Brendan Crossan: Everything about Kieran McGeeney’s journey has been hard-earned

Loyalty towards ‘Geezer’ during his Kildare and Armagh days is off the scale

Armagh's Kieran McGeeney will know on Monday night if he will be manager in 2024
Armagh boss Kieran McGeeney

AT this rate, I’ve lost count of the post-match press briefings with Kieran McGeeney. There have been a lot of tough briefings among them over the years that date back to when he was trying to win an All-Ireland with Armagh before eventually succeeding.

‘Geezer’ never courted publicity – and yet he was one of the most talked-about sporting figures in the country. Often likened to Roy Keane, when the Armagh captain did speak, he usually had a captive audience.

I recall Armagh’s 2002 All-Ireland press night in the Armagh City Hotel. When he sat down for interview, dozens of tape-recorders were like shoals of fish drawn towards the Mullaghbawn man.

He presented an intensely serious image during his playing days - but was probably never as serious as what the media made him out to be.

He’s definitely less serious now. Still unbelievably passionate about Gaelic football - but there’s a self-deprecating humour about him that’s never far beneath the surface.

He doesn’t wax lyrical about his own playing days. He thinks today’s game is much “better, faster and smarter” than when he played.

Reporters can take him in any direction in his post-match briefings and he’ll provide them with a thoughtful answer.

Around tea-time last Saturday, the Armagh manager joined reporters in a dimly lit lecture room on the ground floor of the Cusack Stand.

Beating Roscommon and guiding his native county to their first All-Ireland semi-final since 2005 should have been a press briefing that ‘Geezer’ enjoyed more others, only he was mourning the loss of his uncle - Peter Kelly - who died on the eve of the game.

When he began speaking about him, he was visibly shaken, and reporters sensed it was best to move on from the subject.

It was certainly a bitter-sweet day.

Twenty minutes earlier, at the final whistle, Aidan Forker roused the Armagh folk in the lower section of the Hogan stand.

The Maghery clubman has been trying to reach this stage of the All-Ireland series for more than a decade.

Maybe it was the lacklustre nature of the game itself or the fact that the media were perched seven floors up, but the euphoria at ground level didn’t travel up that far.

A general sense of empathy is always felt more keenly at ground level. You understand sacrifice better from that vantage point.

It has been in those lofty press tribunes Kieran McGeeney has felt the wrath of some commentary ever since he stepped into the Kildare hot-seat in 2008.

He’s never been above criticism but the scrutiny nonetheless sometimes carried a sharper edge than it warranted.

When Kildare fell to Wicklow in the 2008 Leinster Championship, Armagh’s All-Ireland winning captain was cut down to size.

Likewise, when Louth beat them two summers later, the cutting examination of McGeeney’s managerial credentials resumed.

A bit like some of his Armagh teams, McGeeney’s Kildare side showed impressive recuperative powers in the All-Ireland Qualifiers, reaching the All-Ireland semi-finals the same summer Louth beat them – only to fall to Down in a memorable clash at Croke Park.

Kildare were moulded in the same stoic image of their manager. Johnny Doyle, Morgan O’Flaherty, Emmet Bolton and Eamonn Callaghan were warriors of their generation and there wasn’t a tougher midfielder on the inter-county circuit than Daryl Flynn.

Despite a dodgy knee, Dermot Earley was majestic in a few of those years. You reflect on that Kildare team, and you realise just how much Gaelic football has changed.

On any given Sunday, the Lilywhites would shoot the lights out from all sorts of ambitious distances and angles – as long as the ball went dead.

No playing the percentages, no recycling the ball – Kildare played with unbelievable directness and they were great to watch most days.

It was thrown at ‘Geezer’ that Kildare never won anything under his watch – but they had made solid gains.

Careful what you wish for as McGeeney was shown the exit in 2013 on a 29-28 vote. Kildare haven’t pulled up any trees since he left.

When he assisted Paul Grimley in Armagh in 2014 and they narrowly lost to Donegal in an All-Ireland quarter-final, it was deemed only a matter of time before the glory days would return under the newly installed McGeeney the following year.

Expectations soared outrageously - and Armagh were in Division Three.

There wasn’t a summer after ‘02 that Armagh weren’t fancied to pull up some trees, but it never happened.

They fell to Fermanagh in 2018 - arguably ‘Geezer’s lowest point as Armagh manager.

The year before Tyrone showed them in ruthless terms just how far they still had to travel to be classed among Gaelic football’s elite.

Monaghan at the Marshes in 2021 was another watershed moment for Armagh and how they badly needed to sow the centre of their defence.

Despite a series of missed opportunities in Ulster, redemption was always found in the All-Ireland Qualifiers.

The angry galleries in the Orchard County called for McGeeney’s head a thousand times over.

But through many scorching winds, the Mullaghbawn man still stands undaunted.

What’s truly amazing about Armagh’s journey over the last decade is that so many of them have stuck at it.

While Tyrone were shipping players at a serious rate of knots after winning the All-Ireland in 2021, nobody was leaving the Armagh panel. Not even beyond the match-day 26.

And if they did, nobody heard about it. The sense of loyalty that ‘Geezer’ engendered from both the Kildare and Armagh squads is something to behold.

It was Mickey Harte who popularised George Zalucki’s quote.

“Persistence is awesome, it is absolutely awesome - it is this that takes an average performer of average ability and moulds him into a champion.”

It probably sums up Kieran McGeeney’s life philosophy.

Stephen Sheridan knew he was stepping away from the panel at the end of last season – but wanted to do an interview with The Irish News articulating the absolute necessity for the county to retain McGeeney’s services in 2024.

Everything about Geezer’s playing days and the tribulations on the sideline have been hard-earned.

Sometimes you need to be at ground level to appreciate the harshness of top level sport and what this group of Armagh players are doing.

No wonder Aidan Forker danced as he did in front of the Hogan stand, if only for a fleeting moment, last Saturday evening.

Do we really understand what it has taken for him to reach this point? And how much emotional energy their manager has expended to keep climbing the mountain?

Only the coldest heart would begrudge the Armagh footballers and Kieran McGeeney right now.