Karl McKeegan hoping to put fun back into Armagh hurlers
Karl McKeegan has taken his first serious step into management with the Armagh hurlers. Speaking ahead of this weekend's NHL Division 3A game against Monaghan, the former Antrim defender and Cushendall clubman talks to Brendan Crossan about his career...
Brendan Crossan: I know you’ve hled different coaching roles but is this the first number one position you’ve held?
Karl McKeegan: I was with the Antrim U20s but it was only two games, plus it was during COVID, so this is probably my first proper number one role.
BC: How are you acclimatising to it?
KMcK: I’m enjoying it. I’ve coached with Cushendall over the last two years and I’ve loved that and I always thought I’d be more of a coach. But this opportunity came up and it was something that I wanted to try. There’s a lot that goes into managing teams, a lot of organising but I’ve a great team around me which makes it a lot easier.
BC: What can you achieve with the Armagh hurlers?
KMcK: I had a meeting with the Armagh County Board and they just wanted a bit of stability and putting good practices in place and trying to get players enjoying playing for the county again.
That’s what I’m trying to do, I’m trying to create an environment where everybody enjoys coming and everybody wants to come. The first month we probably had eight or 12 boys training, but come January we’ve averaged 27 or 28 at training every night and it just shows what you can do with a wee bit of enjoyment with it. The boys look as though they’re enjoying themselves and that’s all we can ask.
BC: What bits of your own career have helped you going into coaching and management?
KMcK: When I look back through the managers I had, there are always two or three that stick out in my head. Dinny Cahill is one.
It was my first time with Antrim and I loved those years. Dinny was a brilliant coach. He did a lot of the coaching as well as the management.
It was his enthusiasm, he just made you want to be there. I’ve taken that part of it with me. Terence McNaughton would have been a big influence on my career: being coached by him, being managed by him and being a friend of his.
I took a good bit from him too. I always kept a wee book and wrote down things that I liked that managers were doing when I played, drills that I liked.
I did that with the thought of someday going into coaching. And, over the last two years with Cushendall, I’ve taken quite a bit from Brian Delargy. Brian is first class. He was with Derry for two or three years and you could see how much he learned from them and the stuff he brought to Cushendall has been incredible. So I’m trying to bring those into Armagh.
BC: Are you staying with Cushendall next season?
KMcK: I hope to. We had a good year last year and were unlucky [in the county final against Dunloy]. I’d like to see if we can take it one step further next season.
BC: Dunloy will be caught at some stage in the county championship. But how good are Dunloy?
KMcK: They’re going for five-in-a-row which I don’t think has ever been done. You’ve got to admire players like that who keep coming back.
They have a good coach in Dick [Gregory O’Kane] as they’re very well drilled. If a couple of things in last season’s county final had gone our way we could easily have been county champions and pushed on from there. It’s small margins. I don’t think we are that far away.
We just need to get our players to believe in themselves, but it is a very good Dunloy team. They have a wee bit of experience in the likes of Paul Shiels which blends teams together. They will be hard knocked over but we as a club would feel we can do it, and we’ll give it a lash next season again.
BC: Do you miss your playing days?
KMcK: Ah Jesus, massively. I went back and played for Cushendall thirds last year, did a bit of training, and I absolutely loved it. I’m 44 now.
There was no pressure, I just went out and played eight or 10 games. But that real buzz of playing for Antrim, I miss it so much. I loved training, loved going to training; I miss the matches and the togetherness you have with your team-mates, just the camaraderie. It’s hard to explain, but then there’s that lull when you do finish playing…
BC: How did you fill the void when you finished playing?
KMcK: With great difficulty! A bit of coaching helped me. Before the Louth game last week, I was speaking to Jackie Carson, who’s with me in Armagh, and the boys were just heading out, and Jackie said: ‘What you wouldn’t do to be 25 again?’ And I just said: ‘Stop it!’ I would love to be playing.
BC: You played most of your career at centre half-back. What was the best line you played in?
KMcK: When we had those few good years with Antrim, Mickey McCambridge was right half, and Ciaran Herron was left-half. We’d a great understanding with each other. Obviously at the club, I had Mickey McCambridge on one side of me and Kevin Elliott on the other. But me, Ciaran and Mick was a great line to play in because we knew what each other was going to do.
BC: What was your career highlight?
KMcK: Reaching the All-Ireland Club final with Cushendall . We beat Sarsfields of Galway in the semi-final and playing in the All-Ireland final [against Na Piarsaigh] even though it wasn’t the best result on the day.
But playing in Croke Park and getting a couple of wins were obvious highlights. We beat Dublin in 2010, winning the 2006 Christy Ring at Croke Park and we pushed Tipperary and Wexford in the All-Ireland in 2002 and 2003. I remember we got applauded off the pitch after the Tipperary game which is something I’ll always remember. We’d some great days, and some dark days as well.
BC: Did you get enough out of your playing career?
KMcK: I probably did. I’d 10 good years with Antrim. I won 10 Ulsters. I probably had a few regrets with Antrim too.
I think we should've pushed on a bit more. We got some bad hammerings. We also had some barren times with the club.
I won my first county championship in 1996 on my 18th birthday, the next one came in ’99 and we then went six years without winning another one. And we’d some great players during those years. We won a couple more in the mid-2000s and went another six years without winning another one. So those gaps with the club not winning anything were regrets.
BC: Who was the best player you played with?
KMcK: There are a few. Liam Watson was a talented boy. Neil McManus has to be up there. He’s a role model, he looks after himself, he trains hard, you’d want 15 Neil McManus’s. Shane McNaughton was another class act. He was just supremely talented. He could do anything and play anywhere. He was a magician. But, overall, I’d say Paddy Richmond. He was an unreal hurler and someone I could never mark.
BC: In your younger days, who helped you most in the Antrim squad?
KMcK: I came in in 2002. Big Jim Connolly was a gentleman. I got on great with him. I’d great friends in the county at that time. Brian McFall, Chris Hamill, 'Pinky' Kelly, big Paddy Richmond, Liam Richmond, Gregory O’Kane… I came into the set-up at a great time. Conor McCambridge, my club-mate, another great hurler. But I always remember big Jim. I’d be down at the back of the bus with him. I was quiet at the start but Jim soon took that out of me.