Grassroots manoeuvre creates twist in the plot
If the will existed to keep him, Kieran McGeeney would still be Kildare's manager, writes John O'Brien
TO those peering in with outside eyes, the circumstances of Kieran McGeeney's exit from Kildare seemed utterly perplexing. We knew he was well-liked by supporters, but the level of their devotion still came as a surprise. We figured the players would remain loyal, but their unshakeable belief in his aura and power was easy to underestimate too. Had the whole thing been a plot to embellish his own reputation as an inter-county manager, then McGeeney could not have orchestrated a more stunning coup.
In the fall-out, there were two Kieran McGeeneys kicked around between two fiercely entrenched sides. There was the McGeeney who guided the county to five All-Ireland quarter-final appearances in six years, who delivered Kildare to a Division 2 league title last year, the McGeeney who, effectively, dragged the county out of the slumber that had settled in during the post-Micko years of the 2000s and inculcated, by common consent, a sense of diligence and professionalism that had been grievously lacking in the set-up.
Then there was the McGeeney whose last four championship defeats as Kildare manager had come at an average of just under 10 points, the McGeeney who had seemed to grow more leaden-footed on the sideline when his teams were crying out for change, the McGeeney whose tactical nous was exposed when he sent his team out to stand toe-to-toe with Dublin, the McGeeney whose seasons were starting to end with humiliating defeats and assurances that he would learn from the mistakes he'd made, assurances that, for many, seemed less and less likely to be fulfilled.
In one sense, it was possible to draw a parallel with Giovanni Trapattoni's stewardship of the Ireland football team. Often, when Trapattoni's record was being questioned, his supporters would point to a favourable win ratio and the team's low rating before he took over. His detractors would counter with the argument that Trapattoni's Ireland had never beaten any teams of true quality. So it is with McGeeney's Kildare. He could be defended or knocked with equal vigour. The argument could be feasibly spun both ways.
That any vote to decide his future would be a tight call should have been no surprise. When Kildare made a tame exit against Cork in last year's All-Ireland quarter-final, there were those who had expected McGeeney not to see out the last year of his three-year term. "I thought that was the day we hit the wall," says one club delegate. "I left Croke Park that day, half expecting to turn on the radio and hear Kieran was gone. It seemed a natural end to his involvement."
That such misgivings would have hardened into more strident opposition after another fruitless championship season seemed inevitable. McGeeney's personal debit column began to overfill. When it was clear that the Seánie Johnston experiment was limping to a painful conclusion, people cast their minds back a year and recalled the acute embarrassment they'd suffered. And, rightly or wrongly, the blame was laid on McGeeney's broad shoulders.
Because a majority of the senior clubs voted against him, it was tempting to believe that McGeeney lost a narrow 29-28 verdict through a conscious act of revenge. McGeeney's nature was to demand a vice-like control of his county players and, unless he blindly trusted his board to steer a smooth passage, he should not have underestimated the level of tension that caused. Once he guaranteed results, he could live with it. Once they began to taper, however, McGeeney faced a problem. That was a risk he must have knowingly run.
The notion that he was the victim of a chaotic voting system doesn't fully stand up, however. Between senior and under 21, the resilient north Kildare club, Johnstownbridge, has seven players on county panels and should have been, by the perceived wisdom, firmly opposed to McGeeney. Yet, although their own club meeting turned up sharp division, the club opted to swing behind McGeeney after it canvassed the view of their county players.
Had that process been repeated in enough clubs, McGeeney would have sailed comfortably home. Some clubs sought the views of their county players and still voted for change. Others didn't see the need to consult the players at all and considered they had valid reasons for doing so. Like the re-appointment of McGeeney, it was itself a vexed question. If the players were to decide the issue, why have the process at all?
What is certain, though, is that in some instances the messy process actually favoured McGeeney. For many, the most farcical moment of Tuesday's three-hour meeting arrived when a statement from Moorefield was read out outlining the bizarre reasons for the club's abstention. If pressed, it is almost certain that Moorefield's two votes would have gone against McGeeney, a lucky break for the outgoing manager that almost sneaked him over the line.
And the feeling remains too that, for all the opposition, McGeeney would still be manager if the political will existed to keep him there. Once it became clear that his future would be decided by the clubs, alarm bells should automatically have sounded. "If you're aware of what's happening behind the scenes and you want Kieran McGeeney to stay," says one delegate, "the last thing you want to do is go to the clubs."
For McGeeney, the bottom line wasn't that he lacked the support of his chairman, John McMahon, but that when it came to the battle for his future, McMahon was neither a lucky nor an effective general. It didn't help that when he had previously sat down with county board officers, McGeeney had reportedly refused to sanction any changes to his set-up going forward. Had he offered to relinquish control of the under 21s, for instance, it might have swung him a few critical votes.
McMahon's inability to carry a united management committee to the vote was a further nail in McGeeney's managerial coffin, but that didn't have to be decisive. "He could have kicked for touch at that point," says one delegate who opposed McGeeney. "He goes to the clubs and says, 'Look, we'll go back and talk to Kieran and meet again in 10 days' time'. You have to wonder if he'd done his homework."
The question of certain absent votes was also raised. "You have to ask why these people weren't there," says the same delegate. "Would you not approach them and say, 'I'm in a tight corner here. I need your support'." No doubt, such political manoeuvrings might perplex McGeeney and dismay his players, but that is where the battle was to be won and lost.
Instead, the question was narrowed down to his record and, on that basis, he lost. A recurring point on Tuesday was Kildare's five-point defeat to Galway in the All-Ireland under 21 semi-final last April, a defeat marked by a familiar failing – 18 wides – and more alleged stasis on the sideline. It wasn't the defeat itself that raised the most strenuous objections, however.
Six days earlier, McGeeney had started four of his under 21s in the league semi-final defeat to Tyrone, a decision recalled by several on Tuesday. "That was a major topic of discussion at our club meeting," says one club delegate. "If you took a vote and asked people which they'd rather win, they'd say an All-Ireland under 21 title. That annoyed more people in Kildare than people realise. If he'd went on and won an All-Ireland, he'd still be here today. No question."
And yet, no sooner was McGeeney gone, than talk of resurrection began filling the Kildare air. With the players robustly behind him, and Club Kildare pledging its support, there was talk of positions shifting and a major U-turn. Bizarrely, the same administrative weakness that did for him could yet facilitate his return. In a way, it would be a fitting conclusion to what was becoming an increasingly surreal drama.