O’Neill: You can’t look too far ahead

You’d do well to find a better three words to sum up Aiden O’Neill’s first 16 months in Melbourne than: injury, trophies and COVID.

The now 23-year-old midfielder made the move to City in September 2020, but it certainly wasn’t smooth sailing straight away.

Moving to a new city with a new set of teammates and coaching staff is challenging for any player, let alone in the middle of a pandemic.

Easing the transition for O’Neill was the fact that he’d already met and played with several players in the City squad during his previous years in the A-League and his time playing for the Olyroos.

With a strong pre-season in the books, season 2020/21 initially started well for O’Neill, but it was quickly brought to a halt. After starting City’s opening two fixtures of the season, he found himself on the sidelines with a back injury that would ultimately keep him out for over three months.

“It was the longest I’ve ever been sidelined in my career, so it was very difficult for me,” O’Neill said.

Making things even harder was the timing of the injury. A three-match losing streak followed not long after, as a helpless O’Neill watched on from home, resting his back.

“It was difficult watching and knowing that there was nothing you could do out on the pitch to help,” he said.

I knew that the boys and everyone at the Club were doing everything they could to get the results – but that’s just football sometimes.

Thankfully for O’Neill, a return came in the 7-0 Melbourne Derby win, and he’d go on to perform well and cement a spot in midfield for the rest of a campaign that ended with his first two pieces of professional silverware.

Looking back on the Grand Final specifically, O’Neill said it was like nothing he’d ever experienced in his career.

“You’ve got the game on the weekend, but from the Monday in training, the build-up is just massive,” he said.

“You rock up to the stadium and it’s just a different feeling. You just can’t wait to get out there and start playing – it’s hard not to play the game in your head too much beforehand.

“I tried to really just enjoy the moment and the atmosphere was just incredible.

“I look back and just think about how lucky I was to be a part of the journey. Winning the double was something that I’ll cherish for the rest of my life.”

Now in the second season of a three-year deal, O’Neill is enjoying his time in Melbourne, despite not getting the ‘full experience’ so far due to lockdowns and COVID restrictions.

“I’m currently living not too far away from the training ground and I’m really enjoying my time down here near the beach,” he said, “My girlfriend has also moved down recently so I’m really feeling at home.”

While it came in a different form to last season, O’Neill, along with his City teammates, encountered another big challenge after just a handful of games. In late December, COVID swept through City, striking down a majority of players and meaning a break from training and games. This also meant a number of players had to spend Christmas alone in isolation, making things even harder.

Now with a few weeks of training back under their belts for most of the squad, O’Neill reflected on the experience of returning to training and getting ready for games in such a unique situation.

“It was tough to get back into the swing of things after the break, but I feel like we’ve done quite well to manage it all,” he said.

“With all of the fixture changes, you’ve got to try and not look too far ahead or get to wound up on who you’re playing next.”

With a number of games having already been postponed and AFC Champions League commitments coming up in April, City now faces a race against time to squeeze in all of its remaining league fixtures. While a likely congested schedule of fixtures will cause headaches for the coaching staff, O’Neill certainly isn’t worried about it.

“We can’t do anything about the postponements or changes to the schedule, so we just focus on ourselves,” he said.

“I’m definitely an advocate for playing Saturday/Wednesday, I always like playing more games so I don’t have any issues with playing midweek.”