Sunday 26 February 2017

McGeeney does a Clough on Kildare

Eamonn Sweeney

When Kieran McGeeney was appointed Kildare manager, the expectation was that the new boss would convert the Lilywhites to the Armagh way of football. You know the kind of thing, 16 men behind the ball at all times, players with the muscular conformation of cattle on Angel Dust, lads chewing lumps out of the goalposts during lulls in the game.

Okay, perhaps I exaggerate slightly. But, especially during their final years, Joe Kernan's Armagh came to epitomise a style of play with the emphasis on the physical, the kind of football which prompts machismo devotees in the media to break out phrases like 'grimly compelling' and 'ratcheting up the physical intensity.'

And their centre half-back seemed the unsmiling personification of these utilitarian virtues. The prospect of his assuming the reins of a Kildare team not notably brimming with brio and joie de vivre in recent years was far from mouth-watering.

It just goes to show you can never be sure of anything in sport. Because Kieran McGeeney has turned Kildare into the most exciting, stylish and downright attractive team in the country right now. The man portrayed as a footballing version of the Grim Reaper, but without the light touch and sparkling sense of humour, has confounded everyone by producing a team which is more fun to watch than any of their rivals.

Last year the Lilywhites served notice of how much they've changed by playing a huge part in the two best games of the championship, their Leinster final loss to Dublin and their All-Ireland quarter-final defeat by Tyrone.

And this year they've delivered on the promise of their performances, their scintillating display against Meath last week only the most obvious demonstration of the virtues which have made them the highest-scoring team in the championship with an average of almost 19 points per game.

Cork, by contrast, are running at under 16 points a match, despite having a pool of outstanding natural attackers McGeeney could only dream of picking from. Instead, he has achieved something which marks him out as a manager of the very highest quality, coaxing the best performances of their lives from players not previously regarded as being among the game's elite. The likes of James Kavanagh, Pádraig O'Neill, Eamonn Callaghan, Eoghan O'Flaherty and Alan Smith have all disclosed previously unsuspected depths of talent under the guidance of the manager.

This ability to get the very best out of unregarded players suggests that if McGeeney keeps going at this rate, Gaelic football may have found its Brian Clough.

Most remarkable of all, Kildare's game is founded on a high level of sportsmanship. The Lilywhites committed just 14 fouls against Meath last weekend. By comparison, the Dubs perpetrated a cynical 33 against Tyrone. More than anyone else in Gaelic football, Kildare are playing the game the way it should be played. Even their blackest day under McGeeney, this year's first-round defeat by Louth, probably occurred because the team erred on the side of the swashbuckling. It was a tough 70 minutes for a Kildare fan but the 1-22 to 1-16 shoot-out was a whole bundle of fun for neutrals.

If they keep playing the way they have been, Kildare's quest for a first All-Ireland in 82 years deserves the support of every neutral. Because these days their boss is simply compelling without the grim. The man is ratcheting up the football intensity.

At a time when too many teams focus on stopping the opposition playing, he sends forth a side which plays with devil-may-care abandon and a rare sense of joy. Kieran McGeeney has become Gaelic football's apostle of positivity.

Who'd have thought it?

Sunday Independent

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