At this stage of Cork’s league campaign last season, Colm O’Neill’s contribution amounted to two substitute appearances and five points.
It was consistent with Brian Cuthbert’s kid gloves approach towards the player on his return from a third cruciate operation. O’Neill’s summer was as much a story of frustration as he only had his first start against Sligo in the qualifiers.
Cuthbert recently defended his decision. “He’s a very special player and I wanted to make sure he was going to be playing many more years for Cork and if I was to forsake three or four months of last season for that to happen I was happy out.”
Truth be told, though it seemed O’Neill cut a disgruntled figure at times, he realised he wasn’t ready to attack the season whole hog.
This year couldn’t be much more different. He’s started all four Division 1 games and scored 3-21, 0-17 from frees, coming off just once when the deed was done against Kerry.
The patience and work of both player and manager seem to be paying off
“Last year I got a season under my belt,” said O’Neill. “This time last year I probably still wasn’t 100%. I trained hard and got a good winter’s prep under my belt and I’ve confidence in it. I’m still doing rehab with the physio.”
”Cuthbert couldn’t hide his delight for O’Neill after his latest star showing in Páirc Uí Rinn. “After three ACLs and he is able to come back out here and perform the way he does? It’s remarkable, it’s the character of the man. “He’s a very special player and a very affable guy that everyone is mad about and every time he puts on a Cork jersey he just takes off.”
The four long trips north haven’t been too kind on his knee but Cork’s decision to base themselves in Enniskillen the night before games has helped. It meant only a short bus spin to Ballyshannon on March 1 and it will be the same again when they face Tyrone in Omagh on Sunday. “We go up there on Saturday evening and have plenty of time to rest and recuperate and get ready. We’ll be getting out the maps again to see what route we’re taking but we’re looking forward to a different kind of game. We’re taking residence up there at this stage! It’s a great challenge to go up to every stronghold in Ulster. There’s always a huge crowd and it’s a great place to learn about your team and your panel.”
Cork are just two points worse off than this time last year when they went the first four games unbeaten on the way to topping Division 1. For a side expected to struggle and still with an uncertain midfield, it’s impressive.
“You probably could say we’re safe,” remarked O’Neill, “but we’re not looking at safety, really. We want to make the latter stages of the league. We know the championship’s a long way away and having some competitive games at that time prepares you well for championship.”
That the latest batch of points were taken from Kerry was satisfying but bragging rights are on hold. “We need no reminding of how we did last year. Similar to what happened (on Sunday), we beat Kerry comprehensively in Tralee and probably got a bit carried away and started believing what people were saying. We’re happy with the two points but there’s a lot of work still to do.”
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