Armagh's Ciaran McKeever - the ultimate team player ready for Championship bout with Fermanagh
CIARAN McKeever sits back and enjoys the comfort of the leather booth. His coffee cup is drained and the interview is drawing to a close.
He’s not one for looking in his rear view mirror, especially with a Championship showdown with Fermanagh on the warm horizon.
Still, you ask the question.
“No,” he says with the same defiance as his defending over the last 15 years with Armagh.
“I’ve given this everything that I’ve had. If I walk away from this year or next I’ll have no regrets. That’s important.
“From day one, I gave it everything I had. That’s all I wanted to do. It has served me well and still to this day I’m first at training and last to leave.”
Not every GAA player can utter those words with such outright conviction.
You ask is it because he’s slow to get changed after training, he laughs: “No, it’s because I have to tape up half my body!”
McKeever’s first dalliance with the Armagh senior team dates as back as 2003.
He was joining a team of local heroes. The halcyon days of the Orchard County.
“I remember Joe [Kernan] rang me; it was a week before the last National League match. The team was flying down to Kerry – the boys were flying to Kerry at that time! - and Joe asked me would I like to be involved in the Armagh squad. As a 19-year-old, I jumped at the chance.
“He said to me to get my passport ready because the squad was going to Bath for a week’s training.
“And that was my first introduction to the Armagh seniors. Let me tell you, it was eventful [laughing].”
Without asking, you get the impression that what happens in Bath, stays in Bath.
So there’s McKeever. On the training pitch. Surrounded by All-Ireland winners. Standing in a 10x10 tackling grid and staring down the barrel of a gun.
“There were a lot of 10x10 tackling grids, one-v-ones and no-where to go.
“You had the likes of 'Geezer', McGrane, Marsden, the McEntees – those boys were just obsessed. You’d be stuck there.”
Who hit the hardest?
“Marsden hit hard. They all hit hard. That whole team was great… but football has changed a lot since then.
“It’s probably a better game now. It’s all about systems now and how you go about getting around them. Back then, we went route one.”
McKeever turns 34 on the day Armagh try to rebuild their summer at home to Fermanagh.
Don't mention the ‘R’ word because it's off-limits.
He hasn’t ruled out an encore in 2018.
And yet, this time last year the Cullyhanna man was close to hanging up his boots.
A succession of injuries had eroded his spirit.
He’d suffered knee injuries, ankle injuries and a broken metatarsal but the toughest rehab of all was coming back from a torn plantar fascie (the bottom of his foot) in 2014.
At that time, Armagh were flying. So too was McKeever.
“It was the best I was moving in a long time,” he says.
It was the Tuesday night before their All-Ireland Qualifier against Meath when his summer ended.
“I caught a kick-out in training and was planted to go and one of the boys stood on my heel and I went to push off and tore it.
“I would say being injury prone is having niggles – pulling hamstrings, pulling calves, pulling quads – but a lot of my injuries have been contact injuries. It’s a contact sport and when you go into that environment you’ve got to accept you’re going to pick up knocks and bangs.
“Over the past two years I’ve picked up a couple of bad injuries.”
After Armagh exited last summer’s Qualifiers to Laois, McKeever spoke to his manager and was persuaded to stay on for the 2017 campaign.
“I was unsure what I was going to do at the end of last year because of the injuries. I felt I was chasing my tail all the time and having a short space of time to get back. It wasn’t really serving me well. I was coming into matches and I wasn’t really fully fit, not performing.
“At the end of the year I chatted to ‘Geezer’ and he said to come back and give it another push. The one thing about this year I got a good pre-season behind me without breaking down and that gave me massive confidence.
“I started tailoring my training a wee bit. I’ve done a lot of conditioning away from the field. I’ve been using a Wattbike – which is the worst hour of my life - and that has really served me well because I’m not putting as much impact on my joints.”
No longer guaranteed his place in the side, McKeever started just two National League games – against Louth and Antrim - at full-forward and scored a goal in each game.
He accrued a meagre 39 minutes of playing time in Armagh’s other League games and was a stoppage-time substitute in Armagh’s ill-fated Ulster Championship clash with Down.
Not being a regular, however, hasn’t dampened McKeever’s enthusiasm.
“As you get on in life, your role changes within the squad. You always want to start. I still go to training with the same mindset and pushing hard for a starting place.
“If you don’t start, you don’t start. ‘Geezer’ has spoken to me on a number of occasions and said: ‘Your role will be from the bench’, and I’ve accepted that.
“And, to an extent, I’ve enjoyed that experience.
“I sit and watch the game; I try to study it from the bench and if I come in I try to bring something to the table, add something to the team, whether it’s getting us over the line or closing a game out.
“You can’t be selfish and let your own ego take over the environment of the whole squad.
“I’ve felt that’s a real strength of our squad this year – we’ve something like 48 of a panel – and nobody has spat the dummy out all year. They all want to steer Armagh in the right direction again.
“Everyone is pushing really hard to get into that 26-man squad.
“My role, as I see it, is to be positive around the players and make sure they’re in the right frame of mind and coming off the bench. I’m ready to do that and management know that.”
Although he’s played most of his football in defence, his performances against Louth and Antrim at full-forward make him a viable option there against the Ernemen.
“Playing as a defender all my life, I kind of know what defenders don’t like and I use that to my advantage when I play full-forward. I’ve a really good understanding with some players out the field.
“I know when to make my runs and when I win the ball I just need someone off my shoulder and I’d give it to them.”
He adds: “The boys would be joking at training: ‘Where’s McKeever playing tonight?’ If I’m asked to play in the forward unit or the middle eight or defence, I’m ready to do whatever.”
While there is still plenty of football left in McKeever he has already embarked on a management coaching course through the Ulster Council.
“I love watching football and studying it as much as I can. I like the coaching aspect of it. I’ve really enjoyed the courses with the Ulster Council and it’s definitely something I’d like to pursue down the line.
“As far as retirement goes, I’ve just parked that and I’m looking forward to the next match. That’s the way I approach it. I haven’t thought anything other than the Fermanagh game coming up.”
McKeever’s faith in this current crop of players is unwavering.
He feels they could be one win away from making real progress.
He admits that he would love to be 25 again to enjoy the ride with this group for a little while longer.
“I turn 34 on the day we play Fermanagh.
“Your career goes like that [clicking his fingers]. I feel that young players must realise that these days don’t last forever.
“Your next game could be your last or you could be involved in these set-ups for 15 years or it could be six months. You just don’t know.
“That’s why when these opportunities arise for young players – whether you’re from Armagh or anywhere else – just really go at it.”
Conversation inevitably turns to June 4 and that unmentionable afternoon against Down in Newry.
McKeever pulls no punches.
“We, as players, f***** up that day,” he says.
Despite a patchy first half, it was felt Armagh’s two goals – one apiece from Andy Murnin and Mark Shields - had provided the platform for victory against the Mournemen.
But Armagh couldn’t clinch the deal. Down came out in the second half, got ahead and shut the door.
After some brilliant performances in the League, Armagh were transformed into a rudderless crew.
“We left that game behind us. After the first 10 minutes of the game, we caused Down numerous problems by cutting through them and creating goal opportunities.
“We should have been going in at half-time six or seven up. It just changes the whole dynamic of the game in the second half. We came out in the second half, Down got ahead and sat back, soaked up the pressure and frustrated us.
“We obviously lost our composure and got frustrated and didn’t perform in the second half – and that’s the harsh reality.
“We had numerous in-house matches, we played numerous friendlies against top Division One and Two teams and we performed really well.
“The reason why we performed very well in those games is because we implemented what we had been doing in training. That just went out of window in the second half against Down.
“Collectively, our decision-making was poor – our timing of our runs, the support off the shoulder wasn’t there in the second half.
“We went away and blew off a bit of steam and we regrouped on the Tuesday. A few of us met up on the Monday and chatted about the approach to these Qualifiers and then we sat down together and said: ‘Look, our season is far from over here. We’ve got to regroup here and really give this a good push.’
“We feel that there’s an opportunity here where you could get a run of matches in the back door and God knows where you could end up. But we’re looking no further than Fermanagh. That’s our objective.”