Versatile Tyrone star Kieran McGeary happy to do whatever it takes to help close gap to dominant Dublin
STANDING at the head of the classroom, Kieran McGeary has to smile sometimes as he looks down at the sea of young faces. It doesn’t seem so long ago that he was just like them.
Yet here he is, in front of the whiteboard, wearing a shirt and tie instead of a blazer - Mr McGeary.
“Aye, it was weird at the start now,” admits the 23-year-old, “even being a form teacher and being in charge of exams and stuff… it feels like no time since I was sitting in the hall completing them myself.”
It is just over an hour, depending on traffic, from his Pomeroy home to the gates of St Benedict’s College in Randalstown, where McGeary has been teaching PE and history since last September.
A lot of the time he leaves the house at 7am, packs his training gear into the car, and doesn’t get back through the door until 10pm. That schedule can be trying enough but McGeary has learned to adapt - as he always does.
That’s why Mickey Harte loves him, and loves players like him. Whatever you ask of McGeary, he’ll give it a rattle, even if he is forced from his comfort zone.
Take the final game of Tyrone’s topsy-turvy League campaign.
At half-time, the Red Hands were trailing Galway by seven points at Healy Park. Their tormentor-in-chief was Shane Walsh, whose electrifying pace was giving Padraig Hampsey nightmares. The fact the Coalisland man is deservedly regarded as one of the stickiest man-markers in the country shows the level Walsh was operating at during that 35-plus minutes.
When the teams came out after the break, Harte had made a switch. It was McGeary who now faced the unenviable task of shackling the Tribe speedster.
Inside the opening few minutes a raking pass was aimed in Walsh’s direction, just around the 45. McGeary got there first, leaving Walsh on his backside for good measure.
By the time the teams left the field, Tyrone had pulled off a 14 point turnaround to win by seven, Walsh’s influence was completely nullified and McGeary lauded for his dynamic intervention.
McGeary, though, has a slightly different interpretation of how that afternoon panned out.
“Emmmm… no. I don’t know,” he says hesitantly after laughing heartily at being asked whether he enjoyed the man-marking role.
“If you’re given a job to do on a massive day, would you turn it down? Absolutely not. But it’s one of two things – fair enough, I might have kept Shane Walsh quiet that day, but he did injure his thumb so there were a number of factors come into play.
“He hurt his thumb, I was seen to be a fantastic man-marker/defender, first job I had done ever, but on the other side if he had destroyed me that day and kicked four or five points people would be saying I shouldn’t be playing that position or I shouldn’t be starting…”
Yeah, but he didn’t?
“It just depends. If I’m given a job to do, I’ll go in and do it regardless of who it is or when it is and I’ll try my best at it…”
And then comes the laugh again.
“…but there’s no guarantee me and my man-marking skills will always be present.”
That victory, the last of four in-a-row, sends the Red Hands into the Championship in flying form, and completed a remarkable turnaround from a dismal beginning that saw them pick up one point from three games – a draw with Roscommon after awful showings in defeat to Kerry and Mayo.
Some pointed towards Tyrone’s post-Christmas team holiday in Thailand as a possible reason for their slow start but, as frustrating as that period was, McGeary insists it had nothing to do with the break away.
Indeed, rather than proving detrimental, he believes that trip will ultimately stand to a group still trying to emerge from the shadow of the great Noughties sides.
“The team’s young - there’s not really any players remaining from the ’08 final, barring Collie [Cavanagh] and Cathal [McCarron] at the time, so it was all new to us. But it was an unbelievable time together, a great bonding opportunity.
“It was just like any other team holiday. We all visited an island one day, got the wee mopeds out and were scooting about on those, just the normal touristy stuff, as well as a number of collective sessions together…”
And collective sessions in the evening too?
“Ah Jesus, you know yourself… boys on tour.
“Naw but it was fantastic, a really good opportunity. It probably didn’t have anything to do with our slow start to the League, we were back training three or four weeks by then, we had that blew out of the system so it was nothing connected to the holiday.”
That didn’t stop the knives from coming out but, within weeks, the League table had a completely different look. Relegation fears were eased by wins over Ulster rivals Monaghan and Cavan, but then came the big one.
McGeary was one of the Tyrone players who stopped to talk to waiting press in the aftermath of last year’s All-Ireland final against Dublin. He spoke then of a “spark” having been lit, even in defeat.
Compared to the previous year’s semi-final shellacking, progress had been made. The gap had been closed, and it would close again back at Croke Park on March 16 when Tyrone, at times, battered and bullied the all-conquering Dubs.
Harte, for obvious reasons, played that result down in the aftermath. But for a group of young men so accustomed to coming out on the wrong side against Jim Gavin’s juggernaut, this was a huge kick in confidence.
“Naw, it 100 per cent did,” admits McGeary.
“Look, when that final whistle went, it’s not what the feeling would be of winning the All-Ireland if we had’ve done it last year against them, but it was nice to beat them.
“We’ve been there, been very close on several occasions, like the Super 8s game last year, but we had never just got past the line.
“Obviously we were the third team to beat them in the League, but it was a big boost for the camp. They had a number of injuries, but they have a really strong bench, a really strong team…”
And the Dubs will be back again this summer, gunning for number five and wearing that target on their head with pride. It is up to the chasing pack to step up - and Kieran McGeary will do whatever it takes to close that gap until nothing remains.
TYRONE’S early season struggles may now be a distant memory, but with them came the familiar accusations levelled when the going gets tough – that they are too defensive, too predictable and just lack that killer instinct.
All of a sudden the Red Hands look a team reborn. You have to be careful not to place too much emphasis on the significance of mid-season positional switches, but the upturn in Tyrone’s fortunes since the redeployment of Mattie Donnelly and Cathal McShane cannot be overlooked.
During the last four weeks of the League, McShane was moved further upfield to play the role of wrecking ball full-forward superbly, with Donnelly – previously operating as a defensive link man - providing a powerful, athletic foil up top.
To do so when Colm Cavanagh was only just returning to the fold was a bold move by Harte, but it paid off.
In the absence of the spritely Mark Bradley, unavailable due to university commitments, McShane has given Tyrone a physical edge and a genuine kick-first option, as opposed to their more familiar slow, deliberate build-up when not hitting teams on the counter.
In the second half against Galway, who have boasted one of the meanest defences in the country during recent years, Tyrone were simply unstoppable and ended the game with the impressive tally of 3-15.
There have been plenty of other plusses too, with Ben McDonnell and Brian Kennedy looking at home on the inter-county stage, the classy Kyle Coney offering Harte another option while his Ardboe club-mate Michael Cassidy was sensational against the Tribe.
EVEN in the absence of defensive shield Colm Cavanagh, Tyrone fared reasonably well defensively through the League, conceding an average of just over 13.5 points per game.
However, there would still be some concerns about their ability to shut out the big guns once the summer months roll around.
Paudie Hampsey is top drawer, and has been their go-to man when it has come to marking their opponents’ top threats in recent years – from Conor McManus and Michael Murphy to Dublin’s Paul Mannion in the All-Ireland final.
The other options, though, are not quite at Hampsey’s level and the Red Hands can suffer when he has his hands full.
They will also miss Mark Bradley. Cathal McShane and Mattie Donnelly have given Tyrone an extra dimension in the full-forward line but, even if not racking up big scores, Bradley is just such a nuisance.
His non-stop work-rate and clever runs across the line have been a feature of Tyrone’s attacking play in recent years, all too often the only feature, and it was he who really took the fight to Dublin early on in last year’s All-Ireland final.