Brendan Crossan: Kieran McGeeney awakening potential of Armagh players
IT’S a genuine pity Kieran McGeeney has slapped a media ban on himself this summer.
Since being hit with what seemed a harsh 12-week ban after a verbal altercation with sideline official Joe McQuillan at the back end of March, ‘Geezer’ has side-stepped post-match media duties.
His former Armagh team-mate and assistant Paddy McKeever has stepped into the breach so that reporters don't leave empty-handed.
The Armagh manager’s summer of silence is a pity because he’s one of the most engaging figures in the GAA.
Interviewed recently by The Irish News to reflect on McGeeney’s six-year reign in Kildare, local journalist Daragh O Conchuir perfectly summed up the 2002 All-Ireland winning captain.
“For a journalist,” O Conchuir said, “he was a dream because he couldn’t do coy; he couldn’t do political no matter how much he tried… It was maybe a flaw in the media because when he gave an opinion he probably got nailed for it, for sticking his head above the parapet.”
Johnny Doyle, one of Geezer’s loyal foot soldiers in Kildare, recalls his former manager simply didn’t know how to play to the gallery – “unlike Mick O’Dwyer who wouldn’t miss an opportunity to wave to the crowd behind him” during games.
The general perception of McGeeney hasn’t always been a flattering one.
He's generally regarded too intense, too serious for his own good.
But those who know him paint a different, more layered picture.
In my occasional dealings, McGeeney strikes me as someone who isn’t interested in fighting his own media stereotype.
We can only guess he turns it to his advantage by creating another reason to succeed.
He also strikes me as someone who needs conflict to thrive.
He feeds off it.
It was the same during his playing days when many people doubted his ambition to become an All-Ireland winner.
Up until the Armagh players walked out of Semple Stadium a couple of weeks ago, buoyed by an All-Ireland Qualifier victory over Tipperary, McGeeney’s market value, in a lot of people’s eyes, had dipped significantly.
On the face of it, he was struggling to turn the fortunes of his native Armagh around.
The county’s two previous Championship campaigns under his watch were instantly forgettable.
Armagh appeared rudderless, their tactics indecipherable on the big days against Donegal (2015) and Cavan (2016).
Crucially, though, there wasn’t a hint of disloyalty emanating from the Orchard camp during those two desperate summers.
It’s funny how reputations balance precariously on the finest of edges.
Fortune – good or bad – can push you either way.
But when Armagh left Mullingar last month with a nerve-shredding victory over hosts Westmeath everything changed.
Armagh, for once, rode their luck.
During his six years in Kildare, McGeeney raised standards to an impressive level - but he left behind a catalogue of hard luck stories.
As was the case in Kildare, the most impressive element of McGeeney's work has been the individual growth of some players.
You scan this Armagh team and the performance graph of some players have leapt off the page.
There are moments, big moments, in games that can define players.
Blaine Hughes's high catch late in the Tipperary game was the making of the baby-faced goalkeeper. His kick-outs against Kildare were exceptional.
Paul Hughes hasn't played a bad game in Armagh's roller-coaster five-game Championship to date.
Niall Grimley, once a tentative, gun-shy member of the Orchard camp, has morphed into a wonderful, big-game player.
Stephen Sheridan's running power and fearless shooting from distance has been a glowing feature of this summer's memorable Championship.
McGeeney can also take some credit for the transformative impact he’s had on forwards such as Gavin McParland and Jamie Clarke.
McParland was one of the heroes of the all-conquering 2009 minor team.
A forward with boundless talent who made scoring points from ridiculous angles and distances look easy.
He was earmarked for a bright future at senior level.
But the Ballymacnab clubman could never quite live up to that early promise.
He struggled to nail down a regular spot in the senior team and too often found himself on Armagh’s bench.
You never knew what you were getting from McParland from one day to the next.
For a player that threatened to drift into the ether a couple of years back, McParland has shown remarkable resilience and is just one of many Armagh players who is being rewarded for his commitment and hard work.
When you dig the foundations, your talent flows from there.
Since ‘Geezer’ rejoined his native county in 2014 there have been healthy creative tensions between him and Jamie Clarke.
He even fielded Crossmaglen’s mercurial talent at half-back in a couple of early-season matches in 2015 to deepen the player’s understanding of the game, the demands of different roles on the pitch and how clever artisans like Clarke could only thrive in functioning collectives.
After a first-minute black card against Westmeath, Clarke has been magnificent in Armagh’s wins over Tipperary and Kildare.
There are still a lot of rough edges on this Armagh team. Tactically, it’s quite early in their evolution.
Asked for his reflections on playing under McGeeney for six years in Kildare, former defender Andrui Mac Lochlainn noted: “I felt I'd wasted some years of my playing career before Kieran came along.”
In life, very few people actually reach their potential.
A lot of these Armagh players have found another level of performance that they perhaps didn't believe was in them.
Regardless of how their summer ends, that has been Kieran McGeeney's real triumph this year.