Monday 27 March 2017

Geraghty: The three missing years

Christy O'Connor

On Tuesday night in Pairc Tailteann Navan, the Meath players were playing five-on-five conditioned games in training. At one stage, Graham Geraghty was running past another player when he checked back, almost coming to a stop position, before suddenly taking off in the opposite direction at almost the same speed.

Amid the blur and motion of the session, the bright colour of Geraghty's immense athleticism instantly stood out. When some of the players were discussing the feat after training, they all came to the same conclusion; Geraghty was one of the few athletes in the country who could manage to do what he did. "He's just an absolute freak of nature," says one Meath player. "Other lads wouldn't even dream of trying it, but he just has it in his genes."

Geraghty has always confounded expectation and divided opinion, but there has still been something freakish about his return to the Meath squad at 38 after three years away from the inter-county game. The subplot could either make or break Meath's summer.

When most of the players first heard whispers that Geraghty and Darren Fay might be returning, their initial instincts were that it couldn't be true.

When they discovered that Geraghty was, in fact, on the way back, the reaction was a mixture of complete surprise, fused with anger in some sections of the panel. Yet, it was all swallowed with a dose of sharp reality.

"Of course guys were wondering where this came from," says another player. "Other lads, especially those in the subs, were thinking: 'Why would you bother your ass training all year and then management go back for a 38-year-old two weeks before our biggest game of the season?'

"But having said all that, Graham's return definitely hasn't had the effect on the players that people think. It's too close to championship and guys are just focusing on Kildare. You can't be thinking about anything else. And in fairness, he is motoring well."

The comeback was completely out of the blue. Meath management hadn't seen Geraghty play when McEnaney mooted a potential return three weeks ago. Liam Harnan and Barry Callaghan didn't see the long-term benefit, but McEnaney sent someone to watch Geraghty in a club game a week later.

A few days afterwards, McEnaney met with Geraghty in the Old Darnley Lodge in Athboy.

Initially, Geraghty thought that McEnaney was going to offer him a job in his business and he was taken aback with the invitation to return to inter-county football. He told McEnaney that he needed to chat to his family first before he rang the manager back that night with his decision.

During the week, former Meath player Bernard Flynn described the recall as "ludicrous," but Geraghty had some form to call upon.

instrumental

He had been instrumental in Clann na Gael's promising start in the Meath Intermediate championship, playing pivotal roles in the wins over Castletown and St Ultan's.

Within the club, his recall to the Meath squad wasn't a surprise. "I've been saying it for the last few years that Meath could do worse than get Graham Geraghty back and throw him in for the last 10 or 15 minutes," says Clann na Gael coach Andy Hayes.

Over the previous few seasons, Geraghty had been playing his club football at centre-back, but his return to the forward line this year had helped bring, what he recently termed, "a freshness back" in him.

"He was probably a bit frustrated, but he does seem to be enjoying his football a bit more now," says Hayes. "I wasn't shocked when he was recalled because he still has oceans to give. At 38, you don't know if he is going to last, but he is as good as what we have in club football in Meath. He's absolutely flying at training and he's still as quick as anyone."

In effect, Geraghty had never really gone away. Ever since he retired after the 2008 championship, there was always some thread of speculation linking him with a return to Meath each season. Joe Sheridan expressed his hope at the outset of 2009 that Geraghty would return, but former Meath manager Eamonn O'Brien effectively ruled it out just a week later.

There were still soundings, especially when Geraghty was writing a column for a national newspaper, sometimes hinting that he would consider a return if he was recalled by O'Brien. Six weeks before Meath's clash with Dublin last year, the internet chatrooms were alive with stories that Geraghty was on the verge of a recall, something the player himself completely denied.

Geraghty just crossed the divide last summer, spending his time as a forwards coach with Longford. "What attracted me to Graham was his quality as a forward," says Longford manager Glenn Ryan. "He's a player who is hugely respected for his footballing ability, but he's also very much a confidence player. The idea was to bring in a fella who has done it all and that confidence might filter down to the players."

Geraghty was highly regarded among the Longford players. "The players were delighted with him," says Ryan. "I think the one thing that everyone realised is that apart from his football ability and natural talent, Graham Geraghty is a football fanatic.

"I think that is something that a lot of people don't appreciate. He loves football. You can see that in the way he plays and his enthusiasm for the game was an extra factor that he brought to our set-up. He was all about encouraging lads to use their own talent and initiative and be confident out on the pitch. And to keep having a go. Because that was him."

Although Geraghty captained Meath to an All-Ireland title in 1999, he was never really considered by his peers as someone who inspired leadership to those around him. His style mirrored his attitude; he was a free spirit who just went out and got on with his own job.

That also largely framed his method of preparation. It's been pointed out many times this week that Geraghty would have no business returning if he hadn't kept himself in peak condition for inter-county football. Yet those terms of reference never really applied to Geraghty when he played with Meath; he had a physical and physiological make-up that allowed him to circumvent the hardship that most players had to endure during the off season.

Former Meath team-mates say that Geraghty rarely stretched or lifted weights; he felt he never had to. He was like a thoroughbred horse. When he was a cross-country runner during his youth, some observers say he was like a "machine", eating up the ground.

When he got invited for a trial at Arsenal in 1994 on the back of an impressive performance in that year's Leinster final, he blew professional soccer players out of the water in a series of stamina runs and sprints. In his first autobiography 'Hero and Villain', Paul Merson said that Geraghty was the "fittest player I ever saw."

It's too early to tell how well he'll handle the physical challenges of the inter-county game now but all the signs have been positive so far. He featured in the last quarter of a challenge game against Galway in Mullingar last Sunday. "He played really well," says one experienced Galway player. "He wasn't spectacular, but anything he did, he did it well. To me, he seemed like he was never away from the game."

After the game, Geraghty reportedly completed a portion of a stage of the 'Race the Ras' promotion in aid of GOAL and the Irish Cancer Society, which was another example of how he has always just done his own thing. Although he had never had any exposure to hurling, Geraghty turned out in his first hurling game for Clann na Gael last year. He started at wing-forward in a league game against Donaghmore Ashbourne.

Geraghty has always had that sense of adventure about him. What started out as a conversation with a politician in 2006 ended with him running as a Fine Gael candidate for election to the Dail within 12 months. He was eventually eliminated after the fourth count when he polled 1,284 first preferences, over 8,000 short of the quota needed.

To outsiders, he was a feckless conceit on Fine Gael's part, a celebrity calling card whose job it was to get them more coverage in a fairly settled Fianna Fáil constituency. Geraghty said after the election that he would "definitely" return to politics and run again in the local elections. But he never did.

He has kept busy in his own way ever since. Although it seemed completely illogical, he managed Na Fianna -- an Intermediate club in the same division as his own Clann na Gael team -- for the last two seasons. He has also coached at Blanchardstown IT, while this year he has been coaching the Castledaly senior team in Westmeath.

He is still with Castledaly, but Geraghty has always found the time to play with Clann na Gael. "He will always try and organise his other commitments around the club and try and make it back for training," says Andy Hayes. "Another fella would say: 'I'm training another club and I just can't be there'.

"He's great like that and he'll always want to play for you. His hunger is still there. If it wasn't, he wouldn't bother. He's always there 20 minutes before training. He has often got bad press, but I couldn't speak highly enough of him. If some of the young lads had half his enthusiasm, you'd really be going places."

Age hasn't dulled his penchant for flamboyance either. One player, who lined out against Na Fianna last year in a league game, noticed Geraghty patrolling the sideline in a "bright pink shirt."

No other coach in the country would have the brass to even consider wearing such attire, but Geraghty has always courted attention. The counter-side to that is there have been occasions in recent years when he has been a victim of the public persona he has created.

He has had highly-publicised financial difficulties and he recently refuted reports that he currently owes the EBS €850, 000, insisting the figure is actually €170,000 as he has already paid off most of the debt. "I am in awe at how I still seem to be generating such currency for some people," he said.

limelight

Being thrust back into the limelight now, though, has completely been McEnaney's call. The manager knew the trouble it was going to cause, but he went ahead with the move anyway.

That could be described as strong management, but it has largely been interpreted in Meath in two basic forms; that McEnaney has deflected the negative attention off himself by recalling Geraghty; that the manager felt that the county was gone flat and needed a spark, which Geraghty has provided.

Either way, the focus is now firmly on the player. "It's a surprise when someone is brought back at 38," says Glenn Ryan. "But if Graham is still one of the best 25 players in Meath, his age and everything else shouldn't be a factor. That should apply to anybody, no matter if their name is Graham Geraghty or not."

Geraghty has been one of the most talented and controversial player's of his generation, but there has always been a sense of intrigue around him. In 1998, he appeared in a low-budget Irish martial arts movie called 'Fatal Deviation', where the lead part was played by Boyzone's Mikey Graham.

Towards the end of the film, Geraghty is seen fighting his way through the 'Bealtaine Tournament', a competition where the only rule is that there are no rules. The title of the movie seems apt now in the context of Geraghty's return because many have termed McEnaney's decision as a potential 'Fatal Deviation'.

Except this time, Geraghty is the central character in the story.

Irish Independent

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