Monday 21 April 2014

'Mac' for the future

AS an ex-footballer, John McGeady knew the demands of life in the professional game. As a professional whose career had been ended with injury at the age of 23, he was aware of the dangers, the uncertainties that came with a footballer's life. He would watch over his son, Aiden.

AS an ex-footballer, John McGeady knew the demands of life in the professional game. As a professional whose career had been ended with injury at the age of 23, he was aware of the dangers, the uncertainties that came with a footballer's life. He would watch over his son, Aiden. John McGeady would make sure that the academic life he had returned to as a mature student when his football career ended wouldn't be neglected in his young son.

But his son loved the game more, even, than he excelled at school - his father believes he could have studied medicine - and one day while John was in hospital for a kidney operation, Aiden persuaded his mother it was time he joined the local U8s. On his return from hospital, Aiden's father was told that his son was playing for a side on the outskirts of Glasgow and he drove down to the local pitches with the concerns of any father amplified by his knowledge of the cruelty of sport.

As he stepped carefully from his car, concerned that the stitches in his side would burst, he saw a boy through the railing. He was skipping by defenders, leaving a trail of players in his wake. John McGeady's heart beat faster. "This blond guy was going by people for fun," he recalled last week, "and I went 'Christ, if this is the standard, what chance has Aiden got?' But then I went round the fence and I couldn't believe that the blond guy was Aiden. It was the first time I'd seen him kick a ball competitively."

Last Wednesday night, Rangers managed to beat Celtic for the first time in 18 months, but the crowds that rejoiced at Ibrox took time out from their celebrations to abuse Aiden McGeady when he was asked to save the game.

More than any other player for Celtic, McGeady came close to doing that. Before his late introduction - for the second period of extra time - Celtic were looking to the Brazilian World Cup winner Juninho for inspiration. Instead, it was McGeady who tried to fulfil the role of saviour for a Celtic team that has looked tired since the departure of Henrik Larsson and the ceaseless speculation about its manager, Martin O'Neill. McGeady might get another chance when Celtic travel to Ibrox Park for a league match on Saturday.

Last Wednesday night he failed to change the result, a source of delight for Rangers fans who partly blame the player for the future they believe Scotland may not have. Aiden McGeady is 18 and he was once seen as the future of Scottish football. Today, he will travel to Dublin, part of Brian Kerr's plans for the future, a player described once by Liam Brady as "the most complete young player I've seen."

Aiden McGeady's talent was nurtured by his family's commitment and his father's experience. The intelligence that in later life would send John McGeady back to university, years after his career at Sheffield United ended, then on to become an English teacher, would also govern his decisions about his son. "I stumbled through on my own instinct but I knew he had the ability on the football pitch and he also had the cerebral ability. I made a deal with him that he could play football as long as his grades were good and his grades were always excellent."

But his football was always better. Schooled by his father, he developed into a two-footed player, slightly stronger on his right but adept at going either side, a talent which his father, his club manager and the Irish coaches who have worked with him believe will see McGeady playing just behind a centre-forward as his career progresses.

It has already moved pretty fast. By the time he was 10, clubs all over Britain were clambering for McGeady's signature. Arsenal came close, but John McGeady wanted to watch over his son and Celtic's academy was impressive.

"We wanted him to stay at home if it was possible," his father remembers. "If you go into any work place, especially at the age of 16, there will be problems. If he stayed in Glasgow, he could come home to us at night and we'd sit down and discuss things rather than him sitting in digs in London."

As his son's career moved quickly from academy to professional with adidas climbing on board at an early stage in a unprecedented deal for a young player, John McGeady kept calm. When his son turned 16, he took out an insurance policy for his son to make sure he was protected. After John had shattered his kneecap at the age of 19, he remembered Sheffield United offering him close to £50,000 to retire as part of the insurance deal. He refused, hoping that he'd reach the natural retirement age of a footballer. Four years later he was out of the game.

His son is well protected, but John McGeady insists he has never lived his career through the feet of his son. "I would be the antithesis of the parents who scream and roar on the sidelines, I stay very quiet. I've never questioned any of his coaches, but on a one-to-one basis we would sit and discuss his game, whether he should have released the ball earlier or should he be scoring a few more goals - the best players in the world always score a lot of goals."

They sat down and talked too when his son decided he would take up the offer to play for Irish schoolboys rather than Scotland. Aiden McGeady's parents come from Gweedore in Donegal, so it was not surprising that Packie Bonner became aware of him.

It is a row that rumbles on in Scotland and one that has been seized upon by Rangers supporters. How, they ask, could a Glaswegian son of Glaswegian parents, represent Ireland ahead of Scotland?

"They forget the affinity Aiden has with Ireland," says John, who has just returned from a week in Dublin visiting his sister who lives in Raheny. "My parents are both Irish, Aiden has been over there every year and my mother now lives there. We're pretty much part of an Irish culture within Glasgow. People think he made the decision because Ireland would have a better chance of qualifying for tournaments, but the natural affinity has always been there. He was wearing an Ireland strip when he was eight years old."

'I didn't have the innate confidence in my ability that Aiden has. He's a very strong-willed boy'

John McGeady On Tuesday night at Lansdowne Road, he will be wearing one again. After making his senior debut last summer in the Unity Cup, McGeady has been serving his time with the U21s. There are some within the Irish coaching set-up who believe he should stay with the underage side a bit longer as he matures physically but Kerr is a fan, always believing in a player with a "trick or two". McGeady is an exciting variant for the senior squad, with his ability to pick a pass or go by players as he did when he was eight years old. He already has the mental attitude. "I didn't have the innate confidence in my ability that Aiden has. He's a very strong-willed boy. We've brought our two children up to believe that they're special and they have a place in the world." Since he spied him through the railings more than 10 years ago, John McGeady has sensed that his son's place in the world is on the football pitch.

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