Ciaran McKeever's legacy will be felt for some time in Armagh
CIARAN McKeever always made my job easier. In a journalist’s insatiable pursuit of post-match quotes McKeever never let me down.
Win, lose or draw the Armagh defender would stop and chat – even if you knew he didn’t particularly want to stop and chat because he was never one for courting media attention.
He would much rather throw his boots in his kit-bag after a game and disappear.
If you didn’t know the Cullyhanna native he gives off the vibe that he's gruff.
But he’s not gruff at all.
I’ve interviewed McKeever on a one-to-one basis several times over the last 15 years.
The first time was in St Patrick’s GFC Cullyhanna roughly 10 years ago.
The last time was on Wednesday morning in a coffee shop in rainy Belfast.
The Armagh boys love good coffee and coffee houses.
The previous day the 34-year-old had announced his retirement from the inter-county scene via the GPA.
McKeever had breakfast befitting of an inter-county footballer – Guacamole on thin slices of toasted sourdough bread, poached egg, some garnish and a strong Americano, no milk.
I had sausage and bacon on toasted sourdough.
Spot the athlete.
McKeever was genuinely overwhelmed by the reaction on social media to his decision to step down from Armagh.
It’s only right the game remembers a player and a career like McKeever’s.
On the field he wouldn’t have won many popularity contests.
Opponents hated him.
That was part of the deal with him.
Arguably the greatest compliment you could pay Armagh’s resident number six was that you wanted him on your team.
Since being drafted into the senior panel under Joe Kernan in 2003, he played a number of roles for Armagh.
Man-marker. Sweeper. Attacking wing-back.
To singularly view McKeever as a routine destroyer of marquee forwards paints a truncated picture of his abilities.
He was more than just tough as old boots. He had more ability than he was ever given credit for.
John Morrison is a wily football man.
He recalls one particular season McKeever played as an attacking wing-back for Armagh where he was able to showcase the full skills set.
His technique was tight. He could solo at pace. He had good feet and brilliant spatial awareness.
He straddled two eras during his 15 years at senior level.
He caught the tail end of Armagh’s halcyon days.
Playing alongside some of his idols – Kieran McGeeney, Stevie McDonnell, Paul McGrane, Oisin McConville and Diarmaid Marsden – McKeever won four Ulster titles, three NFL titles and represented Ireland on four Compromise Rules tours.
He was there during the lean years too when the prospect of Armagh winning a second All-Ireland title was well beyond the county’s reach.
As every player will tell you, it’s easy to be committed during the good times but McKeever’s commitment remained absolute throughout the last 15 years.
In late 2006, I remember speaking with Kieran McGeeney outside the Ulster Council offices in Armagh.
McGeeney confessed he was unsure about his future with the Orchard County (he stayed on for the 2007 campaign).
He openly admitted the prospect of losing his place and sitting on the subs bench was something that would immediately usher him into inter-county retirement.
And yet, McKeever knew before a ball was kicked that 2017 would be his last in an Armagh jersey.
He also knew that he would spend most of his final year on the bench.
A series of injuries – from a broken foot to knee and ankle problems – shaved off a crucial yard of pace.
The easy thing – some people might even say the right thing – to do would be to bow out rather than be a substitute particularly when you were one of the first names on the team-sheet for so long.
The fact that McKeever stayed on, knowing that game-time would be his greatest enemy this year, says everything that you need to know about his commitment to the cause.
Arguably the high point of his year was the performance he gave against Division Three opponents Louth at full-forward.
He played the role with the craftiness of his years. When he found the net he stabbed the air with all he had.
Apart from winning games, McGeeney’s over-riding objective as Armagh manager has been to put pride back in the orange jersey and for young players to want to play for their county.
McKeever epitomised that desire, particularly in his final season.
Young players who have made a real impression this year such as Niall Grimley, Stephen Sheridan, Blaine Hughes and Oisin O’Neill should be inspired by McKeever’s example because not many top players are as generous.
McKeever was the ultimate team player – a title that not many can rightfully claim.
He's woven into the fabric of Armagh football.
“I’ve given this everything that I’ve had,” he said.
“From day one, I gave it everything I had. That’s all I wanted to do.”
Coaching the game is undoubtedly his next vocation in life.
Few saw the humble, self-deprecating side to Ciaran McKeever.
When we left the coffee house on Wednesday it was still raining.
We shook hands and I wished him good luck.
Father Time had claimed another good man.
Armagh will miss his warrior spirit - but his legacy will be felt among the current squad for quite some time to come.