HAVING been forced to retire from inter-county football at just 29, All-Ireland winner Colm O’Neill was surprised to be given the opportunity to be part of the Cork U20 football management set-up.
In 2019, O’Neill enjoyed success in his first year as a selector with Cork, winning the U20 All-Ireland.
Being part of the Cork management set-up is not the only recent new role for O’Neill. After an All-Star career as a forward, the 32-year-old played in goal for his club last Ballyclough last year.
The crucial ligament injuries that he suffered meant O’Neill could no longer play outfield, but he has used it as an opportunity to experience what it is like to be a goalkeeper.
“I played for the club last year in goal. The way it came about was when I finished up with Cork I was told, I’d be fine running in straight lines but if I was to twist or turn there was a possibility that my ligaments could go again,” O’Neill said.
“I was saying, ‘if that’s the case with inter-county, it’s going to be the same with club’ that I wouldn’t have been able to turn.
“I was resigned to the fact that I was going to have to pull the pin all together and finish up totally playing but after a few days thinking about it, the thought came into my head, ‘would I be able to play in goal’?
“The physio was humming and hawing and told me to have a go and see how I go. I went back to training, and with running and kicking a ball, I was fine, so that’s how I ended up in the net.
It was important for my own head to keep playing and give back to the club.
“Recently, I’ve been doing a small bit of road running to keep ticking over, but I felt a small bit sore in one of my knees.
“I tend to do more cycling and was doing a bit of swimming when the gym was opened. It’s the same with coaching, I think it’s good for my head.
“I wasn’t long finished announcing my retirement from playing from Cork and I got a call from Keith Ricken.
“I would have known Keith from CIT and he told me, he was after getting the job with the U20s and asked would I come on board.
“I suppose the first thing I thought was, it was out of the blue. I’d been a player for 15 years and I never dabbled in any bit of management, so I wouldn’t have known the first thing about been involved in the backroom team.
“Also, I was worried because I’d been with the seniors for so long, I hadn’t really been keeping my eye on underage players.
“I was honest with Keith and told him, ‘I didn’t know too many players around the county or who was coming through’.
“Keith told me that that could be a positive because I’d be fresh eyes on judging players. I said, ‘I’d give it a crack’.
“After the first year, you couldn’t have written it any better, to win the All-Ireland, and I should have retired after that and went out on a high!”
Having won both an U21 and senior All-Ireland with Cork, O’Neill knows better than any the importance of winning Championships at underage level.
However, as important as it is to be winning at underage level, O’Neill still feels that developing players and having them ready to play at senior inter-county level is what matters most.
“It’s definitely probably a happy medium between players being successful and winning and players developing to go on and play senior inter-county football.
Like if you said to me, Cork weren’t going to win an All-Ireland at U20 but every year you would have four or five lads who would go on to play senior inter-county with Cork...
“I would accept that because at the end of the day it’s great winning at underage but it’s all about developing those players.
“The bigger picture is obviously going on to play senior with Cork.
“I suppose our goal as a management team is to get these players ready to be able to make the step-up and obviously then, if you can pick up medals along the way it isn’t to be overlooked either.
“It creates a winning mentality but I think if you can mix it equally would be ideal but I would say that obviously the bigger picture has to be developing players to play inter-county senior with Cork.
“In fairness from the panel of players that we had in 2019, you can see two, three, four of them that featured last year, so it’s just about keeping that conveyor belt going and you can say that to about the minors and the U17s.
“Their position is probably as well to try and develop players to go onto the next level which is with us at the U20s and then obviously make the next step to the seniors but that doesn’t always happen.
“Some lads might make the jump from minor to senior without playing for the U20s, so again it’s about finding that balance between winning and developing."