after suffering a recurrence of a groin injury a fortnight previously in Owenbeg, and then more obviously, with an almost savage display of emotion after kicking a point with his first touch.
That fabulous score came in immediately after Eoin Doyle had given Kildare the lead for the first time in the 68th minute.
In injury time, he collected a break off teammate Mick O’Grady 20m from his own posts and set in chain a brilliant counter-attacking movement involving Kevin Flynn and Daniel Flynn, and finishing with the key goal for Chris Healy.
Finally, after Robbie Smyth had goaled to leave two points between the sides once more, Feely won a mark from the kickout and from that, the tireless Paul Cribbin pointed to settle the Lilies once more.
Earlier on, the “mercurial” Neil Flynn had shown glimpses of his considerable talent, having endured a horrific run of hamstring injuries over the past couple of years.
When Smyth punished some lazy Kildare tackling — a feature of the first half especially — by converting two frees, it was Flynn that brought the teams level for the first of 10 occasions with a brace.
The opener was a glorious score: He fooled an onrushing defender by shaping to shoot but then chipping the ball over his head to avoid being blocked, regathering possession, and blasting over.
He was also unerring from placed balls, and if he can remain fit, could solve what has long been a problem area for Kildare.
They always looked a threat up front. Paddy Brophy, Tommy Moolick, and Daniel Flynn kicked some excellent scores but when they did not have the ball, they were in trouble and Longford should have led by more than 0-9 to 0-8 at the interval.
They will rue crashing two shots off the bar in the first half, even though points resulted in Liam Connerton and Donal McElligott’s efforts.
Kildare’s dreadful first-half defending improved in the second half but Longford kept their noses in front until Conway equalised for the last time in the 63rd minute. Not even the sending off of Peter Kelly late on could deny Kildare.
Longford manager Denis Connerton was rightly proud of his players and though bemoaning the two missed goal chances in the first half, felt that the calibre of Kildare’s bench was the significant factor, especially as he had been forced to plan without three of the forwards that started in their Leinster championship win over Meath through suspension and injury.
“You look at a player of the calibre of Kevin Feely coming on, that speaks volumes of the amount of talent that they have on the bench,” said Connerton. “They didn’t get to Division 1 by accident. We played them in 2016 in Division 3 and they went straight up to Division 1 in successive years, so it shows the amount of talent and strength in depth they have.
“For ourselves, we did something that we hadn’t done in 30 years, which is to get to a Leinster semi-final. In fairness, the lads showed massive character to rebuild so quickly after being beaten by Dublin. They showed the character which they displayed today.”
N Flynn 0-5(3fs); C Healy 1-0; P Brophy, T Moolick, P Cribbin 0-2 each; F Conway, E Doyle, D Hyland, D Flynn, K Feely 0-1 each.
R Smyth 1-5(0-5fs); D Gallagher 0-2; S McCormack, L Connerton, C Berry, D McElligott, D McGivney (f), P Collum (45) 0-1 each.
M Donnellan, P Kelly, M O’Grady, D Hyland, J Murray, E Doyle 0-1, K Flynn, T Moolick 0-2, F Conway, K Cribbin, P Cribbin, P Brophy, N Kelly, D Flynn, N Flynn.
É O’Connor for Kelly BC 5, D Slattery for K Cribbin 44, J Byrne for Murray 50, C Healy for Moolick 52, C McNally for O’Connor 56, K Feely for Conway BC 68.
P Collum, P Fox, P McCormack, D Masterson, M Quinn, D McElligott, B McKeon, D Gallagher, C Berry, D McGivney, D Reynolds, D Mimnagh, R Smyth, S McCormack 0-1, L Connerton.
B Gilleran for P McCormack BC (53), A Farrell for Berry (69), D Quinn for Mimnagh (70), P Foy for McKeon (70+6), S Kenny for McGivney (70+7), M Nally for Gallagher (70+8).
J McQuillan (Cavan).