HE MEASURES IT as a round trip of about five hours.
Every Tuesday and Friday since the turn of the year, Cian O’Neill has hopped in his car in the University of Limerick at around half 3 in the afternoon and pointed it in the direction of Castlebar. The road has improved in places – the expansion of the M18 removing the prospect of being mired in traffic in Ennis or Gort – yet it remains a trek.
He tries to use the time wisely. For the two and a half hours driving up to the Mayo town, he is plotting and preparing for the session that he will put the county’s best footballers through.
A constant stream of calls are relayed through his mobile phone on route – checking items with players, bouncing ideas off other backroom team members and getting injury updates from the medics.
The journey home from training then is is one of reflection. He takes his own notes on his dictaphone on where they flourished or failed at training. Other times he analyses the session over the phone with team manager James Horan. It is well after midnight when his car rolls back into Limerick and he gets set for the next day’s work as course director for the BSc Physical Education programme in the university.
“It is a tough trip,” admits the Kildare native. “But as soon as I land up there and get out of the car, I always find myself immediately looking forward to it. You’re working with great players and a great management setup. We always have a good session and it just makes everything so worthwhile.”
He is back this year immersed in his genuine sporting passion, coaching Gaelic football. His reputation in recent times has been formed on the hurling field, responsible for the physical conditioning of the Tipperary team in a period that spanned 2008 to 2011 and yielded three Munster titles along with a glorious All-Ireland victory in 2010.
O’Neill’s input was critical as along with the sports science testing he did of the players in the University of Limerick, the innovative coaching of Eamonn O’Shea and the strong man-management of Liam Sheedy, Tipperary managed to topple the greatest hurling team of all time. Links were forged that will not be broken.
“I spent four years with them and developed lifelong friendships on a personal level,” says O’Neill. “A good few of those guys still live in Limerick and I’d often meet up with them for a coffee and a chat. The success they’ve had is a testament to them. And of course I’d always keep an eye on their results.”
O’Neill shone on the club hurling stage as well with the Newtownshandrum team that won Cork and Munster senior hurling crowns in 2009 but kept his eye in football coaching in guiding Monaleen to the Limerick senior title in 2010. After stepping down from Tipperary last year, the call came from Mayo where Horan was eager to recruit his services.
“I would have known James as a footballer but didn’t know him personally. I tracked the progress of Mayo last year alright and then when I decided to step down from Tipperary, he contacted me. We met and we chatted about football, and I soon realised we had a similar philosophy.
“A key aspect for me was that I knew some of the Mayo players who had been in UL. I would have trained Kenneth O’Malley, Seamus O’Shea, Barry Moran and Enda Varley in the UL Sigerson teams.
Mayo footballer Enda Varley in action for UL in the Sigerson Cup. Pic: INPHO/Lorraine O’Sullivan
“So that helped with the transition, like it would in any walk of life, to go in and know some of those players. But the whole squad and backroom team have been very welcoming, friendly and honest.”
O’Neill is keen to stress the importance of Ed Coughlan in the team’s preparations as well. A former High Performance Director in DCU, who then spent a spell employed in England, he is now working in UL with O’Neill. Coughlan is charged with the physical preparations of the Mayo players and O’Neill attributes their supreme fitness levels to him.
In a year when Anthony Cunningham has illustrated, through his exploits with Garrycastle and Galway, that Gaelic football and hurling management can dovetail together successfully, O’Neill is further proof of that trend.
“Anthony’s done an exceptional job and I think he has proved that the principles of all sports are the same whether it’s soccer, Gaelic football, hurling or basketball. The particular skill set is the difference for each sport and it’s up to the coaches to ensure their own game plan is implemented.”
With Mayo, O’Neill has been doing that all year and that culminates tomorrow in Croke Park as they are on the cusp of landing the All-Ireland title.
“It’s important that we all enjoy the occasion. Thousands of players play inter-county football but very few get the chance to perform on a day like this. We’re going to enjoy it and trust that we have the system in place. We stuck together as a group since January and that’s not going to change now.”