Eugene Mcgee: McGeeney miracle a lesson in the art of management
Well known former referee John Bannon made several visits to Kildare training sessions prior to last Sunday's All-Ireland semi-final to enlighten the players, presumably, about how to avoid conceding fouls.
The last time I heard of this kind of approach was back in the early 1980s when Mick O'Dwyer brought the then best referee in the land, Paddy Collins from Westmeath, down to a training session in Killarney, allegedly to show the Kerry stars the correct use of the revamped handpass. Those Kerry lads were always that bit slow in matters like that, you know!
This set me thinking about two things in particular -- the lengths to which team managers go to get players to understand the simplest of tasks, such as understanding the rules of the game, and secondly do the players of today have their common sense siphoned out of them by coaches who take total control of the players' lives.
It is important to point out that, statistically at least, Bannon's efforts bore fruit last Sunday because, while Down gave away 28 frees, Kildare only fouled 17 times or perhaps we should say Kildare players were only blown up 17 times by referee Pat McEnaney.
The Kildare goal scored brilliantly by Eamonn Callaghan should have been prevented by the referee because of the number of steps employed in the process.
Kieran McGeeney has gone further than any other manager in moulding the bodies and minds of the Kildare players and while they did not achieve their objective, there is no doubt that McGeeney had remarkable success in bringing this squad of players to the last four of the championship.
His efforts over a long period of time were an exercise in making several fairly ordinary footballers into All- Ireland standard performers and it shows that with any set of players, there can be vast improvement over time when a manager knows how to motivate young men and convince them to play better than their own intrinsic ability.
Of course, that is what the majority of county teams must achieve if they want to move up the ranks. Quite simply most counties do not have enough quality players to reach the last four in the All-Ireland on personal ability alone.
Kerry and Tyrone did have the luxury of having 15 or more players of All-Ireland standard over the last seven years, but there were many glaring examples in recent years of counties masquerading as potential champions who definitely were not the real deal because they had several players who simply could not perform at quarter-final or semi-final level.
These included Dublin, Mayo, Derry, Meath, Wexford, Monaghan, Donegal and a few others. Some of these counties constantly maintain that they are serious contenders whenever they put their heads above the parapet, but they are living in a world of make-believe because they have been shown time and again not to have enough naturally gifted players.
I suspect Kieran McGeeney soon learned that in Kildare over his first two seasons, when they lost All-Ireland quarter-finals and he set about facing reality and therefore having to improve several 'ordinary' players in order to strengthen the overall worth of the team.
He did this outstandingly well, as anybody from Kildare or elsewhere will have appreciated having observed the improvement of several players in the course of the last two summers.
I have always regarded a manager who brings a team to the top by making average players much better through preparation as being equal to, or possibly even better, than a manager who is blessed with a team of great players such as Tyrone and Kerry had recently.
I know from my former managerial experience with Offaly that there is tremendous satisfaction for a manager who gets players to improve greatly in the course of a couple of seasons. Unfortunately ordinary football followers often do not have the patience required for improving players' performances. The usual cry is: "Ah, sure that fellow will never be any good, you are wasting your time training him all year."
It is that sort of attitude that condemns many a county team to mediocrity, because of course there are never 15 or more naturally talented footballers available in most counties and only a really good manager can implement coaching measures to make ordinary players 50pc better and, thus, strengthen the team.
There are a few good examples of this sort of managerial skill such as Mickey Ned O'Sullivan with Limerick, Kevin Walsh with Sligo and Jason Ryan with Wexford. The proof of their work is that these counties performed better as a team than the individual worth of the players.
Some might say that James McCartan is in that category, but that's not quite accurate. He is obviously a very good manager, but he has a large selection of very skilful players, products of minor and U-21 success, to work with, particularly in the Down attack.
If you want to understand the difference between the two types of managers Down and Kildare are the two counties to look at.
McGeeney has had to work a lot harder to bring Kildare to the level of last Sunday's epic game than McCartan had with Down because there are more naturally talented players in Down at the moment. In that light I consider McGeeney's achievement outstanding.
His attention to detail in Kildare has been incredible and the presence of Bannon at training was just one small example of that intense approach.
This regime is of course extremely demanding on players and it may be difficult for some Kildare players to match McGeeney's requirements for another season, but I wouldn't bank on that, such is the man's all-pervasive presence in the Kildare camp.
The general principle which McGeeney has practised, that intense preparation and hard work can actually make players better and therefore more valuable to the team, is one that a lot of the managers currently being interviewed for jobs all over Ireland should take to heart -- and keep their mouth closed until they have achieved that.