While much of the focus of the GAA world for the last few weeks has been on disciplinary matters, thankfully we have some high-stakes games to take the spotlight this weekend, writes Tomás Quinn.
This evening in Tullamore, Kildare and Meath face off in a Leinster semi-final. Both sides had impressive quarter-final victories, putting up big scores in the process. Kildare hit 1-21 against Laois while Meath scored 0-27 against Louth.
There are many similarities between the counties at present. Both are looking to integrate young players into a team while trying to create a new identity. There’s a small difference in the lifecycles of the squad. Cian O’Neill is in his second year with his management and players whereas Andy McEntee is in year one. Does something like that matter? For me, it does, especially when you are looking to build a new team and that is what O’Neill was tasked with in his home county.
After successful years in backroom teams and as fitness coach of the likes of Tipperary hurlers and Mayo and Kerry footballers, O’Neill was one of the hottest management prospects around. He was part of Tipperary’s 2010 All-Ireland success as well as Kerry’s in 2014. He will have gained huge insights into the workings of winning dressing rooms and what’s needed to develop a culture that sees players delivering high-level performances and constantly seeking to improve.
When O’Neill was appointed boss in late 2015, Kildare football was in a dark place. They had been relegated to Division 3 and their summer ended in a humiliating 27-point defeat to Kerry in Croke Park in a game which saw them ship seven goals. This was a different task.
He was handed the keys to a squad that was on its knees confidence-wise. Very quickly he would have seen the different dynamic being the head man. The gamut of responsibilities would have been worlds apart from being allowed to focus on content for sessions and ensuring the quality of training was where it needed to be.
Some managers end up spending as much time trying to manage their backroom teams as their players. In an era where every detail is entrusted to a different expert, there can be a lot of noise coming from specialists looking after their own patch. The manager must streamline exactly what is required and be efficient with all the expertise surrounding him. Seeing this dynamic from both sides will help O’Neill with his current set-up.
Spending his first year in Division 3 allowed O’Neill the scope to get through the bedding-in phase in less competitive surroundings. The winning habit and confidence that comes with that is the regular injection of positivity that is the lifeblood of a squad. To gain promotion again this season points to an upward curve.
O’Neill has looked for new leaders to come to the fore and help shape his team. The likes of Fergal Conway, Niall Kelly, and Daniel Flynn will be key in determining what is possible for this group.
While back-to-back promotions show a consistency of performance, now Kildare must add a ruthless streak and an ability to kill off a game when in a strong position.
In 2016 Division 3 final, Clare hit a 76th-minute winner, just as Galway finished the stronger in this year’s Division 2 decider, to again leave Kildare disappointed.
Between those two late defeats was what could prove a seminal day for O’Neill and his team.
An O’Byrne Cup game wouldn’t normally be considered of the greatest importance, but this year’s semi-final between Kildare and Dublin is slightly different. Looking at the teamsheets, 17 of the 20 Kildare players that played against Laois in their opening championship match played some part against Dublin in January. It was largely a backup Dublin unit so the manner of defeat that day must have frustrated O’Neill. Kildare were in a strong position, leading by three points with 15 minutes to go but coughed up the last five points. O’Neill spoke after about his “disgust” at the lack of “ruthlessness”.
Trying to find that killer edge can be difficult. It can be hard to create environments in training where players are making decisions against the run of play or after losing momentum. You can use game situations where you challenge your forwards to score a certain amount under a time limit or have one team ‘defend’ a lead in a training match.
The good teams identify what works for them in these scenarios and take a level of comfort if pressed into these situations in a big game.
In the deciding minutes, teams can often lose shape. With substitutions and positional switches thrown in it is the team who can control the tempo that dictates so much. There will be different needs depending on whether you are defending a lead or chasing the game and this is where the likes of centre-back Eoin Doyle and centre forward Niall Kelly will play key roles. Doyle and Kelly have the football intelligence to realise what their team needs and it will be up to them to make the calls on the pitch.
If the practice of these situations in training is up to the required level, it should help simplify the decision-making for players in tense closing minutes.
In the games outlined above, too many Kildare players were waiting for someone else to step up and take responsibility. If they are chasing a score there should be enough patience to get it to one of the stronger shooters rather than see someone taking a pot shot from distance.
As O’Neill has outlined, for Kildare to progress closer to the top table, this is a learning they will need to add. Today may well be a great opportunity to show they can close out a game. This Meath team have a lot of pace up front and will create a lot of scoring opportunities, but they also have issues at the back that I expect will give the Kildare forwards plenty of scope to work with.
O’Neill has had a nice post-league coaching window to focus on this area and in what will likely be a high-scoring game, he will look for his team to show they are the ones improving quicker and the ones that can start showing him a ruthless streak.
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