O'Neill excited by potential of talented young players after U21 trio impress on their debuts

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O'Neill excited by potential of talented young players after U21 trio impress on their debuts
20:25 Sunday 8th of January 2017

A game in the first week of January is never likely to live long in the memories of most Kildare supporters, especially when there was little on the line in a first round O'Byrne Cup game, but there are a few players who will surely always remember this day.

Shea Ryan, Conor Hartley and Ben McCormack all started for the Lilywhites for the first time at senior level, while Pascal Connell and David Slattery emerged from the bench in the second half to make their first competitive appearances under Cian O'Neill.

The Sarsfields trio that started acquitted themselves well, and anyone who didn't know any better would have sworn that these lads had more experience than there tender years suggests. Hartley and McCormack contributed 0-3 apiece from play and were economical in possession, while Ryan carried the ball out from defence with a certain air of confidence.

"One of the most pleasing aspects was our young U21 players out there today, they didn't look out of place," beamed O'Neill after the game.

"It was their first competitive match, but you wouldn't have thought that by looking at them. I thought huge credit has to go to them because they stepped up and each of them acquitted themselves pretty well.

"It's fair to say this is a new squad this year. It was always going to be that way. If you look at the new guys coming through, we have six of the U21s team there. We have Pascal[Connell] from last year's team there, that's seven new guys. David Slattery and Eddie Heavey coming in too, so it's pretty new in terms of the players we've lost and the players we have in. It's going to take time.

"Last year was too soon for some of the young guys, sometimes people don't understand this. You've got to wait for the right time, otherwise you could potentially damage them in terms of psychologically as much as anything. But we felt that they were ready this year, and as you saw with the lads that were on the pitch today, they're more than ready."

When the management team review the game there will be plenty of positives to take, but in all truth Longford were not up to much. They offered some resistance in the form of filtering almost every man behind the ball when Kildare went forward, and that initially caused some problems for the hosts as they found themselves 0-6 to 0-3 down with 27 minutes played.

O'Neill said he was surprised at the lack of penetration from his side early on, but once Niall Kelly slotted home the game's only goal in the 31st minute his side began to play with more fluency.

"It shouldn't have taken us by surprise because I knew they were playing that way and we talked about it. I just thought that at times you can almost be too conscious on the pitch of being defensively strong and not taking a gamble, which Johnny Byrne did once or twice and Shea[Ryan] eventually did once or twice and I think that's where the goal came from," O'Neill explained.

"The more we committed men to attack and not leaving ourselves exposed, they have to go and chase those men and you saw with Niall's goal when he cut right through the middle. That wasn't there in the first 15-20 minutes, so as soon as we got word in they started to commit and that's where it came from.

Not only was it the defensive gameplan of Longford that halted Kildare somewhat in their tracks in the opening stages, but the understanding between the six forwards was also slightly out of kilter at times. Along with the two debutants in the forward line, Hartley and McCormack, there was the inclusion of the more defensively orientated Fergal Conway along with Keith Cribbin, who has missed so much football over the last 18 months due to a cruciate injury.

It took a while for all six forwards to click, but the talented inside trio of Neill Flynn, Niall Kelly and Ben McCormack eventually began to cause the Longford defence no end of problems. That full-forward line is a cause for optimism, though O'Neill was honest when saying they did not all click straight away.

"We have very good, skillful forwards in Kildare and everyone knows that. Obviously, the physical development aspect will take place over a couple of years going forward for the younger guys in particular, but it's more about getting them playing together. Like Niall[Kelly] would never have played with Ben[McCormack] before, but Neill[Flynn] would have with the U21s. Every session, every match, every week is going to bring us on another 10-15% so I'd like to think the more they get together, the more you get to see that interchange," he said.

"Because for the first 20 minutes I thought it was very individual. Everyone got the ball and they were thinking what could they do, rather than thinking of what they could do for someone else. That goal turned the screw, and I think most importantly it encouraged everyone to push up a lot more. I think we gave Longford too much respect in the first 20 minutes, but whatever it was about that goal, we started pushing up on the kickouts, pushing up through the middle and our next score came from a turnover. That was pleasing to see."

A meeting with IT Carlow in Hawkfield on Wednesday night is next on the agenda for O'Neill and his side, and it will provide more opportunities for the young players to stake their claim on a long term basis.

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