The Queen's link to McCartan and McGeeney
THERE was potential for an awkward moment when the managers of Sunday's All-Ireland SFC semi-finalists bumped into each other in the lobby of the Canal Court Hotel in Newry two weeks ago.
But Kildare boss Kieran McGeeney and Down manager James McCartan had a good laugh -- and why not, considering they played college football together for Queen's University?
"We had the craic for 10 minutes," revealed McCartan with a chuckle.
"We were looking over our shoulders to see if there were any photographers around looking for a shot. Sure we meet most Thursdays to pick the teams," he joked.
There is also a second Queen's connection to Sunday's semi-final.
McCartan later cut his managerial teeth with Queen's, where one of his selectors was another former college and Armagh player Aidan O'Rourke -- the same man McGeeney recuited to replace Paul Grimley as his assistant in Kildare this season.
Did McCartan ever imagine he might end up on the opposite side managerially from O'Rourke in an All-Ireland semi-final.
"Yeah, but I might have thought he'd be in the Armagh camp," McCartan quipped, admitting "it is strange."
"We're in regular contact and I know the type of things Aidan will have put in place in Kildare.
"But knowing it and stopping it is different. Everybody has seen how Kerry and Tyrone have played over the last few years, but trying to stop it was the difficulty."
Was he surprised to see McGeeney immediately go straight into management after retiring from inter-county football three years ago?
"Nothing surprises me about 'Geezer'," the Down boss reflected.
"He's probably the most focussed man I've ever met. His dedication and single-mindedness are unreal at times and what Aidan will have brought to that too will be a different angle, with defensive systems and such."
To outsiders Sunday's managers may look like chalk and cheese.
One's a laid-back extrovert, the other's a much quieter and hugely intense character, yet they share a football obsession and the same dry wit and clearly get on very well.
As McCartan told the press recently, he knows a very different McGeeney than the stern managerial face of Kildare.
"Most of you probably find it hard to break him down, but because we go back a bit, I'm able to get behind that façade and I actually enjoy the man's company," he said.
One man who was a huge influence on all three is Dessie Ryan, the legendary and genial Tyroneman who successfully managed Queen's at both the start and end of the '90s.
"As players, James and Kieran immediately stood out, and not just because they got on the Sigerson team when they were still only freshers, which was extremely unusual," Ryan recalls.
His favourite recollection of McCartan's playing genius and early managerial potential comes not from a Sigerson final, but a preliminary game against Limerick, watched by no more than two dozen people.
"We were playing into this gale-force wind and James dropped back into defence entirely of his own account.
"When he'd get the ball he'd hold it up, toe-to-hand, round in circles, until someone came to support him. He took three to four vital minutes out of the ball and we won on something like a score of 0-6 to 0-5!
"That was James, he was just a whizz and you let him do his own thing.
"Kieran came to Queen's the following year. He prepared so well, mentally and physically, for every game, it was extraordinary. He knew everything there was to know about his opponent."
Could Ryan see early managerial potential in both of them?
"Oh absolutely, and also in Aidan O'Rourke and (new Laois boss) Justin McNulty too," Ryan stresses.
"I always think about people 'would I like to work for them or have them work for me?' and I'd put them all in the former category. With James and Kieran, they're both immersed in football and very fair, very honest people.
"James is an outgoing character who'll listen to every opinion he's given, though that doesn't say he'll follow it," Ryan says.
"To outsiders Kieran may seem very intense, but he just wears his football heart on his sleeve. He is extremely genuine and, as a footballer, put himself through all sorts of rigours to best his opponents on the field.
"He did it in a different way from James, but both of them are the type of men who will earn the height of respect from their players."