Cian O'Neill: “Players are still the most important variable in any team sport”

Kerry trainer Cian O’Neill explains to Michael Moynihan the philosophies behind success...

HAVING spent some time down the sideline from Brian Cody, Cian O’Neill paid close attention to the Kilkenny manager’s comments after the recent All-Ireland hurling final.

O’Neill was in the Tipp hurling camp when they won the 2010 All-Ireland, and recognises a player-driven environment no matter what colours they’re wearing.

“It has to be player-driven. The successful teams have a culture of players as leaders and of being the agents of change on the pitch. I thought Brian gave an interesting quote when he said he’d never seen a sideline win a match — that’s great honesty from a man who’s won as much as he has. But ultimately that’s the case. Management teams may make switches, but it’s still down to the player to do what he has to do when he goes in.

“It’s great to hear of the contribution made by the likes of Jackie Tyrrell and others, because it reinforces the point that players are still the most important variable in any team sport environment.”

O’Neill isn’t in just any environment, mind. Being the Kerry trainer means folding yourself into both a rich tradition and the realities of a present-day team.

“We’re blessed with the demographic of the squad. We have a cohort of players who’ve been there for years, who’ve played in big matches and won those medals — but they’ve also lost big games, so they understand what happened on those occasions. We also have a cohort in their mid-20s — last year would have been their first All-Ireland though they were there for a few years before that. And this year we have some younger guys again looking to stake a claim. So you have almost the perfect storm of experience and youth, and the group in the middle wants to be where the older group are, but they’re not quite there yet. It’s fantastic.”

They also have the benefit of winning last year’s All-Ireland, and the boost generated by victory.

“I don’t think you can measure it, but there’s no doubt about the positive effect. Even things like a media night may throw some players, you might have a touch of ‘why is he doing it and I’m not’, that type of thing. That’s new to inexperienced players. There’s also a real benefit to having been in Croke Park on All-Ireland final day, because there’s a world of difference between that dressing-room on semi-final day and on final day. People mightn’t get that, but if you’ve been around on both days you’ll see that difference.

“Winning can also have a negative impact, because that bit of hunger can be lost. And that can be thrown at teams which have won one, that they didn’t back it up. So it can work both ways, but again that comes back to players being architects of their own destiny — and to management being strong in terms of responsibility.”

Last year’s win came after two mammoth battles with Mayo in the All-Ireland semi-final. Having coached the Connacht side, how strange was it for O’Neill to oppose them?

“It was strange when switching off your focus from the team you’re working with to help win an All-Ireland. In training or on match day people thought it would have been strange for me, but that couldn’t have been further from the truth, because you’re so focused on your own job, like a free-taker or a goalkeeper is. But on the down time in between, or say in work, if someone passes a comment — you’re not in football mode and then it was strange, but not during the games themselves.” He’s taken specific lessons from being involved with Kerry. About expectation, for instance.

“With a team like Kerry — or Mayo, or Dublin — there are certain games where the expectation is right there in front of you. You’re expected to win.

“Then there are other games when people say ‘that’s going to be a massive challenge’, but you’re quite comfortable in those games. I think only the top teams have that dichotomy of expectation, if you like. If you’re a mid-tier team you’re going to be the underdog almost always. In the last three leagues campaigns preparation has been going very well — but we’ve lost two or three games in a row and you’re coming to a game where a performance comes, apparently out of nowhere, though the team has been building towards it . . . even with the best-laid plans, things happen in the 70 minutes. It’s your ability to adapt on the sideline, to change things in real time, that’s where the real challenge comes.”

What he’s brought to Kerry, though, is a confidence, one that’s stood up to a couple of indifferent league campaigns. Experience with other counties has made O’Neill believe in what he’s doing: “That’s hugely important because if for one second players pick up from a member of management that the wheels are coming off, or that you doubt yourself, then you’re in big trouble. One thing we always said, particularly in year one and two, was to ask ourselves whether we needed to change anything in training. We racked our brains but were happy with everything. In a lot of those [league] games, those were one or two point games, small things could have changed them.

“I think having that trust in yourself, that experience, is crucial, and we’re lucky in our management team that we have a variety of perspectives — playing, managing, selecting, coaching, all in different environments,” explained the Head of Department of Sport, Leisure, and Childhood Studies at Cork IT.

When it comes to different environments, he has his own favourites. A golden ticket to take him behind the scenes in another sport would include air fare to New Zealand: “From a cultural perspective the All Blacks would be at the top of my list, having studied them from my perspective, read the books and so on — there’s an aura there which is phenomenal. I’d love to see how that works, accepting that it’s professional sport and what wouldn’t work in the GAA. From a coaching perspective, any of the top basketball franchises. That’s where I draw a lot of my coaching inspiration. Why? It’s the only game where your offensive game is as important as your defensive game, if that makes sense. In the modern game everyone knows attackers must defend when they don’t have the ball, but the ratio is still, what, 70-30 in favour of being an attacker, first and foremost.

“In basketball it’s five on five — on offense you know your role and your role in defence is equally important. And the transition from one to the other is so quick, the distances so short, the thinking has to be so fast . . . clicks fingers — I’d love to do an ECG study of a basketballer’s brain to see how fast it works. Also, you can play five defensive set-ups in a row, and five variations of those — zone, man-on-man and so on — and you have to switch straightaway. It’s phenomenal.”

Back to 15 on 15 for now: is Dublin’s replay win really worth the proverbial three weeks’ training?

“Obviously a replay win brings a team on — for me how it helps is that you’ve been brought to the very edge of defeat, whether you lost the lead or came from behind to equalise. Coming out of that experience on the right side is a massive journey for the players, one within the bigger journey, and it must be a case for them of saying to themselves, ‘we did that despite being so close to losing’. You can’t quantify that. From a management point of view, you saw what worked, you saw what didn’t; you saw what worked the second day, you saw the timing of substitutions, the different positioning — the lessons are massive. I wouldn’t say it’s better than three different training sessions or whatever, because you learn a lot in training, but the replay is as close to the battle you’ll meet the next day as you’ll get. That’s a huge help.”

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