Kildare's success a perfect exercise in trust
Published 24/08/2010 | 05:00
Before and after every match they play, Kieran McGeeney will draw his squad and back-room team together as one in a huddle and deliver whatever keynote message has to be delivered.
It's is an all-inclusive, all-encompassing exercise where they place a hand on each other's shoulders in that tight circle and listen to carefully chosen words.
It's their world, their sanctuary, their own private moment before and after battle.
Away from the tactical nuances he has brought, the premium on fitness and conditioning there has been and the technicalities of better tackling that he has instilled, fostering such unity and togetherness has been McGeeney's greatest success as Kildare manager.
That may come as a surprise to those for whom first impressions last. The unsmiling strongman of the Armagh defence isn't supposed to create such a happy environment.
He's thought of in the same terms as someone running a salt mine -- a ruthless head of operations squeezing every last ounce out of those in his charge. The perception won't bother Kieran McGeeney the manager, just as it didn't bother Kieran McGeeney the player.
When he's had to make hard calls he has made them; when he has had to confront indiscipline he has done that too. And he has done so with little or no detriment to the harmony that exists within.
Think of the make-up of the squad that is finalising preparations for Sunday's second All-Ireland semi-final.
At one end of the spectrum is Anthony Rainbow, currently Gaelic football's longest-serving player who, at 39 in October, is a few weeks older than McGeeney himself.
At the other end of the spectrum are three of this year's exciting minor team who have been introduced for experience.
Rainbow's prospects of featuring are thin; so too are those of Thomas Moolick, Paul Cribben and Finn Dowling, but that's not the point. In this carefully layered family, the links with the past are as important as those with the future.
When McGeeney convened his squad at the beginning of 2010, there was no bloodletting. Everyone stayed, everyone contributed. And that decision played a huge part in sealing the panel's unity.
Just a few weeks earlier they had been on a 12-day trip to New York and San Francisco, a reward of sorts for reaching successive All-Ireland quarter-finals and another building block for the future.
But it was a trip with a difference. Every last cent was raised by the players themselves through a variety of fundraising mechanisms.
Twelve months earlier they were the GAA pioneers for a 'white collar' boxing tournament that brought novelty, helped to keep them fit -- without breaking the freshly imposed collective training moratorium -- and raised thousands.
Last autumn McGeeney raised the bar again, challenging every player to bring in €3,000 themselves. Almost everyone succeeded, some surpassed it and the cumulative tally of around €125,000 has provided a sizeable boost to the budget, not just for their American sojourn but for weekends in the Johnstown House Hotel -- where they have regularly planned and plotted all summer -- and the equipping of a gym for their exclusive use.
Such self-sufficiency required high levels of motivation and hard work, but McGeeney was sure that such an investment by the players off the field would result in benefits on it. It has. McGeeney has managed to bring his players with him on all fronts.
"How many squads in Gaelic games sit back now and expect everything to be done for them? It's expected and in many cases it is delivered. That's the way the game is," figures Paul Grimley, McGeeney's influential assistant for the first two years of his reign.
"But Kieran clearly felt that challenging the players to raise money themselves required a serious commitment and would create leaders within to drive such a project. They did it."
What Grimley likes and has always liked most about the young manager is his honesty.
It was evident when they addressed the squad after defeat to Wicklow in 2008 and it was evident again after the loss to Louth in June.
McGeeney hauled off Padraig O'Neill after just 28 minutes that night in Navan but would later hold up his hand and say that it was a mistake.
"To me that's the difference between a young manager like Kieran and one of the old brigade of managers. I don't think too many of the old brigade would own up to something like that. That's the type of honesty he brings to it."
The same honesty was evident after Wicklow, in Grimley's estimation.
"I still say that losing to Wicklow was the worst moment I experienced in football and I've been with Armagh when we lost an All-Ireland final to Tyrone," he says.
"But after that, myself and Kieran had to admit that we had got things wrong. We had tried to impose a style on Kildare that they just weren't comfortable with. That style had been embedded in us for five or six years in Armagh. It just wasn't for them and we had to hold our hand up and admit we had got that wrong.
"I always felt that from then on there was a different relationship between the players and ourselves, particularly Kieran.
"They saw a manager who was willing to say, 'I got it wrong'. They heard him say it publicly. They would have felt they were all in it together."
On the Monday after the defeat to Louth, they met for up to five hours and thrashed things out openly and abrasively -- and they have scarcely looked back since.
From a distance, Grimley feels the death of Dermot Earley Snr will have galvanised them even more.
Earley Jnr's appearance on the field that evening for the game against Antrim, hours after burying his father, was a defining moment, in their former coach's opinion.
Since then they have got better and better and tighter and tighter. Grimley laughs at the 'plus-16, minus-10' scale that they have sought to operate within, a resolve to score more than 16 and concede less than 10. "When we started that last year it was minus-12. Obviously Kieran is demanding that bit more this year."
They have been relentless and driven, taking setbacks in their stride, safe in the knowledge that they will be playing harder in the 70th minute than they were in the first.
They have bought into a system of play and a work ethic that few teams can replicate. It has taken time and patience but, above all, trust between a manager and his players on and off the field.