OVER the past three-and-a-half seasons, Kieran McGeeney has transformed the fortunes of Kildare football – to such an extent that they’re now firmly established as a top-six team and quietly fancied to push Dublin to the brink, maybe even beyond, in this Sunday’s Leinster semi-final.
But his transition from on-field Armagh inspiration to commanderin- chief of another county hasn’t always been a bed of roses.
There have been watershed defeats along the way, setbacks which could have prefaced an unravelling of the Lilywhite/Geezer marriage.
In that scenario, the critics would have enjoyed a field day raking over the embers of another highprofile managerial casualty.
They would have wondered aloud why this archetypal professional in an amateur game, the ultimate “obsessive”, couldn’t convince a sceptical Kildare audience.
They would have cited his rookie status, tut-tutting the notion that even a playing legend can make the seamless leap into inter-county management without serving his apprentice first.
Several pundits were already sharpening their bayonets after that scary championship baptism in 2008 when Kildare succumbed to Wicklow and their wily old general, Mick O’Dwyer.
Quite a few were queuing up too after Kildare’s defensive horror show against Louth 12 months ago.
Benny Tierney soldiered for many years with McGeeney in Armagh and was always convinced he was made for inter-county management … but even he initially feared that the leap into Kildare’s hotseat may have come a “wee bit quickly”.
“He had an awful bit of a debacle against Wicklow and I’m sure half the country was secretly smiling,” Tierney reflects. “But after that blip, he’s had a serious run of great results with Kildare.”
This is reflected in their status as ‘back door’ renaissance men, reaching successive All-Ireland quarterfinals in 2008 (post-Wicklow) and 2009 (narrowly losing to Tyrone) before coming within a crossbar’s width of beating Down in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final (post-Louth).
Talk to any Kildare player now and it’s abundantly clear that they follow his word religiously. “You don’t stop learning from Kieran – he has an abundance of knowledge,” enthuses defender Andriu Mac Lochlainn.
“His belief in us makes us believe in ourselves. It might sound strange, but belief is what separates the Kerrys from the also-rans,” declares Ronan Sweeney.
Yet, as Sweeney also confirms, there were teething problems in that first season. They were the lowest scorers in Division One that spring, averaging less than 1-8 per game, en route to relegation.
“He was probably feeling his way around a bit,” the Kildare veteran recalls. “And so were we. It was a totally new system; he was bringing in totally new ideas to Kildare that we had never seen before.”
Sweeney stresses that the players “knew from day one that we were lucky to have him” and never once didn’t trust their new manager.
But he admits: “We probably were trying to play a way that didn’t suit the players that were here. It was probably a bit negative …
“After we were beaten by Wicklow in the championship, we had a good auld chat and realised that, look, we’re going to play the way that will suit both the management and the players. And we came up with a system then that’s been working for us ever since.”
MANY years beforehand, Benny Tierney had identified the traits of a manager in waiting. “I always used to compare him to Roy Keane – and Keane went straight into management too,” the former Armagh ’keeper relates. “Just a driven personality, somebody who exudes confidence and charisma.”
Charisma is not necessarily a word that echoes with the McGeeney stereotype, but as Tierney outlines: “Geezer might come across to some people as maybe this withdrawn introvert, but when you’re looking for motivation or looking for somebody to lift you, I don’t think there’s any guy I played with that can do it more.
“I guarantee you – at training – he’s probably running around with (the Kildare players) and hitting a few of them as well! He’s a hands-on coach and, if you do the business for him, then he’ll be your friend forever.
“I remember with Armagh, if Geezer missed a training session we were all able to take it handy for a night. I wouldn’t say he missed two in about 10 years … and when he wasn’t there it was as if there was a drop in standards. That’s how pivotal he was as a player, and I’m sure he’s exactly the same as a manager.”
By sheer coincidence, Tierney was attending a family function in Naas last August when he bumped into his old comrade on the night of Kildare’s heartbreaking defeat to Down. “I got an inkling of what the players thought of him, just by talking to a few of them. And it was just absolutely huge respect,” he reveals.
“You think about it,” Tierney then reflects, “he’s an outside manager who has come into Kildare. Very few of them get more than a year or two. You look at Banty in Meath, for example – he’s under serious pressure and he hasn’t even fulfilled a year yet.
“When you’re an outsider, you’re always viewed on with a wee bit of jealousy and a wee bit of ‘why couldn’t we get a man from our own county to do it?’ And he has more than banished those fears.”