GAA Football

Armagh star Ciaran McKeever: Gaelic football has shaped me into the person I am today

After announcing his retirement from GAA inter-county football earlier this week, Ciaran McKeever took time out with Irish News sports reporter Brendan Crossan to reflect on his 14 years as an Armagh player, insisting that he exits the stage content with his lot...

After announcing his inter-county retirement earlier this week, Ciaran McKeever says he leaves with no regrets

Brendan Crossan: What was your last year like with Armagh because you knew it was going to be your last?

Ciaran McKeever: I knew it was going to be the last time I would play for Armagh.

It was actually a very enjoyable year because there’s a great bunch of players there at the minute.

I was just thankful I stayed injury-free for the whole year.

BC:  Was it frustrating year because of the lack of game-time you got?

CMcK: Of course. In that environment you want more minutes on the field. But you’ve got to be honest with yourself too.

There were just certain matches that didn’t suit me, and that’s just the harsh reality of it.

The game has changed, the pace of the game, it suited other players more than me.

People outside of the camp might feel I could have been used more but I felt I was used in the right manner.

BC: : If Armagh had played a more defensive game this year do you think you would have featured more?

CMcK: We approached matches a wee bit differently this year.

We wanted to be a bit more expansive, we needed legs on the pitch to drive forward.

A more defensive system might have suited me better and I might have got more game-time but it’s not about me.

I thought we had a very good year and we attacked more.

BC: When did you feel you were losing that crucial yard of pace?

CMcK: Towards the end of 2015 I started to pick up a couple injuries and it was taking me a longer time to get back on the pitch.

I would get back and something else would go.

I just felt towards the end of last year I was struggling in games; I just wasn’t getting there.

I knew where I wanted to be but I wasn’t getting there quickly enough.

BC: That must have been frustrating…

CMcK: Yeah, because I knew two or three years ago I would have got to those balls and been in the right place but time waits for no man.

You see these young lads coming through now and they’re just getting quicker and quicker and that’s the way football is going.

BC: What’s been the over-riding emotion since you announced your retirement?

CMcK: Whenever I was leaving Croke Park on August 5, I spoke with the players and they knew I wouldn’t be back.

We went for a few beers. We stayed local on the Saturday, a few boys went to Carlingford on the Sunday and I met up with them on the Monday in Dublin.

Throughout those couple of days a few boys were texting me saying: ‘Give it one more year.’

 

Ciaran McKeever and Stevie McDonnell Ireland celebrate Ireland's International Rules victory over Australia in 2011

 

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County players share their thoughts on Ciaran McKeever's leadership skills and legacy... 

"Ciaran will go down as a real stalwart of Armagh football - a great player but a real warrior and leader. I've played against him a few times and he was always up for the battle and no doubt the current crop of players and management will miss him greatly."
Former Derry defender Kevin McGuckin

"I played with him on the Compromise Rules and was a great team-mate on and off the field. He was definitely one of the best defenders in Ulster this past 15 years."
Donegal defender Neil McGee

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BC: Was there any time where you thought of staying on for another year?

CMcK: No. I was content with my decision. After speaking with Geezer (Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney) at the end of 2016 we both knew this would be my last year.

BC: What was that conversation like with Geezer? Did you consider not going again in 2017?

CMcK: Geezer is straight down the line. I’d two operations in 2016 and at that point I honestly wasn’t sure what I wanted to do.

Half of me was saying ‘quit’ but I had a good chat with Geezer, Julie Davis, our strength and conditioning coach, and our physio Paul Carragher and we all came up with a plan.

The big thing for me was getting a good pre-season under me and that I did, and Julie was fit to tailor my training after that.

It worked out for me and my body stayed fit the whole year.

Geezer told me that there would be matches that would suit me and other matches that wouldn’t.

That was tough to hear because over the last 10 years or so I would have been one of the first names on the team-sheet. But I was happy to fulfil that role and help guide the younger players.

BC: A lot of players in your shoes would not have sat on the bench and stepped away from it…

CMcK: It was never, ever about me. It was all about what was best for the team. The manager made the right call.

 

Ciaran McKeever (right), who has announced his retirement from representing Armagh, with his role model and manager Kieran McGeeney

 

BC: Have you felt emotional since announcing your retirement?

CMcK: At times, obviously. For the last 15 years you were going to bed every night thinking how you could be a better footballer and what you could do to make Armagh better.

That’s gone now. When I told my family I wouldn’t be playing for Armagh again, it was emotional.

All good things come to an end. As the saying goes: ‘Don’t cry that it’s over, smile that you were part of something very special.’

BC: Will you still lead that disciplined lifestyle?

CMcK: I love training, I love training hard. Over the next couple of weeks and months I’ll be solely focused on club football.

I was joking with the boys; we train at a track for pre-season and the Newry Running Club is on 7-8pm and we're on 8-9pm – and I was saying to them that I’ll be on the track next year between 7-8pm while they’re warming up for pre-season.

But I’ll definitely find something to fill that void and I’ll keep training over the winter.

BC: Would you get involved in any other sports?

CMcK: A couple of cousins do triathlons and they’ve been at me. It’s something I might dabble in at some stage.

BC: Who were big influences growing up?

CMcK: Ciaran McConville from my own club in Cullyhanna.

At that stage there was no player development programmes or anything like that but Ciaran McConville took the U8s right through to U16 and minors.

He invested a lot of time in us. He taught us the basics and encouraged us to get better.

It wasn’t easy back then for one man to look after so many youngsters.

I wouldn’t be sitting here today doing this interview if it wasn’t for Ciaran McConville.

And my parents Majella and Michael were huge influences. They would have been heavily involved in Cullyhanna when I was growing up. They were always there to help me along the way.

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County players share their thoughts on Ciaran McKeever's leadership skills and legacy... 

"He was a great player. I had a few battles with him. He seen the good and the bad of Armagh football over the last 10 -15 years. A good fella off the field but when he went on the pitch he gave everything."
Former Derry player Eoin Bradley

"A real leader for Armagh down through the years. One of the toughest opponents I would have marked during my time. Quality and tough defender."
Former Monaghan player Paul Finlay

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BC: What were your ambitions growing up?

CMcK: There was a group of boys I used to run about with and I remember one of the boys’ mothers asked us what did we want to be? She still reminds me 'til this day because I said back then I wanted to play for Armagh. I was 15 or 16.

BC: What has Gaelic football given you?

CMcK: It has given me massive structure in my life, discipline and a sense of responsibility. It has shaped me into who I am today.

BC: What was your best position because you’ve been a man-marker, sweeper and attacking wing-back for Armagh?

CMcK: Something that I always relished was man-marking. I relished studying other players and trying to get the upper hand.

BC: Who was your toughest opponent?

CMcK: Alan Brogan. He was so elusive in the way he moved. I had many battles with Benny Coulter and Stephen O’Neill.

 

Ciaran McKeever tries to get to grips with Tyrone's Stephen O'Neill during the 2005 All-Ireland semi-final

 

BC: John Morrison once said that you were a far better footballer than you were ever given credit for…

CMcK: I definitely enjoyed that part of my career as well as much as the man-marking. A lot of people think I was just a stopper but I could play a bit of ball as well.

BC: People who don’t know you have a specific image of you which is very different to the one in front of me now. Are you aware of that?

CMcK: Ah yeah. That’s probably true right across Ireland. There are two Ciarans: one away from football and one that crosses the white line - two totally opposite people.

I always played on the edge and doing that got the best out of me. Whether people liked me or not, I’m not going to change their opinion.

BC: Does that perception bother you?

CMcK: It doesn’t bother me. I was at my best when I was playing on the edge and I’d never apologise for that.

If I wasn’t playing on the edge I’d be better sitting at home.

People had this perception that I was a liability. Don’t get me wrong, I was no angel.

I was always stuck on conflict. But when it came to the bit I was never suspended for a Championship match in 15 years.

I might have missed the odd League match here or there but my discipline in Championship football was good.

BC: When was the most enjoyable time in your career?

CMcK: I always got a sense of pride when things weren’t going well for Armagh… The easy thing to do was to walk away and let somebody else pick up the mantle.
But it was something I really relished, loved doing, fighting for Armagh and trying to get Armagh to a better place.

 

Ciaran McKeever, who announced his retirement earlier this week, was the leader of Armagh over the last decade

 

BC: You won a few Ulster titles early in your career. Did you think it was always going to be like that playing for Armagh?

CMcK: Yeah, when you come into that environment and you’re winning Ulsters and playing in All-Ireland semi-finals, you think it’s going to happen every year. But it doesn’t.

We’re talking about the Kerrys, the Dublins, Tyrone and Mayos - but the whole thing can change so quickly.

Don’t get me wrong, Dublin and Kerry will be around for a long time… I just feel if you really want to play county football and you get a group of players that want to do the same that gap can close very quickly.

You can achieve your goal but you need to have the right mindset and the right people around you.

BC: Is it getting harder for people to give the time over to being an inter-county footballer?

CMcK: It is getting harder and harder but I believe if you want something and you want to play for Armagh or whatever county, you can make it happen. I think a good manager will work with you if you need a bit of leeway.

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County players share their thoughts on Ciaran McKeever's leadership skills and legacy... 

"He's been a great servant to Armagh football throughout his career and a seriously tough competitor and when you ask any of his team-mates about him the one word that continually would come back is leadership and that's a great way to be remembered."
Former Derry player Conleith Gilligan

"Ciaran became an inspirational figure in the Armagh set up due to his attitude and drive to be successful. In the prime of his career he was one of the most feared defenders in the country. He was a mentally tough player which is hard to instil in some and he was exactly the type of player that you would want by your side going into battle."
Former Armagh team-mate Stevie McDonnell

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BC: What was your most enjoyable moment in football?

CMcK: Captaining the Armagh U21s to an All-Ireland title in 2004.

BC: You tried to swap shirts with Peter Canavan during the 2005 Ulster final at Croke Park…

CMcK: I actually got sent off in that game but I was later cleared. I’ve never came across him since that game.

BC: Should Armagh have won more All-Irelands?

CMcK: They should have won another two or three after 2002, particularly in ’04, '05 and ’06.

BC: Joe Kernan gave you your chance with Armagh in late 2003…

CMcK: Yes, and I’d just like to thank Joe for giving me the opportunity to represent Armagh and to have a long career.

BC: Was it intimidating entering a squad with the likes of McGrane, McGeeney, McConville and Marsden in it?

CMcK: It was. I remember I always shared a room with Marsden – he was my room buddy back then.

He used to watch Bo’ Selecta. Marsden was a big fan of it. He’d watch that every Saturday night.

Those boys welcomed me with open arms.

You would go into that environment but you wouldn’t see a bit of football for maybe a year or more but they really respected you for it.

You have to be willing to sit there and earn your corn. It might take a year. It might take a week...

BC: It’s not like that any more…

CMcK: I think it’s to do with outside influences, people saying to young players: ‘What are you doing wasting your time when you could be playing club football?’

If you want to play for your county, bide your time and don’t listen to those outside influences.

BC: Have you any regets?

CMcK: No. I can walk away with a clear conscience and no regrets.

BC: Where would you like to be in 12 months?

CMcK: I’ve a big interest in coaching. I’ve done all my coaching badges and I’ve just finished my Level Three management course with the Ulster Council so it’s something I want to pursue.

BC: How would you describe the place of Cullyhanna to someone that has never been there before?

CMcK: It’s unique. There are different time zones in Cullyhanna and your mobile signal will disappear very quickly. It’s a nice spot to be in and there are good characters in it.

BC: Who would be the top five players you’ve played with?

CMcK: I’ll probably be leaving some boys out… Geezer, Stevie McDonnell, Oisin McConville, Aaron Kernan, Brendy Donaghy, Jamie Clarke – the list goes on. It’s a bit harsh to name just five. It’s not a fair question.

BC: When did you feel at your best?

CMcK: Around 2005, ’06 and ’07… I remember in 2014 when we got to the All-Ireland quarter-finals I felt rejuvenated.

That was one of the best years I had in a long, long time.

I remember we were getting ready for the Round Four Qualifier with Meath. The week before, we stayed in Enniskillen and we’d played an in-house game in Brewster Park.

I remember leaving Brewster that day thinking that it was the best I’d felt in years.

I was looking forward to playing at Croke Park – and then I broke my foot the following Tuesday night in training.

That was hard to stomach because I was playing really well that year.

And the injuries started to roll in from there.

BC: How quickly has your career gone?

CMcK: [clicks his fingers] Like that. You try to tell the young players: ‘Maximise every opportunity that you get because this goes so quickly. Don’t come in and give it 50 per cent or 60 per cent because you’re going to be out of the house for the same length of time anyway.

You have to give everything you have because it just goes so quickly.'

BC: What will you miss about the changing room and the people in it?

CMcK: Just that sense of pride and pulling on the Armagh jersey.

If it was easy everybody would be standing in that changing room but it takes a group of unique men to put themselves out there and to be criticised.

A lot of people have been in that environment and weren’t cut out for it. It’s about those who want to keep coming back – and those are the men that will close the gap.

 

Ciaran McKeever in action for Armagh, with whom he won four Ulster titles and National Leagues in three divisions

 

BC: And is Geezer the best man to lead this group?

CMcK: Definitely. There is no better man.

BC: How would you like to be remembered as a footballer?

CMcK: I suppose a big thing for me was that I didn’t want any special awards. I didn’t want the individual stuff.

I just wanted to be respected by my team-mates and I was respected by the people that coached and managed me down through the years.

BC: Were you easy to manage?

CMcK: I was never afraid to speak my mind. Managers appreciated that, I think.

I do believe I was an easy player to manage.

BC: Where would you like to see Armagh in five years time?

CMcK: Playing Division One football and if you’re playing at that level then you should be winning Ulster titles and competing for the All-Irelands.

BC: Who would you like to thank during your 15 years with the Armagh senior team?

CMcK: John McParland and the McParland family.

Any time I walked into the premises of the Carrickdale or Canal Court I was always looked after.

They’ve been brilliant to me.

BC: Is there anything you’re looking forward to in retirement?

CMcK: I’m looking forward to family gatherings and socialising with close friends. It’ll be nice to sit down and have a beer with them…

I achieved what I wanted to do.

I always wanted to play for Armagh and I did that to the best of my ability.

BC: Any particular character you’ll miss in the team?

CMcK: Charlie Vernon. When you were away for weekends Charlie’s table is where you sat.

A great man for telling yarns.

 

 

 

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