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Brothers in arms prepare to do battle

OISIN McConville once likened playing against his long-time Armagh team-mate Kieran McGeeney in the 2000 All-Ireland club final to "crouching in a trench shooting at a friend."

Two former team-mates, who are even greater friends, go into direct combat when Kildare take on Laois in Portlaoise this evening, yet everything indicates that McGeeney and Justin McNulty will both go at it with the ruthlessness and detachment of trained snipers.

They didn't just win an All-Ireland together with Armagh in 2002; their friendship goes right back to their childhoods in Mullaghbawn in south Armagh.

But there will be no room for sentiment when the action starts tonight, because both men are cut from such similar sporting cloth.

When Mullaghbawn, managed by Peter McDonnell, won a historic Ulster club title in 1995, McGeeney, Benny Tierney and three McNulty brothers -- Justin, Paul and Enda -- all started.

Paul McNulty had already played in the 1992 All-Ireland minor final, for which his twin Justin was also on the panel, but failed to get any game time all summer, an experience that he admits shaped him.

McGeeney (39) is three years older than McNulty, but their paths have inevitably intertwined, from club to school (Abbey CBS, Newry), college (Queens) and eventually with Armagh.

They even finished out their playing careers in the same Dublin club (Na Fianna), where Enda McNulty, McGeeney's brother Patrick and ex-Armagh team-mate Des Mackin also ended up. They also embrace a remarkably similar sporting philosophy. Few need much introduction to the Kildare manager's obsessive pursuit of sporting perfection, which has, by now, assumed something of cult status.

Michael Jordan was McGeeney's sporting hero and he followed the US basketball legend's philosophy of using every single season to improve another aspect of his game.

He would famously spend €30 every second day on fruit to fuel an intensive training regime which helped him compensate for having a torn cruciate in his right knee for years.


McGeeney also spent as much time practising mentally as he did physically, even using the breaks in weight training to do what sports psychologists call 'visualisation, or what he once described himself as "creating future histories, seeing and feeling different thing for different eventualities." Why?

"Well you have two minutes between each set, so you can either stand there scratching your ass or you can use it constructively," he said.

These days he includes yoga and Jiu Jitsu in his own personal training regime and everything he practised as a player, mentally and physically, he has brought to managing Kildare.

His dramatic route into management came when McDonnell, his old primary school teacher and former club boss, was appointed as Armagh senior boss in 2007.

'Geezer' had already decided to retire from playing, but shocked everyone by immediately taking the reins at Kildare, bringing Paul Grimley (overlooked for the Armagh job) with him. If his ascent into management was instantaneous, McNulty's was more progressive and low-key.

The Laois manager says he fell into it accidentally, but admits it came about because he suffered serious football withdrawal once he retired from playing.

Mullahoran had lost three county finals in a row to Cavan Gaels and needed "just that push across the line" when then chairman Noel Reilly approached McNulty.

Within a year they were Cavan champions, beating the Gaels in the final, despite being reduced to 14 men halfway through the first half. "Justin was extremely strong on the mental side of things. Everything had to be done perfectly, even in training," chairman Gerry Sheridan recalls.

After just one year McNulty moved on to burgeoning Castleknock club St Brigid's. In his first season (2007) at the helm, he brought them to the Dublin SFC final where they were beaten by eventual All-Ireland champions St Vincent's by two points.

McNulty stayed one more season -- Brigid's lost out in their group, but only on scoring difference -- and is remembered particularly for a coaching catchphrase that spoke volumes: "Protect the honeypot lads."

His first inter-county experience came as an Armagh selector last year and, when he took over Laois this year, his strong defensive philosophy was immediately apparent.

Like McGeeney -- who has, paradoxically, done some expansive interviews both as a player and a manager and has a great sardonic wit -- McNulty is a reluctant interviewee.

That has caused some difficulties for the local media who were left particularly short of copy when he refused to speak after the Dublin game, apparently because he was so sickened by defeat. But McNulty sat down with them subsequently, listened to their issues and has now set aside a time every Monday when local journalists can contact him.

Close observers in Laois note that he is relaxed and good fun, but immediately assumes a poker-like 'game face' once his players appear. That's unsurprising considering he is as obsessed as McGeeney is with the mental aspect of sport.

His father and brother both studied psychology in Queens and though he graduated and worked for seven years as a civil engineer, he is now high performance manager for MOTIV8, a fast-growing company founded by his brother Enda, which provides motivational and psychological training to athletes and also to many big businesses.

McNulty was hardly a wet week in the Laois job when he was asked about having to face McGeeney's Kildare in the league. He replied that his old friend is "a guy I have been into battle with and I would trust my life with, so it is going to be interesting to be pitting our wits against each other."

Tonight neither will be sparing the ammo.

Irish Independent