THERE is something about Kieran McGeeney that one can’t just put one’s finger on. His demeanour, at times, could lead one to believe he is somewhat shy a tad distant or just wary of the press but in reality the former Mullaghbawn club man, who lifted the Sam Maguire Cup for Armagh back in 2002, is extremely affable, friendly, a great talker, a deep thinker and as avid a GAA man as you could possibly hope to meet, writes Tommy Callaghan.
In once sense having a conversation with McGeeney, as we had last week in The Osprey Hotel in Naas, is akin to sitting down with the great Mick O’Dwyer.
Micko could talk for hours on end about football and McGeeney is very similar, without being a carbon copy.
Totally immersed? Without a doubt.
Totally committed? Without question.
Totally at ease? Yes and no.
At ease in the sense that he loves football and everything he does, it seems, is geared to football, geared to reaching the summit; geared to seeking perfection.
Unease possibly at his shortcomings, his failure to deliver, his mistakes (which he readily admits), his failure to bring silverware to Kildare despite making huge progress.
It was only Tuesday of last week that Kieran McGeeney was given the green light by Kildare County Board to fulfil the last year of his second three year stint with the county.
It is, after all, generally agreed that McGeeney has advanced Kildare to a much better place today than prior to his arrival; something that some folk seem to conveniently forget.
Five All Ireland quarter finals, one All Ireland semi final, one Leinster final makes for impressive reading but that vital last piece or two of the jig-saw has escaped him.
A Leinster title, an All Ireland final appearance and, of course, the ultimate, an All Ireland title, all remain on the ‘to do’ list.
So five years on, how does Kieran McGeeney feel about his involvement with Kildare?
And even more importantly, how does he feel facing into the final year of his tenure with the county?
“Did I think five years ago I would still be here? I’m not too sure but loyalty has always been a big thing with me and I have got to know this group of players as well as the players I played with and despite being an Armagh man I now genuinely feel like a Kildare man and the pride in the players I have. While I am disappointed that we have not achieved what we set out to, as of yet, I firmly believe there is more in us; I think we have a few young players coming through, the type of players Kildare need, big, strong aggressive and smart, he said”
Loyalty, of course, can at times dim one’s opinion, defer one from making the tough call and while not suggesting that McGeeney’s loyalty has cost Kildare, nevertheless reading between the lines one can say with some degree of certainty that changes, maybe a bit more ruthlessness and less patience, could form part and parcel of the agenda for 2013.
Asked if any players were contemplating retirements he admitted “a few will be making up their minds in the next few weeks and we will be finalising our panel, it is probably time for a wee bit of a change, it is not the nicest part of management but as I know myself time stands still for no one.”
The disappointment of another blank year is of course not lost on McGeeney and he acknowledges that Kildare players and supporters more than deserve a bit of success.
“The supporters of Kildare are incredible. Just look at the following for the away game against Cavan. I can safely say that was the biggest away following for any team this year outside of the All Ireland, it was incredible and is much appreciated both by the team management and by the players.”
All through our conversation two themes continually surface; becoming more competitive and ‘decision making.
“Being competitive throughout the team is vitally important, not just in certain areas but in every area of the field regardless of the number on a player’s back, we must get more competitive, we need a wee bit more balance but one thing we do have is natural footballers, just lacking being a wee bit competitive in certain areas.”
LOOKING back on 2012 McGeeney insists, that despite a general perception and leaving the Cork disappointment aside, he felt that the season just gone out was probably one of the best years.
“We had a strong O’Byrne Cup and overall I thought we played very well in the league apart from the second half against Galway but that was more to do with myself when I took Mick Foley out of midfield, but we were having problems at full back and as a result the team collapsed a wee bit and while it wasn’t easy we were in control of most of our league games.
“When the championship came around, again we took Mick Foley out of midfield, moving him back to full back against Meath and in hindsight it probably was not the best move and we suffered in midfield a bit that day.”
Turning to the qualifiers and again McGeeney was mainly positive.
“We took care of teams reasonably well, it was not always easy, even against Limerick but if we had taken our scores early we would have won that game comfortably. Our performance against Sligo I felt was excellent, top class.
Turning to the quarter final against Cork and it is plain to be seen the manager is still at a loss as to where that display came from.
“What happened in the seven days from Sligo to Cork I’m not sure, possibly we were putting such an effort into five or six games in five or six weeks and it caught up on us. It was a very poor performance and a major disappointment.”
Would going the traditional route, avoiding the back door, be more advantageous?
“Without a doubt, you have time to plan, time to get refreshed, having said that game after game can suit and has suited us but when you get to the quarter final stage you are meeting teams that have got the rest, have had ample time to prepare and that is the big difference.
“Overall I felt 2012 was one of our strongest years but the Cork game was one of our worse performances and naturally left a bitter after-taste; too many mistakes; soft goals; we missed a couple of easy scores, remember if we had converted our frees we would have been in front at the break and against a team such as Cork you get punished it is as simple as that.”
On the free front McGeeney admits,notwithstanding the efforts of Eoghan O’Flaherty and Mikey Conway, there is room for improvement.
“We have improved but we need to improve even further; a top team needs to be hitting a conversion rate of 80 per cent plus, at least.”
Would he agree the team needs strengthening in other areas as well?
“I think we have scorers but I feel we need the cover in certain parts of the pitch. Daryl (Flynn) was obviously a big loss as was Leper (Eamonn Callaghan) two quality players in that middle eight and against the likes of Cork we simply struggled without them.
“I actually think, overall defensively we were stronger this year than other years but feel that when a team gets a purple patch and gets a run on us we don’t know how to restrict that purple patch to two or three points instead of 1-4 or 1-5; over the 73 or 74 minutes on average we are probably better than the team we play against but those teams are more clinical during their purple patch and better at stopping us in our purple patch; it’s a part of the game that many people don’t like to see, it is probably the more cynical part of the game but other teams are far better at it than we are and that is one of the areas where we must improve.”
Eamonn Callaghan was a big loss and his trip to the US for the groin treatment didn’t seem to work out?
“Well actually what happened was the original problem was a rip in his stomach muscles that he got playing for his club and then he picked up a different injury; one cleared up, another came back, it is something that can often happen.”
And Daryl’s injury seemed to go on the whole year long?
“Daryl being the warrior that he is, is inclined to hold back an injury, continues training, probably hiding it somewhat, continues playing and eventually it just got too much for him.
THERE is perception, rightly or wrongly, that Kildare are one of the fittest teams around yet against Cork players were cramping long before the final whistle, is there a problem in this regard?
“Look I don’t really buy into this fitness thing; when you are winning a game your fitness is not a problem when you are chasing a game your fitness is brought into question.
“Fitness, as important and all as it is, is only one part of it, the big thing, the real big thing is being able to make a decision under pressure, that is the difference but I have no worries about fitness, Julie Davis, in my opinion, is one of the best strength and conditioning coaches in the country and she has proven that over the years.
“But at the end of the day fitness is only a component as is doing weights, a component and a small component at that; people must know what they are talking about instead of buying into a fallacy of for instance too much muscle and can’t sprint; just look at the top sprinters in the world, but at the end of the day the difference is the decision making on the day; that’s what gives a player the advantage; the decision making; when to hold, when to off-load when to move forward; when to stay back, that is the key element.
Kildare filled many column inches throughout the summer over the Seanie Johnston affair, did it affect the players, did it force the team and management to take the eye off the ball such was the furore for months on end?
“My thoughts and feelings on his are well known, but no I do not believe that it affected the players, it was more of annoyance to the management with constant questions and referrals but if Seanie had been treated just like any other player had been in the past there would have been no fuss or bother. What went on was shameful in the extreme but it is now in the past and he can settle down and train like everyone else in an effort to try and win his place, something that won’t be easy as we have some fine players coming through; the competition will be great and that can only be a good thing.”
The hardy annuals that crop up year in year out are still on the agenda and the Armagh man’s suggestion that improving communication between referees, players and team management could be helped greatly by having match officials ‘miked up’ as in rugby.
“I feel that could go a long way to taking the heat out of situations, just knowing why a decision was made, anything that can improve communications should be looked at. The Show Respect Get Respect theme is very welcome but that too has to be a two way thing.”
The ongoing club versus county situation is another problem that crops up year after year and here McGeeney suggests that shortening the inter-county season could go a long way to solving that problem.
“The season is too long, too drawn out and if compacted could certainly help solve that problem but unless and until that happens there will always be problems but, as ever, we will try to accommodate clubs as much as possible.”
And on the draw for the Leinster Championship, “it matters not who you meet you still have to win. Offaly have a new manager who will be anxious to push on make progress just as we will. At this stage it is simply sets a target for when training resumes.”
One gets the feeling McGeeney is already plotting and planning; it may be his final year with Kildare but have no doubt no stone will be left unturned in pursuit of that elusive silverware.
The road ahead, as ever, will be rough and tough and extremely challenging, no one knows that more than McGeeney but still, despite the setbacks and disappointments of the last five years, despite the mistakes both on and off the field, he firmly believes he can guide Kildare to the promised land.
Here’s hoping, as ever!