Kildare on the up again but McGeeney exit hurt us admits Eamonn Callaghan
FAST approaching nine years later, Eamonn Callaghan still shakes his head when he thinks about the night that sealed Kieran McGeeney’s fate in Kildare.
Across a six year stint that began in 2008, the Lilywhites reached five All-Ireland quarter-finals and one All-Ireland semi-final.
Yet, despite having struggled to make any impact for the majority of the Noughties prior to McGeeney’s arrival, he lost a county delegates ballot by one vote following an executive meeting in September 2013.
McGeeney returned to his native county in 2014, alongside former assistant Paul Grimley, and is now in his eighth year as manager.
But Callaghan, an integral part of that Kildare side, believes the Mullaghbawn man’s exit set the county back in the years after.
“I couldn’t understand people saying ‘we’re underachieving here’, because we hadn’t got there in so long before. Some people seemed to forget where we had come from,” he said.
“The first year after he left we got relegated to Division Two, the next year we were relegated to Division Three, so it took a bit of time for us to get back... there was a lot of change.
“I mean, Kieran’s not just a manager – it’s everything that goes along with it, the backroom team, the professionalism, the standards he would’ve set, even the buzz around the place, all the supporters rowing in.
“Like, I had played from 2002, and the first time I got to an All-Ireland quarter-final was Kieran’s first year in 2008. It was a massive thing that we lost.”
And yet, for all the progress made, still that breakthrough eluded them – often by the narrowest of margins, considering the 2010 All-Ireland semi-final exit to Down and, the following year, extra-time heartache against Jim McGuinness’s Donegal in the last eight.
Callaghan sees similarities between that Lilywhites outfit and McGeeney’s Armagh side, and feels the Orchard have to prove they are serious contenders in the Championship after cementing their position in the National League’s top division.
“There’s times you’d be looking at them thinking they’re going to push on but then something happens – it’s probably similar to the way I would feel about Kieran’s time in Kildare.
“We were always there or thereabouts and we just didn’t get that bit of luck on the big days… that kind of overshadows a lot of the good work he had done with us. We were so close on a number of occasions, and I think Armagh are there as well.
“If you look at their League performances last year and this, they’ve been very consistent, playing a good brand of football, they’re a very hard team to beat.
“But when it comes to Championship, if they don’t get a good run in Ulster it’s going to overshadow the good work done during the League.”
As for Kildare, Callaghan has been hugely impressed with the strides made in a relatively short space of time under new boss Glen Ryan and a backroom team that includes fellow Allstars Dermot Earley, Anthony Rainbow and Johnny Doyle.
And the 39-year-old believes a first competitive victory in 22 years over old foes Dublin last month, as well as imminent return of some key men, augurs well for the remainder of the year.
“Getting that win over Dublin was hugely significant - it has to be.
“From a Leinster point of view, it’s great to see that they are under the kind of pressure that we’ve all felt over the years.
“Even more encouraging is the fact Kildare are still finding their feet and working out what their strongest team is. Glen has tried a lot of lads in the League, and there’s probably four or five who could come into that first 15 – the likes of Eoin Doyle, who’s injured at the minute, Darragh Kirwan, Alex Beirne, all from my own club, Kevin Feely came on against Dublin, Fergal Conway was on the bench but has been a very strong player for Kildare over the years.
“For lads only new to it, to beat Dublin in your first year is some going, and it has to be very satisfying to get that result knowing there’s other lads to come who will push hard to get into that team.”