Former ace Ciaran McKeever replacing the buzz with Armagh U17s
CIARAN McKeever’s phone buzzed on Christmas Eve last year. It was a text from Stephen Sheridan, his former Armagh team-mate.
In the text, Sheridan had outlined their Christmas morning training schedule. Every Christmas morning a few of the Armagh boys would take to the hills before contemplating a turkey dinner.
McKeever was always up for the early morning run. Until last year.
“We would always meet up on Christmas morning. It’s a thing we used to do,” McKeever says.
“Stephen texted me through the session the night before and I just said to myself (laughing): ‘I’ve done enough of those runs – I can’t face another one.’
“At my age now when I’ve nothing really to prepare for, I decided to give it a miss.”
Instead, McKeever helped his brother-in-law put together a toy house for his niece on Christmas morning.
“I’m still training away but I’m not training with the same intensity as I would have done.”
After joining the Armagh senior panel in late 2002, McKeever called time on his career at the end of the 2017 season.
“I’m out of it two years now,” he says.
“The first year was tough but since I got involved in the academy squads in Armagh and become the U17 manager it fills that void a wee bit. But nothing beats playing at that level and that buzz when you’re preparing for matches and winning matches.
“I just loved trying to better myself, pushing myself and trying to be the best that I could be. That’s probably the thing I miss most. And of course being in that team environment.”
Even though he found himself on the Armagh bench in his last couple of seasons, he regards them as the “most enjoyable” of his county career.
“I knew what my role was in the set-up and I nurtured a few of the younger players and helped them to lead the thing. My job was to prepare myself for 10 or 15 minutes off the bench which was a role that I enjoyed in my last two years.
“It is what it is; you can’t play forever. I’m really enjoying this new role with the U17s and we’ll see how it goes.”
Through the offices of the Ulster Council, McKeever acquired the requisite skills and alongside his coaching officer role with the Armagh County Board he took the U17 county reins in November.
As the clock ticks down to Armagh’s Ulster MFC showdown with Derry at The Athletic Grounds this Saturday – a side they lost to in the Ulster Minor League – McKeever explained the difficult process of trimming his squad down to 40 players.
“Last November, I looked at over 100 kids in Armagh to try and pick a squad to go and represent the county at U17.
“There were a few qualities that I was looking for, which I know it takes to play at this level.
“I’m down now to a squad of 40 and this group have the qualities that they need to do well.
“I suppose the big thing is that they wanted to play for Armagh. You see it down through the years that everybody wants to play for Armagh but when it gets down to the nitty-gritty, the training side of things, things you need to do away from training that you normally wouldn’t do - they are the key aspects.
“This bunch are there and they want to do that. Commitment is another important factor and trying to put an end to lame excuses [for missing training].
“We nipped that in the bud fairly quickly and we set a standard with this group and, to be fair to them, they’ve driven it themselves from Christmas onwards.
“They are a great bunch. When you’ve 40 boys at the age of 15, 16 and 17 and you haven’t had to pull them into line once is a credit to them as players, a credit to their parents and their clubs. So it has been a really positive couple of months for these players.”
While McKeever stresses his primary role as “creating and developing footballers in Armagh that will go on and represent Armagh at senior level”, it won’t dilute the competitive edge they’re expected to bring to Saturday’s provincial opener against Paddy Campbell’s charges.
The Glenties man, now in his second year, has brought a defensive steel to the Oak Leaf set-up – with McKeever insisting that it is up to his players to adapt to the puzzle that faces them.
“I suppose I’ve taken a lot of Geezer’s template of coaching to the U17 set-up and what he’s implemented over the last few years at senior level and I’ve tried to develop them in the same mould.
“We try to play an attacking brand of football but at the same time you can’t listen to the outside world and say: ‘That’s what we should be doing.’
“We’re playing Derry… and when you play the likes of Donegal and Tyrone who get loads of men behind the ball you’re going to have to evolve and adapt. That’s just the nature of the game.”
Armagh’s provincial championship plans have been hampered by the club-only month of April with some of the squad playing “eight to nine matches” in a two-week period as well as trying to keep on top of their studies.
“Most of our players are fifth year which is GCSE level. There are some boys in my squad who have 20 exams coming up, so for some training sessions I’m minus 15 players due to boys studying.
“Yes, I want them for training but at the end of the day you have to look after their education as well and allow them time off to get that done.”