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Andy Watters: Armagh Gaels must weigh-up pros and cons as McGeeney era reaches critical point

A miss is as near as a mile. Armagh missed out on two massive wins after losing penalty shoot-outs
A miss is as near as a mile. Armagh missed out on two massive wins after losing penalty shoot-outs A miss is as near as a mile. Armagh missed out on two massive wins after losing penalty shoot-outs

IF you see two or more Armagh people chatting privately this weekend stay clear because, chances are, their topic is the future of their county football manager.

It’s the issue everyone is talking about.

After nine seasons at the helm of his native county, Kieran McGeeney’s future as manager will be decided at a meeting of the clubs on Monday night.

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The club delegates – after discussion with their committee members – always have the say on this matter but this year it feels like a ‘High Noon’ scenario for the management.

It struck me as unnecessary that the future of a man who has put so much into his county and who will always be regarded as a legend should be dealt with so publicly but, when you add it all up, I suppose the Armagh County Board has got it right here. This is the GAA at it best – the Armagh Gaels will decide.

There have been calls for change from some fans for a couple of years now and they have grown in volume this season. On the flipside, there are also many, many supporters who remain loyal to McGeeney.

If he is to continue as manager he should be able to do so in the knowledge that he has the support of the Gaels of the county who have followed his team around the country in massive numbers.

One thing is for sure – if Kieran McGeeney is prepared to go through this process, his commitment is beyond question. He still really wants the job.

So do the players back him?

A former county manager once summed up his philosophy on maintaining his popularity within a squad.

Kieran McGeeney has been Armagh manager for the past nine seasons
Kieran McGeeney has been Armagh manager for the past nine seasons Kieran McGeeney has been Armagh manager for the past nine seasons

“If they (a player) are in the team, you’re great,” he said.

“But if they’re not… Och, you haven’t a clue.”

There were rumours of discontent in the Armagh camp last season but that wouldn’t be unheard of in many club or county squads.

In any camp there will be players who will staunchly loyal to the manager, others who just want to play and then others who would welcome a change. The ones who want a new man in aren’t going to put their neck on the block and the men happy with the status quo will come out and say so.

Some Armagh players have backed McGeeney but what does that actually prove?

A few years ago, I was chatting to a county player who was annoyed that the county board had decided to part ways with the manager. A new man from outside the county was being brought in and the player wasn’t happy.

“It’s a disgrace,” he said.

The new man came in and two years later the player had an Ulster Championship medal in his pocket. He wasn’t complaining then.

Winning keeps everybody on board. A player is much more likely to accept sitting on the bench if they are in a squad that is winning games and making progress.

Have Armagh been winning?

Well, they haven’t been losing.

The only team to beat the Orchardmen in normal play in the Championship was Tyrone in Omagh and even that game boiled down to the final seconds when Armagh, without Rian O’Neill who had been sent off, almost pulled the fat out of the fire.

After that Armagh travelled down to Carrick-on-Shannon to play Galway and they looked a different team. There was pace about them and aggression, they attacked from the start and finally got over the line in a close encounter to register arguably the best win of the McGeeney era. The players and supporters were buzzing afterwards.

The issue that has brought this matter to a head is that Armagh failed to kick on from that victory against Monaghan at Croke Park. That All-Ireland quarter-final was a winnable game but Armagh, perhaps mindful of the extraordinary open match in Newry a couple of years ago which the Farneymen won, reverted to an over-cautious gameplan. An attritional, defensive game suited Monaghan more than it suited Armagh.

In extra-time - just like in the Ulster final when Derry had been without Brendan Rogers (a massive player for them) for 10 minutes – Monaghan were down to 14 men but Armagh didn’t change their tactics and seize the moment. In the end, like the Derry game, they bowed out on penalties.

Losing on penalties isn’t McGeeney’s fault of course but the manager is responsible for the tactics. Shouldn’t lessons have been learned from the Ulster final and brought into that All-Ireland quarter-final? Did McGeeney’s needless altercation with one of the Monaghan players on the field unsettle his men and cloud his judgement at a critical moment?

Moving on, you could ask: Are the players good enough? Have they improved under McGeeney’s coaching?

McGeeney has built this team over years of painstaking dedication. In their time in Division One Armagh showed they can be a match for anyone and even this year, when Armagh were relegated, there wasn’t more than a kick of the ball between them and their rivals. Armagh have no shortage of talent and even when supposedly key players have been injured or suspended they have been able to compete without them.

But do the preferred tactics suit the players in the squad? The green shoots of attacking brilliance we saw last year were mostly absent in 2023 when Armagh played with the handbrake on.

Another factor is whether ‘Geezer’ has had the rub of the green. He hasn’t. He has been cruelly short on luck but maybe you make your own luck? If you keep getting to the same point over and over again is it really down to luck or because you’re unable to go any further?

And you should consider who would replace McGeeney if he goes.

At underage level Armagh have had very limited success so there’s no natural succession plan in place like there is in some other counties. Tony McEntee took Sligo to the Connacht final and promotion but seems content to stay with the Yeatsmen. Oisin McConville guided Wicklow to Division Three and there are other men inside and outside the county who may be interested but there’s no-one battering down the door.

McGeeney’s team came so close last season, maybe it’s only fair to give the man another year. On the other hand, if it hasn’t happened for him in nine years you’d be within your rights to argue that it never will and someone else should be given a chance.

The clubs will decide.