He played senior football with his club at 14; played League with Armagh at 17; went on to win one All Ireland; six Ulster titles, 3 All Stars; Player of the Year in ’92, retired in 1997 and less than one year later was manager of Kildare.
Kieran McGeeney, aka The Geezer.
A passionate, no nonsense player; a totally committed and highly respected inter- county manager; a man of incredible stamina; a totally committed GAA man.
Warts and all.
When first contacted to have a chat for The Big Interview series, his first reaction was he had been asked on numerous occasions to do something along these lines but declined “to keep me out of trouble” but nevertheless decided to sit down and take a wander back over his football career; his six year stint with Kildare, and much more.
The man who went from top player to respected manager in a matter of months, now all of 13 years later, is still the same Kieran McGeeney I first interviewed from the car park at St Conleth's Park; he up north, while I was on my way into a county board meeting that was about to ratify him.
Straight talking, passionate, totally absorbing, his enthusiasm has not dipped one iota, never mind diminished and when I asked did he enjoy his time in Kildare, all of a half a dozen years of it, his reply was instant and to the point.
“I certainly did; some of my best friends are from Kildare, fellas that I would still be in contact with on a weekly basis; Johnny (Doyle), Brian Flanagan, Bolton, Dermot, Roli, along with Pat Mangan, Dermot Reilly and many more; we still have a Whatsapp group; I would count all these people as really good friends.
“They can shout back at me now; they don't have to take all the shit that I gave them when I was there; we would still meet for a couple of drinks; Carew (Niall) as well; a lot of good people and despite what some might think; I can look back and say that 99 per cent of my time in Kildare is full of good memories; I suppose there is a big part of me some day that hopes I'd love to back some day again.”
Was management always on your mind once you retired?
“Not really; the way I always looked at football I said to myself I would know when it was time to give it up and after the Derry game back in 2007, I just felt that was it; I hadn't planned before or after but I just knew walking off the pitch that was it.
“I played with Na Fianna (Dublin) that summer as well, I felt I was doing pretty well at club level, I think it was after a game against Ballyboden St Enda's in the championship, that I felt then I just did not have the same passion or drive to push myself for the team anymore so I decided that was it.” Typically me I suppose, he adds in that matter-of-fact sort of way.
So Kildare came knocking.
“Ye, got a call; asked a few questions, asked if I was interested in letting my name go forward and in no time I was the new manager of Kildare.”
Did you know much about Kildare at that time?
I knew the scene and knew that Kildare were very much like Armagh, very passionate about their football; probably expect more than they should, but that's the way; I like that type of challenge; love being involved in sport; so I said I would give it a rattle.
It was said that one of the first things you told your new squad that you always loved playing against Kildare, as did a lot of counties, because they were a ‘nice’ team; not overly robust or anything like that.
What I said at the time, said McGeeney, “that was the perception, funny about perceptions, when people have this belief, it can manifest itself, not in terms that it might be true but how people might behave around that manifestation, that's what people talk like; but as the years went on I can tell you Kildare had some of the toughest players that I have ever come across; Bolton (Emmet); Johnny (Doyle); Daryl (Flynn), Brian Flanagan, Paudi O'Neill, tough men, Andrew McLoughlin, if people think you're not (tough) they play accordingly.
“I suppose playing in Dublin for a long time, you will always hear that coming back from The Dubs; but toughness is a very big concept.
“I find when playing football , it's now always what people make it seem to be, but really it was that perception that I wanted to change; first of all I did not think it was true; I though there was much more to them; I played against Sarsfields a couple of times in the club championship, again some tough boys there too I can tell you; but changing the perception can take time; it is not always an easy thing to do when you are an outsider; no more it is an easy thing to do if you are an insider.”
Kieran McGeeney may not have taken any silverware to Kildare but to many, including this writer, it was one hell of an enjoyable and successful journey.
In his six season stint, he got The Lilies to one All-Ireland semi final; four All-Ireland quarter finals; one Leinster final; played in no less than 15 Qualifiers, winning 14, the only one he lost was in his final season of 2013, going under to Tyrone (in Newbridge) ironically the same year that Kildare returned to Division 1 of the Allianz Football League.
McGeeney summed it up succinctly when saying “we always seemed to be a wee bit short in getting the silverware; we got into Division 1 pushed on got to the league semi final, just caught.
“There are times in sport you have to deflect; you have to play a certain way; other teams that would have a different culture emanating from their camp can probably do a lot more and get away with it because it is dressed up as good football, manliness; but sometimes when a team is coming from the bottom up, playing the same way, it can be looked upon as being too aggressive and not the right way to play football.
“I often look at games and see some of our top teams, knocking, shall we say, lumps out of each other, and it is looked upon as being manly but if two other teams do it, it is often looked upon as thuggery, that's the way it is.”
But what was missing, what was the missing ingredient that failed to get Kildare over the line on more than one occasion, particul-
arly in the big games and on the big day?
“Sometimes you just need a wee slice of luck because once you get over that line your mindset changes.
“I saw that happen with our own team (Armagh) in ’99 getting over Derry; Paddy McKeever came for a ball, got it and scored, suddenly there was a bit more belief.
“We played two classic games against Kerry, the semi final one year, the second went to extra time but when we won the All-Ireland and got back for a couple of Ulster championships but not playing anything as well as we could, but because we had that belief you make better decisions; you don't tend to listen to as many people outside the camp; after you win something you have more self-belief.”
Sometimes Kildare were getting it (stick) partly due to myself I suppose, he laughs, “but when you look back on it people were saying ‘look at the amount of money they (Kildare) were spending on the backroom team’ while we (Kildare) were sitting next door to one of the most financially based teams in terms of the size of the backroom team and even the money they had at their disposal, yet people were looking at us (Kildare) taking pot shots, and that can infiltrate into the squad, unless you are strong enough to push it out, but I suppose at different times there was always something.
“My personality seemed to attract certain things at times and while sometimes I tried to keep out of it but as someone said to me once, ‘you know you don't have to go into every argument you are invited into’ ... but sure that's what I liked.”
In Kieran McGeeney's first year in charge, Kildare were relegated from Division 1 and then in the Leinster Championship, lost to Wicklow; an absolute horrendous start, whatever about losing Division 1 status, losing to the neighbours was surely a major set-back.
“ It was devastating for both myself and the players; a lot of those games in Division 1 were very close and could have went either way but you have to remember the very best teams in the country were in that Division that time and we weren't at that level.
“As for the Wicklow game, the previous couple of years Kildare had not been going that well in the championship but I suppose I was naive in a lot of ways, I had come from a culture and was now into a different one in Leinster; I realised what I thought I was saying, what I though I was coaching, maybe I wasn't; what you see and what you portray in your own head wasn't necessarily what the players hear and see so I knew after that I had to changes things and we did.
“We talked about it; got a good run in the Qualifiers but again it takes a wee bit of luck. Take the game against Cavan in The Qualifiers that season, Mick Foley burst through the middle and him and James Kavanagh combined for the goal that won us that Qualifier; got us on a bit of a roll.
“And that win gave us that wee bit of belief; got the momen-
tum going and we started to believe in our-
selves a little bit more, so things took off a bit from there.
“But we still had a lot of falters, not going in the front door and that sort of thing but the great thing about that bunch of players was they were willing to take that sort of thing on the chin and not let it effect them too much; and they were able to push on get going again.”
So that bit of luck, that bit of getting the break, huge regardless of the level a team is at”
Again when you are talking of luck or a lack of it, take the Donegal game, a game that was going into extra time and Kevin Cassidy scored with his bad foot, that was probably a turning point for both teams but we found it hard to get back up there again at the same level but we were there or there about's but I probably knew after that I would have to try and change things a bit and that's why I got more involved with the 21s and tried to bring fellas through with them.
“We seem to just have the right balance ... but then I was told to get on to my high horse.
“We got to the League semi final (2013) lost to Tyrone; lost to Dublin in the Leinster semi final; defeated Louth in the Qualifiers before we met Tyrone in Newbridge , we had to change things up a wee bit, which we tried to do, but that was just the end of my time.”
One occasion that will always stand out for many Kildare players and supporters was that day in 2010, the day of Dermot Earley's (snr) funeral.
“That day proved once again the quality of the character of those lads, not just Dermot and his family, but that group, Johnny Doyle (as good a captain that any team was fortunate to have); the likes of Ronan (Sweeney), Daryl (Flynn), Bolton, Brian Flanagan, Hughie Lynch, really good fellas, they really wanted to push on and be there for Dermot (Earley), although it was a very sad occasion losing a man such as Dermot Earley (snr), he was a man who could fill up a room when he walked into it, his character; it shows you the type of friends Dermot (jnr) had, the way the team stuck together and what they did for him that day; knowing what the Earley's did for Kildare that day, was simply amazing.”
Did you ever wonder or more than that, probably more than just scratch your head, when Kildare had a decent league run they rarely transformed that into championship and indeed, as in 2013 a great league but a championship flop, why was that?
“I suppose you are always trying to push yourself for the championship to get that right and you are always also trying to win the league but Division 2 is a very difficult division because there is a balance in trying to get up into Division 1 but also being fit to stay in it, but when we eventually did get up I felt we had strength in depth.
“ I know I made loads of mistakes; am still making them, you would like to go back and be able to change them but at the time you just try and make the right decisions and using the players you have got at your disposal; sometimes when you look back after a game you see things you should, or could had done differently and better.
“There are times also you look back at a game and actually done things as well as you could have possibly done, but you still lost ; we were probably a wee bit unlucky on some occasions and when we did it seemed to always revolve around a bounce of a ball; a decision not going your way; we were close and it would not have taken much to have pushed us into the Promised Land, but we didn't so you can't crib about it.”
Anything in particular if you could have changed, let it be in a match or whatever that might have made a difference?
“More than one or two but sometimes we looked for things that we didn't need to look for because we already had them there; you can get caught up in the surroundings and the paraphernalia that people would describe at what a team needs; and you probably have it already there, you just didn't realise and you're looking for something but then when you bring that ‘something’ in, when you add that to a team, it just didn't mix well, both player-wise and tactically.
“I would have felt in my own gut I knew what makes a player tick and I could get it out of a player; but maybe sometimes to let players in and maybe forgive them for different stuff; you want a team that will push and push, but you also want a bit of craic too and I would believe that team would say I am not the strictest disciplinarian that most people would think but there are times you need that (and I possibly didn't do it) but at that stage I was trying to get the players to understand that in the end of the day it is players who win matches, but I really was so lucky with the players I had at my disposal in Kildare, of that I have absolutely no doubt.”
Will there be football this year, anytime, do you think?
Everyone is asked for their opinion and they give it but it is only based on the knowledge we have today but that knowledge seems to change practically week on week but the no. 1 thing is we all want is to keep our families safe and well, and obviously our players too, but the GAA is such a huge part of life in Ireland, and not just at elite level at inter-county, but at club level and even at the stage below; all that is involved with the community; walking around your pitch; sports days; culture days; it's just all the community and people are really missing that; the connectedness and all that brings.
“We have had to distance ourselves to keep safe and that is part of what we see and we all hope that can change, whether that be from a vaccine or whatever but there is so much we just don't know; really everybody is just guessing (as regards to games returning).
“I would love just to see the fields open again and if the games were pushed back so what; but kids being allowed to kick around; training and practice; we might be able todu that with social distancing but the GAA is such a big part of our lives and of our communities but there is no doubt it is such a big miss at the minute, a huge miss.”
The GAA is part of who I am, I love it, my wife tells me I have not looked as relaxed in years (with no football) but I just love being involved in football; love coaching; love pushing players on, both on and off the pitch; it is an honour to play for your county and represent the people you were born with and grew up with and to put on your county jersey.”
I always believed that Kildare were capable of winning an All-Ireland as I believed were Armagh but it's harder when the culture is not there; history favours the top counties; the chances of winning the top prize for the rest is something like 2 or 3 percent, history has shown that; size, population, money, people can argue about money; I am not saying money wins out but it helps when you are not all the time skimping and scraping the whole time, the reality of what people thought of Kildare and the money involved (all the helicopters and aeroplanes that I had) is very, very far removed from the truth; good people; good clubs bursting their ass to keep things going; they are not given it (money); they go out and put things together; they work hard for it.
“ I was very very impressed with a lot of the clubs in Kildare and the likes of the Supporters Club, the work they did behind the scenes and never get credit for; fantastic stuff; there are some really good people in Kildare, really good; people I will always be very proud to have been associated with.”
And what about life away from football.
“Well we have three children now, so that keeps us busy but I also love Jiu-Jitsu (martial arts) and have worked with John Kavanagh, I have a brown belt, the aim is to get a gold belt before I am 50 but I had to get my shoulder recon-
structed after a fall and when they went into it (shoulder) I was told it was more or less f----d and they had to do a bigger job than they thought; I'm out now for a couple of months but with the pandemic it has worked out all right in that way and I will hopefully back to it again at the other end of the summer.”
“It is a fantastic sport; not a great spectator sport but it is great; very physical and in it you come across different coaches and athletes and you learn from that, you build an empathy with players who have to push themselves and the more things you cross over the better.
“For me it is an escape, when I am on the mat and someone is trying to knock the b----x out of me; you go with the flow, not worrying about the press and people giving me a hard time; really my escape from the world I suppose.”