GAA Football

Hard questions turned McGeary from 'mediocre' into Footballer of the Year

Kieran McGeary began 2021 by looking in the mirror and thinking: ‘I was just a sort of borderline, mediocre Tyrone senior footballer'. On Friday night, he ended it as Footballer of the Year. He spoke to Cahair O'Kane...

PwC GAA/GPA Footballer of the Year, Kieran McGeary. Picture: Sportsfile

KIERAN McGeary doesn’t go in big on poundshop philosophy.

The art of pulling random quotes from the internet and treating them as a horoscope isn’t his thing.

In trying to explain what it was about Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher’s approach that led Tyrone to the All-Ireland and facilitated him winning Footballer of the Year on Friday night, you can see he nearly doesn’t want to be seen to be spitting maxims in marketing speak.

So ‘get comfortable being uncomfortable’ gets strung out into: “It was one of those ones, you keep on being uncomfortable in a situation until you’re comfortable with it.”

He speaks the language of the everyman, because that’s what McGeary represents.

His journey to being voted by his peers as Gaelic football’s best player in 2021 is something every child in Tyrone will look at and think ‘I could do that’.

McGeary would be the first to admit that when he was being hooked at half-time in the Ulster Championship opener against Cavan this summer, seeing his name up beside those of Peter Canavan, Stephen O’Neill and Sean Cavanagh as Footballers of the Year to hail from the county wasn’t on the agenda.

But the longer the summer went on, the better he got.

He had come in to 2021 with his questions about himself that he felt needed answered.

This was year six on the Tyrone panel, having turned down Mickey Harte’s call in 2015 to enjoy a summer in Boston instead. He was a soaked and frustrated fan on Hill 16 as the county’s second-half charge died away just when they looked to have Kerry nailed.

Going back to the idea of an everyman, he has fulfilled a whole host of roles for Tyrone.

While he’d have primarily been identified as a roaming half-back, it’s only two years since Harte had him on man-marking duties, memorably shifting him on to Shane Walsh in a Salthill league game where the Red Hands came from seven down to win by the same largely thanks to McGeary’s influence.

There were good days, there were middling days and there were bad days. And as he looked in at year six from the outset, the question he had for himself was simple.

“I suppose the fact I am there since 2016 and this is now 2021 and I am looking back and going: ‘Right, what has he done here? What have you achieved? You wanted to be in the Tyrone seniors. You got yourself to one All-Ireland final, got beat. You have a couple of Ulster medals. What have you done individually?  What have you done collectively since I’ve joined the panel?’

“Look, there’s a lot of the boys have been successful and they deserve every single bit of it, but for myself I was just a sort of borderline, mediocre Tyrone senior footballer.

“Why was I driving to Garvaghey three or four nights a week and changing my whole life for no success?

“I suppose this year I really thought, ‘Right, here, kick yourself into gear man and get going.’

“There was a lot of things this year that perhaps didn’t go right, but I kept going, kept going with the same mindset that we could win and achieve.”

2020 had hit hard. The teeming rain in Ballybofey, the Covid year, the knockout championship, the dream put to sleep by Donegal in its infancy, another year gone.

“That was it. First round of the Championship. No back door. League was finished, heading into a wet November, wet Christmas, probably with nothing to look back on.

“Wee moments like that hit home real quick. You’ve been here long enough. There’s six gone.  What’s to say you’ll get the next six as a playing member? What’s to say you’ll get the next six at all, even being there in the set-up?

“It was time I got myself into gear.

“I wouldn't say [I had] any particular conversation, not with Brian, not with Feargal, just more or less a small moment with myself but I didn’t dwell on it too much now.”

There’s no gain without some pain.

McGeary had been a prolific underage captain right through but was dropped from the Tyrone minor squad in his first year.

He recovered to earn a place back the following year and in a recent podcast with Emma Connolly, recalled playing every game that year with the mindset that he had to prove his manager, Mickey Donnelly, wrong.

“Aye, do you know what, it hurt. I have been chatting to Mickey a few times since that and it was a decision he made.

“He used to tell me he didn’t make it lightly, which I believe, but he had his reasons for it. Maybe it was an eye opener that I needed.

“It would have been very easy to throw the dummy out of the pram like a lot of…...that particular age where your social life becomes a big thing. Your job becomes a big thing.

“If you are going out with a girl it becomes a big thing or vice versa. It’s things like that at that age that stop you from maybe playing, but nah, it wasn’t going to stop me.

“It was where I wanted to be. I went back in the next year with my head held high and done the same thing again, and was lucky to get on that year, was lucky to be there.”

Kieran McGeary has had no time to stop at a red light this year.

As a teacher, where he works alongside Peter Canavan in Holy Trinity, and the joint-owner of a bar and restaurant at home, he had no time for anything, really. That’s how he likes it.

* * * * * * * * 

McGEARY is only the sixth man to win Footballer of the Year in the same year as his first Allstar, and takes over from Tomás Ó Sé (who was 26) as the oldest.

It’s a fast-tracked route to the big gong, but it’s been the scenic route to the Allstar.

His fellow Footballer of the Year nominee Conor Meyler – the pair of whom were in opposition as Pomeroy faced Omagh in the final club league game of the year yesterday – had spoken through the campaign about adopting a ‘less is more’ approach to his football.

That applied across the board. Tyrone’s training regime during the heat of the season consisted of three nights’ football and one optional gym session. They looked faster and fitter and fresher than ever.

Lessons were learned through the year, individually and collectively.

McGeary himself looks back on a conversation with Tiernan McCann after being whipped off at the break against Cavan, having been on a yellow card from the early moment he poleaxed Gearoid McKiernan after nine minutes.

“I thought I had been really, really working on my tackling individually at the pitch. I was doing a bit of my own stuff.

“It was my downfall in the game probably because I was being a wee bit over aggressive. It is never a bad thing to have a bit of aggression, but I suppose it’s being able to cap it at the right times,” said McGeary.

The early booking and having to be replaced felt like a setback.

McCann said to him afterwards to approach the game as though he was on a yellow card from the first minute, that every tackle had to be perfectly executed.

“It’s actually a piece of advice that I took on board massively.”

No tale of Tyrone’s season is complete without reference to the gruesome afternoon in Killarney when Kerry scored six goals past them in a league semi-final.

After the All-Ireland final win over Mayo, Feargal Logan smiled in memory of the galvanising effect of the night out that was held afterwards.

It was when they got back up the road to Garvaghey on the Tuesday night that the process began though. Rather than taking fear that what they were trying to do might be leaving them vulnerable, Tyrone’s management went completely the other way.

“It’s very easy now for everybody to look back and say, ‘Killarney was the kick up the backside they needed.’ But it’s only a kick up the backside if you make it a kick up the backside,” says the 27-year-old.

“After that, it would have been very easy to revert to a defensive style of play, dropping behind the ball. But after that, the exposure we had to one-v-ones in training, was incredible.

“At the start, it was scary. You could have had Conor McKenna, an Aussie Rules professional, coming like a gazelle at you. Sidestep, your feet are in a twist and he’s gone past you.

“But if you do that time and time and time again, you start to learn where you need to get your feet placed or what you need for your body position.

“It goes right back to the two men who took us this year. What way was Fergal Logan and Brian Dooher football’s played back then? You’re a wing-forward, you’re a wing-back, that’s who you’re marking - go out and do your job.”

At 27, he has a fair bit of road left ahead.

Canavan won six Allstars, Cavanagh five, O’Neill three. In one sense McGeary has matched them and in another, there are obvious targets that he can refocus on.

“I’d love to stick the nail into the wall now and hang them up, that could be me!” he laughs.

“No, it’s good. You just have to live up to it next year. No matter the weather or where the match is or the occasion, you’ll always be expected to try your best and show up.

“It would be easy for people to say ‘he’s not the same as he was last year’ or ‘that’s went to his head’, you just know what people would be saying.

“I’ve no doubt that I’ll try. The hunger’s still there. Hard work is one of my main ingredients on the pitch.

“I mightn’t be as skilful as some men that are on it but I’ll try my damndest. If I do that next year, I don’t think I’ll be too far away.”

The night before the All-Ireland final, when their dinner was finished, the Tyrone players sat around with their cups of tea. The company McGeary fell in with told stories and jokes, one after the other, until after 45 minutes he left to go to the room with his sides sore from laughing. He slept like a log.

This is the dream he would have dreamt.

Footballer of the Year, Allstar, All-Ireland winner, a name is now embedded in football’s history.

Kieran McGeary has earned the right to be comfortable in any company.

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access

GAA Football