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Saturday 21 April 2018

'Geezer' - The man who never tires from the chase

As Armagh boss plots fall of Lilies, old pals give their insight

Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney at the All-Ireland SFC Round 3B match against Tipperary at Semple Stadium in Thurles two weeks ago. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney at the All-Ireland SFC Round 3B match against Tipperary at Semple Stadium in Thurles two weeks ago. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Kerry's Colm Cooper in action against Armagh's Enda McNulty, left and Kieran McGeeney. Photo: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile
Kieran McGeeney, left, has words with his Manager Paul Caffrey. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Kildare manager Kieran McGeeney and captain John Doyle after All- Ireland SFC quarter-final defeat to Cork in 2012. Photo: Paul Mohan / Sportsfile

Paul Caffrey considers that first, fateful meeting in early 1999. "I'd never seen or heard of Kieran McGeeney until the day I met him," he recalls. "And look, the rest is history."

The future Dublin boss was in charge of his home club, Na Fianna, at the time. They had threatened a breakthrough the season before, losing the county final to Kilmacud Crokes.

Meanwhile, a certain Armagh footballer yet to etch his name into the national consciousness was weighing up his options about joining a club in the capital.

He chose Na Fianna. And barely a year later, they were Leinster club champions and contesting an All-Ireland final.

A couple of years further along, McGeeney was climbing the Hogan steps as the first Armagh man to lift Sam.

By the end of that decade, he had re-emerged as a first-time manager who - for every provincial setback - possessed the dogged persistence and belief to steer Kildare through the July pitfalls and back into Croke Park each August.

And now, this Saturday in Croker, the same quarter-final prize awaits when he leads his native Armagh against his adopted Lilywhites. 'Geezer' has come full circle.

But where did it all start?

History-making

Enda McNulty is five years McGeeney's junior. He shared in that history-making All-Ireland of 2002. Before that they had shared a Mullaghbawn dressing-room. And before that, McNulty was a young pupil at Abbey Grammar in Newry already in awe of the senior year student from home.

"He would have been a hero within school. He was almost an iconic figure, even at 16-17 years of age, because of how committed he was, how athletic he was, how hard-working he was," McNulty recalls.

"Kieran would have played senior football from 15-16 years of age. My father would have been the coach on those teams. So as a very young child, I would have got to know Kieran. A very strong role model."

Over time, McNulty would see his leadership close up.

"He doesn't know how to give in," he says. "I've played with him right across the board, across lots and lots of teams. I've never seen him ever say 'This isn't looking good, we'll throw in the towel.'

"I can remember being in Croke Park, playing against Galway in '01, in front of 60,000. And after five or six minutes, Armagh had started very poorly. And I'll never forget Geezer's voice ... his calm voice, his hand on the shoulder, 'Let's weather the storm here.'"

Against the eventual champions, they almost pulled it out of the fire. The following season it was Armagh's turn to celebrate, led by a centre-back talisman about to turn 31.

And yet, just a few years earlier, "he certainly wasn't a household name" to Pillar Caffrey. "If truth was known," he reveals, "he had met Dessie Farrell in Copper Face Jacks and, as Gaelic players often do in that great premises, they struck up a conversation and he intimated that travelling up and down from Dublin to train with Mullaghbawn was really taxing and he might be interested in throwing his lot in with a Dublin club."

By Caffrey's estimation, he still wasn't the "finished product" when he joined Na Fianna. Yet, almost instantly, he transformed them.

"I'd be quite certain he was the catalyst - from becoming a pretty good team to a great team," the former Dublin boss expands. "He brought an attitude with him. Already we had some guys in the dressing-room who were high-standard, quality performers - the likes of Dessie Farrell, Mick Galvin, Senan Connell, Jason Sherlock.

"But for someone like Kieran McGeeney to come in the door with a different attitude … he just raised the bar another few notches for that group."

In his first season, playing at midfield, he helped Na Fianna to end a 20-year Dublin SFC famine. A few months later they claimed their first (and only) Leinster club crown.

Their Navan decider, against Sarsfields of Newbridge, is still embedded in Caffrey's mind.

Bullets

"I have the stats sheet in the wardrobe - Geezer touched the ball 48 times. They talk about Ciarán Kilkenny ... that was in a 60-minute game in the depths of December," he stresses. "That's how pivotal he was to us and to our game plan. Geezer was handing the bullets over to Dessie Farrell and Mick Galvin and Jason Sherlock and Aaron Shearer and these fellas. Without Geezer we wouldn't have achieved what we achieved."

Even if they failed in their ultimate All-Ireland objective, losing to Mullaghbawn's old rivals from Crossmaglen, that team of all-talents would achieve a Dublin SFC hat-trick while reaching three consecutive Leinster finals.

But it didn't end there. "Like, he played ten championship seasons for Na Fianna. He certainly wasn't a player that just came in the door and played for a season and went back out the door, as a lot of fellas did," Caffrey concludes.

He retired from Armagh in 2007. No sooner did one inter-county door close than another would open. Kildare.

Virtually a decade on, Caffrey can say he wasn't surprised by McGeeney's move into management, citing a player always chasing improvement, always craving information and stats towards that goal. In short, "one of the most driven guys I've ever come across in sport."

Not everyone in Kildare, though, was convinced a rookie boss was the answer for a county stuck in the noughties mire. "To go from a player straight into management was a big step," says Johnny Doyle. "And, let's be honest, it was a bit of a risk from a Kildare point of view too ... it could have gone belly-up very easily.

Doyle knew him through the occasional on-field encounter. "Dermot (Earley) would have been excited," he adds, "just by the level of professionalism and the way he conducted himself around International Rules panels. The fact that Dermot was excited was nearly good enough for me!"

He remembers their first gathering in Newbridge. McGeeney told them "what the outside world thought of us", then asked why the players felt they weren't succeeding. "And, slowly but surely, all these excuses came out onto the table. I remember him writing them down on a clipboard. And, one by one, he said: 'We'll get rid of all these excuses.'"

Doyle was already a seasoned campaigner; he would become a mainstay of the McGeeney era. He is "well aware" that not every Kildare player enjoyed the same relationship because there is always a different dynamic when you're not on the team.

But he had their respect, each and every one. "The big thing for me was his honesty," says the 2010 All Star. "You could tell straight away, 'This lad doesn't do bullshit' … and while sometimes it didn't suit you, because he gave it to you hard, but you respected that because you knew there was nothing else behind it.

"He just wanted the best for Kildare. Outside of public perception there's a totally different Kieran McGeeney. You'd hear people say: 'He didn't wave to the crowd enough', but that wasn't Geezer."

McGeeney was ousted, after six eventful years, by a wafer-thin county board vote. The players wanted him to stay. "My biggest regret is that we didn't have some bit of silverware to reward Kieran for the work he did," Doyle concludes.

McGeeney moved straight from Kildare to Armagh, working as assistant to Paul Grimley in 2014 before stepping up to No 1 after 12 months.

His first three campaigns have been chequered; this year's narrow failure to escape Division 3, coupled with a 12-week suspension and an early Ulster exit to Down, appeared to leave him badly exposed.

Vultures

"I'd say the vultures were circling," says Caffrey, "but great credit that he turned it around." Meanwhile, reflecting on the "incredible criticism" he has shipped in recent years, in public and from the Armagh football community, McNulty pays tribute to his exceptional "adversity quotient".

"Every time he has been criticised in public, he always holds his hand up and says that he takes 100pc responsibility for the team's performance. He would never, ever stoop low enough to respond to the critics ... so I think he has exemplified humility and exemplified belief in himself, right throughout the dark days."

What an irony it would be if one of the good nights should come against his old comrades.

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