Saturday 24 June 2017

McGeeney's circle of trust

Kildare boss may have alienated some locals with his 'win-at-all-costs' attitude, but his players seem 100 per cent behind him, writes Christy O'Connor

Kieran McGeeney talks to his Kildare players before last year's All-Ireland semi-final against Down
Kieran McGeeney talks to his Kildare players before last year's All-Ireland semi-final against Down

Christy O'Connor

Nine days before last month's championship match against Wicklow, Kildare played Armagh in a challenge game at the Kildare training centre in Hawkfield.

The match was played behind closed doors, but the security cordon at the gate was so tight that it was jokingly referred to as being like Checkpoint Charlie on the old Berlin Wall.

A section of the local media, the fathers of two players and about 25 supporters felt the chill winds of the policy. One die-hard fan, who was already parked inside, was asked to leave because he had waited in Newbridge and followed the Armagh bus directly through the gates as his means of camouflage. For a finish, the group traversed a field at the back of the ground to sneak in behind one of the goals to catch some snapshots of the action.

Reporting on the events in their next edition, the 'Kildare Nationalist' described the treatment of some of the "county's most loyal supporters" as "disgraceful." The fact that the group included Club

Kildare members was held up as

"another example of how this squad of players is being detached from the rest of the county."

In conclusion, the episode was deemed to have "marked a low point in relations between the county team and those who back them."

Kieran McGeeney and his management team, though, had a different take on events. They claimed that it was Armagh who requested the game to be played behind closed doors, even though it was obvious that Kildare were trying out Johnny Doyle at midfield, word of which subsequently leaked out.

They also privately claimed that they only 'close' about five sessions a year, in an attempt to try out different systems and formations, especially coming up to the championship -- and that that is their right and nobody else's business, including Club Kildare members.

DEFENCE

In a further defence on that point, management say that they and the players have always enjoyed a healthy relationship with key members of the supporters club, Pat Mangan and June Kelly.

There's no doubt though, that McGeeney has been fighting a PR battle in the county recently. After being blamed in March for the resignation of former Kildare county board chairman Padraig Ashe -- over an issue related to club fixtures -- McGeeney colourfully claimed that he gets blamed for everything from "the Famine to Fianna Fáil."

Although this Kildare team have now generated a huge support base, the Kildare Nationalist surmised that their "detachment" from the players is based on two beliefs: that the players don't engage with the supporters as much as they'd like, especially through the local media, and that the clubs have been seriously relegated in importance behind the county team.

In response to those accusations, McGeeney's thinking would be very clear. As a player, he never engaged with the media and public on the same level as other high profile figures. Although a manager has different responsibilities, McGeeney's form has remained consistent with that character, while his persona has been reflected through his players in their dealings with the media.

Although a county manager must have a duty towards the clubs, McGeeney's attitude as a player was always geared towards ensuring that nothing got in the way of winning an All-Ireland. Rightly or wrongly, that is still his mentality now as a manager.

Under the current training regime, it's nearly impossible for the clubs to have any claims on their players, especially when management made the decision after last year's championship to increase the intensity and amount of training sessions.

In effect, the players more or less train seven days a week now -- four football sessions and three other days split between gym work, speed work and core sessions. Whatever it takes. There have often been weeks when the squad have done eight collective sessions. For example, there was an optional forwards coaching session between 8.0 and 9.0 on a Friday morning, with 'optional' being a loose title.

Of course, that lends itself to antagonism with the clubs. It also breeds rumours. When the squad trained for five successive days in Johnstown House in Enfield, there was talk afterwards that players were not allowed to use their phones during their time there. It was untrue, but was just another by-product of the image McGeeney has always cultivated.

Because of his obsessive nature as a player, McGeeney often propagated that image as an austere, serious, dour individual. He never brought much levity to the Armagh dressing-room, but his captaincy was always hands-on and interventionist.

Creating an unbreakable bond within the Kildare squad has been one of McGeeney's greatest achievements, but it has also underlined his maturity as a manager and as a person.

In his first year in charge in 2008, McGeeney had kept his distance from the players, but he was advised to change his approach after the first round defeat by Wicklow.

Ever since, he has adopted the role he had performed so well as Armagh captain by engaging with players one-on-one. His immense value has really been felt outside the training ground.

Alan Smith, who was involved in an alleged assault in 2009, and who had a court case pending during last year's championship, described McGeeney last summer as being "like a second father."

The development of so many players is a testament to the quality of coaching, but McGeeney is always looking for that extra edge, never sitting still. On the day after Kildare lost the 2009 All-Ireland quarter-final to Tyrone, McGeeney rang the sports psychologist, Hugh Campbell, with a view to recruiting him for the 2010 season. Campbell is still on board.

Having such a professional set-up and intensive training schedule requires serious money, but the fundraising initiatives that the players regularly pursue have often been about more than just funding.

In McGeeney's first two seasons, the squad organised a charity white-collar boxing tournament, which built team-spirit and confidence and imbued the players with a sense of responsibility that had never previously existed.

Then in September 2009, McGeeney told the players that he wanted each of them to raise €3,000. The money was for a players' fund, a holiday to America and a new gym, but it was mostly about them taking more responsibility and developing their own personalities.

The players raised over €160,000, spent roughly €20,000 on new weights and equipment and turned the old press conference centre in the K Club into their own gym. The players laid the floor, did all the wiring and plumbing and fitted the entire place out themselves.

Over the last two seasons, they have taken jiu-jitsu -- a mix between martial arts and wrestling -- and kickboxing classes. Last November, McGeeney himself received his Blue Belt in jiu-jitsu in the presence of all his players.

McGeeney has hardened up their bodies and minds, but the transformation of Kildare's attack over the last four years has been the most vivid example of their progress. The team don't have the marquee forwards of other sides, but when they landed 18 points in the 2009 Leinster final, it was the joint-highest number of scores ever recorded from play in a provincial decider. In last year's championship, they averaged 1-16.

Kildare have still to win something significant under McGeeney (they did capture this year's O'Byrne Cup), but irrespective of whether this team ever win an All-Ireland, he has brought them to another level. And whether some within the county agree or disagree with his methods, McGeeney will feel justified by how far he has taken them.

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