Thursday 22 February 2018

History offers encouragement for Geraghty's second coming

Graham Geraghty is the latest big-name GAA player trying to turn back the clock, writes Damian Lawlor

F RANK McGUIGAN can't understand the fuss over Graham Geraghty's return to Croke Park today.

"Firstly, why would people want to put him down before they've seen him play?" he asks. "Okay, he's 38 but has anyone actually watched him in club football lately? I doubt it. Let the chap make an appearance then judge him. It just sickens me how people criticise him before he kicks a ball."

If Geraghty's dramatic and divisive comeback has caused ripples in Meath, McGuigan's return to Tyrone in the late '70s after six years in the US met with no such resistance.

In 1972, McGuigan won an Ulster minor title and then togged out with the Tyrone seniors. At 19, he was made captain of the Tyrone team, but the Ardboe man spent most of the next decade in America, only returning occasionally. He did come home for the 1984 championship, and his feat in scoring 11 points from play in the Ulster final against Armagh has entered GAA legend. Even someone as self-assured as Geragthy couldn't hope for such a glorious return today.

"Like Graham, I had probably given up hope of playing for my county but I had no hesitation coming back," McGuigan says. "I was kicking football in Gaelic Park and kept fit through racquetball and squash. Worked on the buildings too. I was always going to be grand."

He shoots a quizzical look when asked if he was worried the pace of the game had gone beyond him. "I was only 30. I just went out and did what I always did. There was no negativity. I didn't think too much about the implications because I wasn't a deep thinker about football. Sure, there was a new generation in the dressing room but it was a very united team, no problems.

"If Banty McEnaney is bringing Graham Geraghty back there's obviously something left in his tank too, so why don't people give him a chance, wait until they see what shape he's in before they flake him."

Seamus Darby, however, isn't so sure. "Graham's a fair man to be even considered at his age. But my point is that Meath's best players are their forwards -- it's in defence they need help. If I was a young forward trying to break in, imagine how I'd feel if Graham got on before me. It's a risky call by the manager."

Before he landed the most celebrated goal in GAA history, Darby was six years without championship football when Offaly manager Eugene McGee asked him to return. So he knows what weight Geraghty carries today.

"I was 13 stone at the time, playing great club football and still harbouring hopes of a recall. When it happened we went running on the hills in Rhode and I thought I'd go into cardiac arrest. But within a month I was down to 12 stone and flying it. Graham won't have that worry, at least."

Wexford's All-Ireland winning captain Martin Storey also knows what it's like to come back into the pressure cauldron of inter-county fare. He retired at 36 but was recalled a year later to cause havoc against Tipperary in the 2001 All-Ireland semi-final and reckons Geraghty can wreak similar chaos against Kildare.

It only took a phone call from manager Tony Dempsey to get Storey back and fitness wasn't an issue. Storey had 15 years of training under his belt. His regime included runs around The Ballagh and a diet of three bowls of cornflakes a day in the lead-up to a championship game. He started on the bench for that semi-final but with Tipp seven points up and his side crumbling, he was introduced to a colossal roar.

"The first thing I did was make a run at Cummins (Brendan)," he says. "I just wanted to unhinge him; I was only there to upset their full-back line and play some small part in saving that game for Wexford. That'll be Graham today."

Within 17 minutes of Storey's arrival, the teams were level. As the Tipp backs tried to keep tabs on the veteran, Larry O'Gorman and Mitch Jordan revelled in the increased space. The former skipper actually missed the chance to win it by snapping at a point in the closing seconds. It's the only regret he holds.

"If I was fully sharp it would have been over but I didn't change that game through my hurling -- other lads got space instead.

"So why would Graham fear coming back? He was the best forward around for 10 years and he's still in incredible shape. Age won't matter. He probably retired too early in the first place. He has that physique you'd die for, he can shoot off left or right and in the international rules he was one of the first people to stand up and be counted when it came to show time. None of that will have been lost."

But what about failure and what it will mean for Seamus McEnaney?

"Geraghty has two All-Ireland medals, four Leinsters and two All-Stars in his arse pocket -- why would he bother coming back at 38? Because he still feels he's as good as anything that's there and he wants to play a small part in helping his county to win a Leinster title. What's the worst that can happen? A real good inter-county forward would only return if he knew he had something to contribute."

The history of comebacks in the game indicates many successful U-turns -- even if there have also been some notable misjudgements. Sadly, Ja Fallon's case is one of those. With two All-Irelands, two All Stars and five Connacht medals, his status was assured after leaving inter-county football in 2003. A year later, he was appointed team selector by manager Peter Ford but by 2006 he was back playing again. However, he lasted less than 20 minutes in Galway's fifth-round qualifier defeat and was withdrawn after suffering a broken collarbone.

During his tenure as Dublin manager, Mickey Whelan was heavily criticised for bringing Joe McNally back for the 1996-'97 season, five years after his last outing for the county. One of the most recognisable faces of his era, McNally was still only 31 at the time. Hill 16 revered him because of his robust physique and exceptional ability and intelligence, and he repaid their faith when scoring a crucial goal against Louth in the 1997 Leinster semi-final at Páirc Tailteann. Ultimately, though, the move didn't work and Whelan's reign as manager was later scrutinised by county board delegates who used the return of McNally as a stick to beat the boss with.

DJ Carey, however, enjoyed more success in his 'second' career with Kilkenny than first time around. In the early 1990s, he became a superstar but struggled to cope with the hype that surrounded his career and private life. He retired in 1998 at 27 with two All-Ireland medals.

The announcement commanded the attention of the national media for almost two months and after receiving around 25,000 letters from all over the world, he reversed his decision just six weeks later. At the time, DJ's brother, Jack, captured the mood perfectly. "You can put 2-6 back on every scoreboard," he said.

DJ went onto enjoy another eight seasons with Kilkenny and won another three Celtic Crosses and six Leinster titles. He remains at the pinnacle of the game's history alongside Christy Ring and Henry Shefflin.

Likewise, Cork's Brian Corcoran fell out of love with hurling when he was taken out of games by opposing teams. He walked in 2001 but three years later, with rejuvenation complete, was reinvented as a full-forward and won All-Ireland medals that year and the season after.

Mike McCarthy's is a similar tale. At just 28, the Kerry footballer folded his deck after winning a third All-Ireland medal in 2006. He rejected calls from Pat O'Shea, Dr Dave Geaney and Jack O'Connor to come back to the fold but when Kerry succumbed to Cork in a replayed

Munster championship game in 2009, the pressure increased. McCarthy went to Mass in Castleisland the next day where two of the Healy-Rae clan broke away from their canvassing to tap him up. Later that evening, he went into McDonald's in Tralee where one staff member plagued him again. There was nowhere left to hide.

McCarthy was subsequently deployed at centre-back and played a key role in Kerry's revival, ending the season with a fourth All-Ireland medal. He was their stand-out player in the latter stages of the championship.

McCarthy is now out to pasture once more at just 32 and won't return again but another of his team-mates, 31-year-old Eoin Brosnan, has emerged from his own retreat to man that troublesome centre-back berth. Brosnan hadn't played for Kerry since 2009 but after inspiring Dr Crokes lately he played his second game of the championship against Limerick last night.

No retirement will ever be as short-lived as DJ's, and similar announcements need to be taken with a grain of salt. Long-serving Donegal dynamo Kevin Cassidy, for instance, quit inter-county football last year after a disappointing season, and the arrival of twins in his family, but he was back for their league promotion four months later.

Amid that backdrop, Geraghty needn't feel too strange about coming back to his natural environment today. Indeed, if Meath are down a few points with 20 minutes to go and he gets the nod, he might even fancy his chances.

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