Shane still ill at ease after Croker pain

Cork's Shane O'Neill battling with Clare's  Shane O'Donnell in last year's All-Ireland SHC final replay. Picture: INPHO

Cork v Limerick
Everyone knows who Shane O’Donnell is. When a man gets three goals in an All-Ireland final he stays in the memory.

What about the man who marks that man, though?

Cork full-back Shane O’Neill puts away the coffee and explains how last September’s games have left their mark. In training and elsewhere.

“I’ll put it bluntly, the training hasn’t been easy under Kieran [Kingston],” says O’Neill.

“The weather’s been too bad for fancy hurling in training, but we’ve been doing lots of game-oriented drills. One versus ones, two on twos that are very demanding.”

Is that down to...

“Last September?

“Management obviously feel the easiest thing to do would have been to train twice a week the usual way, pucking around in twos, perfecting your nice first touch, but obviously there were serious questions to be asked. The wheels came off in the All-Ireland final replay for us, but look at it honestly. We were lucky to beat Kilkenny, who had Henry Shefflin sent off. We were lucky to beat Dublin, who had Ryan O’Dwyer sent off. That meant you were getting to an All-Ireland final on the back of beating 14 men twice, and in the final itself we were behind for 99% of the time, right up to Hoggy’s point with a minute to go.

“It could have been a very different season for us. We could have gone out in the middle of the summer, which means there are plenty of things for us to work on, going back to management’s approach now to those game-based drills.”

Elsewhere in this paper today Dublin manager Anthony Daly talks about the confidence those kinds of victories give a team, though.

“He’s right. Look at our season. In a relegation play-off, lost it. Lost the Munster final a couple of months afterwards. If you’d told us in the dressing-room after we lost the Munster final we’d play in two All-Ireland finals that September we’d have bitten your hand off.

“This is what those wins mean. Everyone is in great form at training the Tuesday after the win. Everyone’s looking forward to going training beforehand. The weather is good. You’re in great humour. The supporters are in good form, there’s a buzz around the city, in the club... you can’t underestimate that. The whole set-up will feed off that. That feeds the camp all the time.”

And then you come up against a player who collects a hat-trick in about 15 minutes of an All-Ireland final replay. The Bishopstown man doesn’t shy away from that scalding afternoon. “I’m not going to lie, I still struggle with it. Losing comes into my head a good bit, not to mind my own performance. I probably didn’t deal with it that well at the start. I was closing the newspapers, not watching TV, though you’d hear the odd thing, then, ‘the Clare lads are on the Late Late’.

“Four or five weeks later you think you’re safe enough but then, there they are on the front of the paper. It was pretty tough but talking about it helps. Doing this helps. But at the time I probably shut down the system and didn’t want to talk to anyone about it. But you have to deal with it, too.

“I haven’t watched it on DVD or whatever yet and when I do it’s not going to be enjoyable, but those are obviously things we need to work on, whether it’s defensive systems, one-on-ones, or something new altogether to counteract the opposition. It was clear they’d done their homework on us. Clare went out with a game plan, they executed it perfectly and they won comfortably in the end, though we managed some kind of a comeback late on.”

Anyone watching the game would have exonerated O’Neill for at least two of the goals, but he doesn’t spare himself in his analysis.

“Your initial thoughts are ‘I’ve left my team-mates down, I’ve left themanagement down, I’ve left the supporters down’. When you add it up, in fact, Darach Honan came on and got a goal as well, so that meant four goals conceded in one game. It’s just something I need to deal with, to use in order to show that I’m a better defender than I showed in that game. Obviously all the talk was about the goals we conceded, so indirectly you feel they’re referring to you. Or you meet someone on the street who’s not personally attacking you but says, ‘yeah, ye conceded five goals’ and you take it on board as referring to yourself. ”

They’ve discussed it since within the camp, though “not in a structured way,” as he puts it. The defence have talked it out, how the half-backs got sucked up field and the full-back line were left exposed, but he also pays tribute to Clare: “Their tactics were so good they didn’t even have to look up when they were out the field, just bang the balls in.”

It wasn’t all bad. Playing two All-Ireland finals in three weeks was a positive, experience of the sensory overload something to put in the back pocket.

“The noise... Nash, Conor [O’Sullivan] and Mackey [Stephen McDonnell] are all 20 yards away from you, but you can’t hear them. It’s a great occasion, a great thing to have gone through. You’re conscious of your family, for instance, being up in the stand looking down at you

“Running out onto the field I would have had a thought ‘you’ve come a long way’, alright, and given myself a pat on the back, if you like, but the other side of that is that we ended up with nothing at the end of the year.”

Since then there have been changes. Additions and subtractions. Ger Cunningham walked away as a selector: “I’d have known Ger from the time I came onto the panel in 2005, he would have been a huge help to me on and off the field over the years. He’ll be a massive loss in terms of what he brings, but, at the same time, Kieran [Kingston] has also been good to me.”

They’ve had one notable addition, of course.

“Aidan’s been in, yeah,” says O’Neill of Aidan Walsh.

“He hasn’t played an actual game with us yet but we’ve had backs and forwards, games among ourselves in training and that, and he’s been involved in those. Look, the dogs in the street know what the guy has. He’s a great athlete, what he’s given Cork in football over the last few years in terms of stamina, strength and power, but I can tell you he’s a serious hurler as well. You can see that in training straightaway.

“Good touch, good hand, and very mobile for a big man. I know there was a lot of discussion about centre-back and half-backs last year, and management tried Pa [Cronin] there in a couple of games early last year.

“I don’t know what the selectors are thinking about where to play Aidan, they’ve always seemed very open about trying lads in different places, and I think they’ll be looking to rotate people around this year. I wouldn’t be surprised if a player gets put into an unfamiliar position just to see if that’s an option in the future, but Aidan’s been used up front so far in training, anyway.”

Tonight they’re back in action. “It’s funny, Jimmy’s first game was against Waterford under lights in Páirc Uí Rinn, a good crowd, a good win. The first game last year was against Tipp under lights in Páirc Uí Rinn, and again, a good crowd and a good win. Those wins set the tone for the season, so we’ll be hoping for more of the same tonight.

“The 1B thing isn’t going to have a major bearing. People might think we’ll have it handy because we were in an All-Ireland final last year, but Limerick beat us in the Munster final and Wexford and Offaly aren’t going to lie down.

Any time I’ve played them in the qualifiers we’ve always had a very tight game.

“Those are going to be huge games. It’s not going to be easy.”

Huge games and challenges. Same as last year.


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