McGeeney's loyalty card
Published 23/12/2011 | 05:00
At the end of Ireland's second Test victory in Gold Coast last month, a victory that secured a second successive International Rules series on Australian soil, the cameras turned to the Irish squad standing in the middle of the pitch in a quickly emptying stadium.
Amidst the back-slapping among the united nations of inter-county footballers on duty for their country that night, the two Kildare footballers among them made for their manager Kieran McGeeney.
McGeeney had been seconded by his good friend Anthony Tohill to take up a coaching role for the series and the result was a far more ruthless execution of defensive duties by the Irish. The three embraced briefly and enjoyed a quiet moment of satisfaction together at a job well done.
They were part of an international team, but still the strength of the bond between players and manager which exists from week to week was self evident. It said everything about McGeeney's enduring trait as a man, as a player and now as manager: loyalty.
Remember one of the most emotive scenes from the 2010 championship, the playing of the National Anthem on the night that Kildare hosted Antrim in a first-round qualifier in Newbridge.
Earlier that day Newbridge had come to a standstill for the funeral of Dermot Earley. Then, a few hours later, his son Dermot was linking arms with his team-mates in a striking show of solidarity. Directly beside him was the bainisteoir. Once again the recurring theme written all over the snapshot was one of loyalty.
It is essentially McGeeney's currency as he charts his way towards a fifth year as Kildare manager. Everything else takes its cue from it.
It's a trait reflected in the profiles of his squad. In those four years, it is hard to remember an established player with any track record of service who has been culled.
Certainly in the last three years, since McGeeney found his feet as an inter-county manager and Kildare climbed into the top six on the order of merit, the personnel on the squad has scarcely changed. The circle is rarely broken.
At times there may be minor disciplinary issues. A young player thought it wise to take a trip to Oxegen on the night of this year's qualifier against Laois against the agreed decision of the rest of the squad and was removed, albeit temporarily.
But rarely, if ever, over the last four years has there been news of a player dropped or a panel being downsized. When you're in, obey the rules and you'll generally stay inside the circle.
A few have opted to leave of their own accord, more have retired gracefully, but have remained close to the project. Alan Barry moved into U-21 management in 2009; when Anthony Rainbow retired at the end of 2010, he was appointed as an U-21 selector, while Damien Hendy has most recently joined the U-21 set-up having announced his retirement.
The appointment of Barry as U-21 manager threatened to be a contentious issue in recent weeks with Athy, the county champions, raising most questions. Any challenge to Barry would have been perceived in the county as a challenge to McGeeney himself. But that storm has since passed over.
Barry has already served three years and has forged strong links with McGeeney's senior set-up. In essence, he is very much seen in the county as McGeeney's man, and naturally, the senior manager was so keen to see him continue in the position that he and his Kildare selector Niall Carew have made themselves available to form a new U-21 back-room team.
The model of strong co-operation between U-21 and senior teams in a county has the potential to work well, but Kildare's record over the last two years has not been good, with defeats to Wexford and Westmeath putting Barry under pressure.
When the board looked around tentatively for a new figurehead for the U-21s, the former Offaly and Laois manager Tom Cribbin was one of those under consideration, it is believed.
But Cribbin would have sought to work independently of the senior team management and that may have compromised the project.
The faith in the McGeeney project in the county remains very strong. And why wouldn't it? Four successive All-Ireland quarter-final appearances, all through the qualifiers, is a record only Kerry, Dublin, Cork and Tyrone can match or surpass, the absence of silverware diluted by such a measure of consistency.
He has perhaps embedded himself deeper into the county than he ever imagined he would.
There have been some issues to irk the natives though. The appointment of John Rafferty as an additional coach to replace Aidan O'Rourke brought to three the number of Armagh assistants McGeeney has leaned upon in his time and left some locals wondering was there not an alternative from within the county?
But such gripes have never unduly worried McGeeney.
The abrupt departure of chairman Padraig Ashe in March and suggestions that there was a divide over fixtures scheduling -- Ashe officially resigned for "family and personal reasons" -- led McGeeney to comment wryly that he was being blamed for everything from the famine to the demise of Fianna Fail, while the training ground lockout in Hawkfield earlier this year and the sense of detachment it portrayed, didn't go down well.
Clubs have consistently lobbied for more access to their players during championship time, without much success.
When the Moorefield manager Jack Sheedy omitted Daryl Flynn and David Whyte from a championship game in May 2010 after the county players had only returned to club training on the Thursday beforehand, having spent the previous weekend in Johnstown House at a pre-season training camp, it highlighted a divide that needed to be addressed.
But playing politics is not within McGeeney's remit. The response to an end-of-July exit this year has been an intensification of pre-season gym work with players expected to clock in on close to a daily basis, even in these dark months.
Right now squad numbers remain in the low 40s, but direction to lower that figure is sure to come now with a commitment to applying more austere measures in an effort to get a spiralling debt under control.
The most pressing concern now for the county and Kildare's greatest challenge is managing a running debt that has risen to €570,000 over the last four years, a debt that has a new fundraising committee seeking a €1,000 commitment from 1,000 supporters.
Much of the focus has been on the cost of funding of the inter-county teams and having to shave off some 20pc of the current preparation figure will pose serious challenges for every Kildare manager, not least McGeeney and his team.
It is sure to compromise the meticulous way they go about their business. Last year the county secretary Kathleen O'Neill warned that costs would have to be cut "however painful," as expenditure on county teams rose to €741,860 from €659,860.
Kildare came in sixth in a league table of big spenders behind four counties who have very significant dual operations to run -- Cork, Tipperary, Dublin and Galway -- while Kerry, who were All-Ireland champions in 2009 and had a €300,000-plus team holiday to fund as part of their 2010 accounts.
Despite O'Neill's calls for austerity, the overall deficit ran higher again in 2011, an alarming €227,823. A full audited set of accounts were not available as the board continue to negotiate a central loan of up to half a million euro, but some details were made available, among them a significant rise to €750,000 for inter-county preparations.
This is despite the senior team being involved for four weeks less in the championship as they exited at the quarter-final stage at the end of July, but it covers a 13-month period in accordance with new GAA protocols.
The junior team reached an All-Ireland final, which they lost to Cork, but, like the U-21s, a link exists to the senior set-up.
It acted as a development squad for the seniors and involved a number of senior panelists, another strand of the McGeeney project that involved an input into every aspect of the inter-county apparatus.
The projections for 2012 will see €150,000 come off the preparation bill and surely compromise the meticulous nature of their preparations. For instance they often spend Saturday nights in hotel accommodation prior to championship matches.
To McGeeney's credit and that of the players, they have been productive fundraisers in their own right through the vehicles of white collar boxing nights, charity football matches and the responsibility handed to players to come with €3,000 each themselves in 2009 that helped to fund a team holiday to the USA and the equipping of a gym in the old press centre in the K Club, which has become their base.
But the challenge of doing more with far less resources will require a very delicate balancing act in 2012 and test everyone's loyalty to a project that is so close to delivering big rewards.