GAA Football

The anti-Beggan: Coleraine custodian Ryan McGeough on why old school values still matter

The two number ones who will line out in tomorrow's Ulster Club SFC semi-final between Scotstown and Coleraine come from opposite ends of the goalkeeping spectrum. Neil Loughran talks to Eoghan Rua's custodian Ryan McGeough, a colourful character renowned for his trademark all-black attire...

Ryan McGeough has been between the sticks for Eoghan Rua, Coleraine for 19 years, and tomorrow the Derry champions will come up against Monaghan kingpins Scotstown and Allstar goalkeeper Rory Beggan. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

“ULSTER semi-final battle of the goalkeepers – Beggan v The CAT” reads the WhatsApp message sent hours after victory over Castlerahan set Eoghan Rua on a provincial collision course with Monaghan champions Scotstown.

For Ryan McGeough, the trolling didn’t end there as, within a day, it had made its way onto the club’s Facebook page.

“Be there, Healy Park, Omagh, Sunday 18th,” read the new, updated post. “Goalkeeping showdown: The man that redefined modern goalkeeping... and Rory Beggan.”

Below the text sit two photographs, the juxtaposition stark.

The first shows a statuesque Beggan standing tall, arms crossed, shoulders wide. A bit of stubble adorns the chin that juts out from an otherwise smooth jawline as the subject stares sternly into the distance with the arrant authority of a Roman general inspecting his troops on the eve of battle.

Sponsors fight for space on the petrol blue jersey that hugs his frame while a warm, ethereal glow radiates onto the moody stone wall behind (it must be the Allstar).

Underneath is a picture of McGeough, the Coleraine goalkeeper and Beggan’s opposite number at Healy Park tomorrow.

This time the shoulders are slumped, the arms hanging low and loose as though completing the last arduous, but necessary, grass cut of the season. There is some kind of involuntary expulsion of air taking place at the exact moment of capture.

The light-as-a-feather O’Neills goalkeeper top is replaced by what appears to be a black fleece, the sleeves rolled up towards the elbows to reveal a fetching pair of yellow gloves.

A six o’clock shadow and knee-length pair of black soccer shorts complete the look.

It is an unfortunate moment in time that the 35-year-old cannot escape and, if that appraisal seems needlessly harsh, it is nothing compared to what has come his way in the years since said image first did the rounds.

Indeed, a group of friends had it made into a T-shirt as a show of support/ridicule prior to the 2015 Derry final when Eoghan Rua played Slaughtneil.

McGeough got word and insisted one was made for him too. He knows the craic – live by the sword, die by the sword.

“McGeough is an inveterate practical joker, a serious wind-up merchant,” says club stalwart Joe Passmore, “it’s good medicine for him.”

“Ah, Jesus Christ… f**k it, I’ve had to live with that photo for a few years,” laughs McGeough.

“I look like a total halfwit. That picture was from a few years ago, I think I was coughing or something - that’s the only excuse I can come up with. It was very good in fairness to them,” smiles McGeough, who has his suspicions about the sources responsible for the infamous image’s reappearance.

“It’s water off a duck’s back by this stage. If you give it you have to take it unfortunately so you just have to sit back and bite your tongue.

“I know the men who did it. Both will be got.”

The irony of sharing the field with Beggan is not lost on McGeough, especially when he considers just how much the landscape has changed for goalkeepers - even since Eoghan Rua’s maiden Derry senior success.

2010, he fondly recalls, was a simpler time. Lump the ball up the middle to the big men and make sure you are on your toes, ready for action when an opposing forward advances into your territory.

Stephen Cluxton may have changed the face of the goalkeeping art in this decade but, for now, Beggan – with his nuclear-powered kick-outs and deadly accurate free-taking from anywhere inside 50 metres - is its leading proponent.

“He’s the best goalkeeper in Ireland and fully deserving of his Allstar. This year he’s been ridiculous,” says McGeough.

“Goalkeeping has changed towards that sort of style of goalkeeper, unfortunately for the likes of me. Thank God I’m nearing the end of my career - I wouldn’t like to be at the start of it seeing the way goalkeeping’s going.

“I’m a goalkeeper first as opposed to a Gaelic player, and that used to be an advantage because a lot of teams maybe had outfield players in nets who were prone to making mistakes.

“Now it’s probably more of an advantage to have a Gaelic footballer in nets rather than a goalkeeper. In another few years there’ll probably be very few out and out goalkeepers or shot-stoppers as such, it’ll be players who have been converted from out the field who are comfortable coming out with the ball.”

Here’s hoping that prophecy isn’t fulfilled as there is still something every bit as thrilling about witnessing a breathtaking save at full stretch as watching a wonder score sail between the posts.

McGeough has moved with the times and adapted his own kicking game but it is those spectacular, goal-defying moments that have been his stock in trade through the years. So solid has he been, in fact, that Coleraine have yet to concede a goal in this year's championship campaign.

From shoulders, elbows and outstretched limbs to forehead, nose and the tip of his toe, there is barely a part of his body that hasn’t been used to stop an opponent somewhere down the line.

And it was a legend of another code who bred that all-or-nothing attitude into him from the moment he first pulled on gloves.

*************************************

“TAKE that bloody thing off your head”. The words rang in the ears of George Best when he arrived home from Lisbon sporting a sombrero following a dazzling display as Manchester United defeated European powerhouse Benfica.

Harry Gregg has never been a man to suffer fools gladly, and his admonishing of a teenage Best after his 1966 heroics ring true when Ryan McGeough recalls his own first hand experiences of the former Red Devils stalwart.

Gregg was coach of the Portstewart soccer team when McGeough first found himself thrust into nets, and it soon became clear he would never get out.

“I was always the goalkeeper in soccer, and always the goalkeeper in Gaelic.

“Lack of ability and lack of pace probably sealed my fate. If it wasn’t for those two things I’d have been a hell of a player outfield, but it’s not the case unfortunately.”

His typical self-deprecation aside, Gregg soon spotted McGeough’s potential and was determined to imbue in him the same qualities that had shone brightly throughout a glittering career at the top.

Spreading yourself was a strict no-no. If the ball’s there, dive on top of the thing, no matter the consequences.

“[Peter] Schmeichel was always my hero but I was lucky that Harry Gregg coached me at Portstewart for three or four years.

“Harry’s his own man, he takes no prisoners. He’s certainly old school, but he’s the best coach I’ve ever had. You never pull out of a challenge again after being under Harry’s watch because he’d break your bloody neck – he honestly would!

“You’d get dogs abuse if you pulled out of a challenge or went in half-hearted, so you just learnt from a young age to take the ball and, if you can, take the man.

“That’s the way I’ve always played anyway, mainly because I’m scared in case he’s watching me.”

Gregg wasn’t the only goalkeeping influence in his early life either, although McGeough can legitimately claim to have little recollection of nights spent in south Armagh under the supervision of an Orchard legend.

Still, the fact he was occasionally babysat by 2002 All-Ireland winner Benny Tierney might explain some of the eccentricities McGeough – whose father Val is originally from Cullyhanna - brought to the same business later in life.

“I babysat him with his uncle Ollie Reel,” confirmed the Mullaghbawn man, before adding: “So I take all the credit for any of his accomplishments!”

And, like Tierney and so many other number ones, McGeough is not without his superstitions and pre-game rituals.

Let’s start with the long black shorts. In fact, let’s start with the entire Johnny Cash ensemble.

“Apparently that’s inspired by Lev Yashin,” suggests Joe Passmore, referring to the legendary Russian goalkeeper nicknamed the ‘Black Spider’.

“McGeough has a thing about that. I’m serious. I’ve said to him about it and he says that’s what it is, so either he’s taking the piss out of me or I’m taking the piss out of him…”

“Haha, intimidate the forwards I think he said?” smiles McGeough, although how intimidating Yashin would have considered a black Berghaus fleece is up for debate.

Tops have come and gone through time, though, but the shorts remain the same.

“Jesus… the famous black soccer shorts,” he says with a sigh.

“I’m very superstitious so if I play well having done something, or wearing something in particular, I’ll stick with it. They’ve become a part of my routine now, I wouldn’t play without wearing the same shorts.

“This is probably the fourth generation of them going back to when we were playing junior football.”

When you consider that McGeough was between the sticks when Eoghan Rua lost the Derry junior final to Ardmore in 2000, you get the full picture.

“Sean Leo [McGoldrick] and I drive to matches today and I think I have his head turned. I’ve even got him superstitious about a few things now.

“I have to go the same way, stop at the same shop, the same parking spot, buy the same thing… I’m just of that nature.

“If I do something one week and play well, I make sure I do it the next week. I’ve a few of them driven insane sitting in the corner of changing rooms – Colm McGoldrick and I are always fighting about who gets the corners.

“Please God it’s not a circular changing room in Omagh or I’ll have to go out and get changed in the corridor.”

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Ryan McGeough with dad Val, mum Una and sister Ciara

THE boundless energy that McGeough brings to the square, whether roaring boys on, barking instructions or springing from the line, is often evident in his endeavours away from the football field too.

Not that he’ll tell you about that willingly; McGeough is a man more comfortable taking the hand out of himself than throwing flowers, you see.

After his father had a successful bone marrow transplant in 2007, McGeough got heavily involved with the Anthony Nolan Trust, which targets people in the 16-30 age bracket to sign up to the stem cell register.

“McGeough threw himself into that charity work, he was totally tireless about it, going round schools, going everywhere,” recalls Passmore.

“The nature of his outgoing personality, he has no qualms saying to people ‘you need to sign up for this’, and they did.

“There’s a funny side to McGeough, but he’s a serious lad behind it. People here have a lot of time for him.”

Before this year’s county final showdown with Lavey, McGeough - now a member of the Coleraine club’s committee along with several other senior players – led the charge to strike while the iron was hot by not only boosting the club’s coffers, but also swelling its future numbers.

“Och aye, everybody in the club got together - it’s as good an excuse as any to raise funds.

“We went into the primary schools then after the county final… you know, I think 13 of the 15 who started went to St Colum’s in Portstewart.

“You go in now and you see all the kids wearing Eoghan Rua tops. In my day, you would hardly have known what an Eoghan Rua top looked like, so here’s hoping it gets the next generation going because, with such a small playing pool, you really need to seize on moments like this.”

The serious tone doesn’t last too long, however.

Passmore was quick to sing McGeough’s praises for offering employment to team-mates after taking over the running of the family business, Portstewart Clothing Company, where he has worked since the age of 16.

Young Liam McGoldrick and Ruairi Mooney were due to head for Thailand days after their county final win but, with an Ulster campaign on the horizon, decided to stay put and fix their shoulders to the wheel.

Along with Ciaran Lagan and Pearse Dallas, they can be found working in McGeough’s warehouse through the week to keep the wolf from the door.

“Whenever they’re looking jobs, they always seem to work their way in with me.

“It’s good for me too though, they’re all good lads, they’re all hard workers and it’s good craic, slagging each other off all day.

“That’s a very diplomatic answer there by the way…”

Yet, barely a second after those words are spoken, diplomacy goes firmly out the window.

“I was actually thinking before you phoned ‘who the f**k could I dog here?’

“Ruairi Mooney decided - on his first day back at work - to get the forklift stuck outside and we had to call the repair services to get it back in.

“I’ve no idea how he did it. Actually I do – because he’s an idiot. He maybe couldn’t see past his hair,” adds McGeough, chuckling again, this time at the pony-tailed forward’s expense.

Scotstown will start this semi-final as odds on favourites to progress to a December 2 decider against either Crossmaglen or Gaoth Dobhair.

With the likes of jet-heeled forward Conor McCarthy and the experienced Hughes brothers, Darren and Kieran, the four-time Ulster champions are certainly not short on star turns – and Rory Beggan may be shining more brightly than them all right now.

But don’t bet against the man in black at the other end of the field having the last laugh tomorrow afternoon.

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