Monday 11 December 2017

'I could be nice. Kiss their ass. But it's not in my nature' -- Kieran McGeeney

Kieran McGeeney is happy to admit to his mistakes, he tells John O'Brien, but even happier trying to learn from them.

'Tough is how you train, not how you act'
-- Inscription on wall of Straight Blast Gym, Walkinstown, Dublin

Kieran McGeeney: 'I made two bad mistakes against Meath [in this year's Leinster semi-final] and I think it probably cost us the game. I put my hands up. I'm not afraid to admit it.'
Kieran McGeeney: 'I made two bad mistakes against Meath [in this year's Leinster semi-final] and I think it probably cost us the game. I put my hands up. I'm not afraid to admit it.'

IT'S just past eight when he swings his car away from the Red Cow Inn and makes his way to a white-washed building behind an industrial estate off the Long Mile Road. He grabs his gear bag, pushes through a black metal door and enters a world where, for the next 90 minutes or so, he will be pushed, mentally and physically, to the brink of exhaustion. Just the way he likes it.

He found this place in the dark period after his playing days ended in 2007 and he bristled at the void that nothing, not even management, could ever fill. At first he shopped around: kickboxing, MMA, white collar boxing -- but nothing quite fitted. "I was getting too old to take punches in the head," he smiles. Then he discovered the subtle art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Even tougher, he says, but without the repeated blows to the head. Perfect.

He likes the honesty of the set-up here, the respect the athletes have for one another. They are individuals, of course, but bond as tightly as any team he's been part of. He loves the mix of nationalities too. When he first arrived nobody knew him from Adam. His All-Ireland medal carried little weight here. He was out of his comfort zone. A raw novice again, a mountain of challenges rising up before him.

He offers a potted history of the sport and it's easy to see why it would enthral him. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a branch of Judo fought mainly on the ground, slower and more mentally draining -- a sort of combat chess -- and made popular through the exploits of the Gracie brothers from Brazil in the last century who used their skills and technique to overpower fighters of superior strength and build. So bigger didn't always mean better. That intrigued him.

From the beginning it struck him that there were benefits that could translate to other sports and he's always encouraged his own players to get involved. "I think it's good for Gaelic games," he says, "because you learn how to control your body. It's good for your hips and your flexibility. In terms of things like where you keep the ball, I think it can be helpful too. If I was a rugby coach, the only thing I'd tell them to do outside of rugby is this."

Straight Blast Gym is run by a man called John Kavanagh, regarded as the best martial arts instructor in Ireland and one of the best in Europe. This, naturally, is no accident. If you want to learn something, Kieran McGeeney's philosophy runs, then why not learn from the best? In the way Kavanagh interacts with his students, in his intrinsic knowledge of how the human body functions, McGeeney figures there is much to learn and absorb for his own ends.

He turns 41 this month and the urge to push himself to the limit has barely diminished. Two years ago, he received his Blue belt, still a relative novice, his dream of acquiring a Black belt still years away from fruition. Some athletes sign up for rival gyms where promotions come easier, but the notion fills him with disgust. Kavanagh won't upgrade him until he deems him ready and McGeeney would want it no other way.

So he asks typical Kieran McGeeney questions now. How good am I? How far can I go? Last year he competed in the national championships -- "happy enough, did okay," he says -- and the European championships in Portugal in January cast seductive glances at him from the calendar. It all depends, he says. If he can cadge enough time away from football and be sufficiently prepared to be able to do himself justice, he'll think about it.

The steely glint in his eye tells you how much he wants it, though. If a way can be found, you suspect, then McGeeney will find it.

* * * * *

Growing up in south Armagh, he was a sprinter before he ever became a footballer. No budding Usain Bolt, perhaps, but capable of running 100m in the region of 13 seconds and he likes pointing this out to people because, as a player, he recalls pundits often referring to his lack of pace and "it used to get to me". He has a rather dim view of pundits. But then you know that already.

Football claimed him when he was 14 and hasn't relinquished its grip since. Complex questions consume him. What makes great teams what they are? What drives talent and ambition? How to solve the conundrum of the nature versus nurture debate. Now and again he experiences little epiphanies through reading. There are books scattered across the back seat of his car as he speaks. Sometimes he might have four on the go at any one time.

In 2002, the year of Armagh's deliverance, he remembers his friend Hugh Campbell, now Kildare's sports psychologist, giving him a book about the Battle of Thermopylae, a stirring account of how the Spartans ran the Persian invaders from ancient Greece. The book transfixed him. In the violent depictions of the Spartan warriors, McGeeney located a philosophy he could usefully apply to football and, he likes to think, to life itself.

The Spartans had a motto. You came home with your shield or upon it. In battle, they carried their shield in their left-hand and their spear in the right-hand, obeying the warrior code to protect the man standing next to them and help ensure he survived. McGeeney contemplated the long road Armagh had travelled, the way they fought for each other as a team and could think of no more fitting metaphor.

"It's just when you hear something and it resonates with you," he says. "It makes sense to you. You understand it because at times you try too hard to do everything. And I was a bit like that in the early part of my career. Trying to do everybody's job and ending up doing neither their job nor my own.

"Then you realise that your job is actually to help them do their job. And their job was to help you do yours. Some people get the credit. I know I got a lot of credit out of that half-back line. But I'd Kieran Hughes and Andy McCann beside me and Aidan O'Rourke came in later. I'd the two McNultys behind me. Great players and fantastic ball winners. They deserved as much credit as me."

He's been five years trying to instill those lessons in Kildare now. Still hopeful. Still defiant. The 13-point loss to Cork in the All-Ireland quarter-final stung, yet it was the first time under McGeeney that Kildare had exited the championship by more than a single score and the narrow defeat to Donegal at the same stage a year previously -- skinned by a late point from Kevin Cassidy of all people -- left a lingering sense of what might have been.

"You'd still wonder where he pulled that one out of," McGeeney reflects ruefully. "He was, what, 55 yards out on his wrong foot. He's after missing one 90 seconds earlier and still he has the courage to take another pop at it. You have to admire that. To me that's the difference between a good forward and a great forward. The difference is one who doesn't mind missing."

So it goes. In 2005, Armagh were on an 18-match unbeaten run before they fell agonisingly short against Tyrone in the All-Ireland semi-final and, suddenly, they were a busted flush. He thinks too of Kildare in 2009, slamming 18 points from play against Dublin only to undermine themselves through the concession of two soft goals. Flying at the time, he remembers, a coveted Leinster title slipping agonisingly from their grasp.

He's heard people suggest Kildare, under McGeeney, have been punching above their weight. He doesn't think so. Not yet anyway. "I think we've gone from being towards the bottom of the pile to being towards the top of the pile. But we're not quite there yet. Like, we're up against one of the top teams in the country every year in Leinster. Dublin are always supremely confident in Leinster. Until they won the All-Ireland last year, I always thought they lost their confidence outside it.

"As well as brilliant footballers, Dublin compete at a different level in terms of what they can put into preparation. The rest of us are trying to match that. You look back over the last few years and see who's winning All-Irelands -- the Corks, the Tyrones, the Dublins. They all have big Supporters' Clubs and I don't think that's a coincidence."

The delicious irony here, of course, is that when it comes to finance, there has always been a perception that Kildare swim with the big fish, able to splash out to attract high-profile managers like McGeeney and Mick O'Dwyer. So when stories started to circulate of huge cash deficits and Croke Park bailouts, eyes turned accusingly towards the senior set-up, as if McGeeney was an unsupportable drain on the county's finances.

McGeeney coolly offers a different take. In his eyes, the facts couldn't get in the way of a good story. Perception simply became reality. "It'll never change," he sighs. "I'll still earn my millions, ride racehorses and be flown around in helicopters." At his prompting, the county board released figures detailing the spend on county teams and, to general surprise, the total outlay on the senior footballers this year was a palpably modest €270,000. "Funny I didn't see any headlines about that," he shrugs.

Soon he'll wave goodbye to an emotionally perplexing year. Despite the heavy defeat against Cork, he figures Kildare had one of their best years since his arrival, yet he sensed a spikier edge to much of the commentary, some of it driven by a personal agenda against him. There was, he sensed, in the stories of Kildare's finances and in the needlessly elongated saga of Seánie Johnston's transfer from Cavan, much raw material for mischief.

"A lot of the stuff, whether it was about the finances or about Seánie, definitely wasn't fair," he suggests. "The same happens in a lot of other counties, but you don't hear or read too much about it. Why is that? It's just part and parcel of having a high profile I suppose."

The Johnston affair broke in January and dragged on until mid-summer when the switch was finally ratified. McGeeney has much to offer on the subject, but only when the tape is switched off, and the wrath of Croke Park can't be visited upon him for his views. "I don't think it affected us on the field," he says. "It was a bit harder for me, but I've no problem with that. It's my job. It's up to me to shoulder these particular things."

He has a wariness of authority and reporters that makes Roy Keane seem soft and cuddly. Amusingly, he tells of an unnamed journalist whose work he once described as "average" and he reckons the scribe has had it in for him ever since. He's never minded being portrayed as a manic obsessive, but too often his world comes across as a dark and joyless place when he feels he enjoys himself more than most of those who criticise him. Whatever, it's not a game he was brought up to love and he figures he's not for turning now. "For some unknown reason, I tend to rub a lot of reporters up the wrong way," he says. "They like to take that frustration out in print. I can't control that part of it. I could be nice I suppose. Plámás them. Kiss their ass. But it's not in my nature."

Instead he casts a wary eye ahead to his sixth season in charge. This year McGeeney intends to tweak a few things and one of them is the decision to take control of the under-21 squad. He sees the under 21s, as he does the minors, as more a business of development than winning medals and suspects there are those within Kildare who won't take kindly to that policy. He'll plough on regardless.

As he will when the inevitable friction occurs with clubs over fixtures and the availability of county players. Again, he'll try to convince people to see the wider picture. An All-Ireland championship that is needlessly stretched out, a club equivalent where four games are played between October and March, five fallow months when the GAA cedes the sporting market almost entirely to its main rivals. "And people wonder why we can't keep our sport in the papers all year round," he scoffs. It isn't fundamentally a Kildare problem.

Last year McGeeney was drafted onto the Standing Rules Committee by Croke Park, but his initial experiences have left him cold, unconvinced there is a genuine will to grapple with issues, like the tackle and the accountability of referees, that might help improve the game. It's not that he knows the answers himself, mind, just that he has always burned with a desire to improve himself and learn from the mistakes he has made.

"The thing is," he says, "I know I've made a truckload of mistakes myself. I don't like it but it happens. I made two bad ones against Meath [in this year's Leinster semi-final] and I think it probably cost us the game. I put my hands up. I'm not afraid to admit it."

He sees rival managers like Jim McGuinness and James Horan making big strides with Donegal and Mayo and knows there is a lot to live up to now. Ultimately, McGeeney knows he will be judged as a manager on his ability to bring an All-Ireland title to Kildare, or even someplace else perhaps, but he's pleased at least that he's brought them some distance closer to the realisation of that aching dream.

People forget too easily, he thinks. Two Leinster titles in 56 years has been their scant haul and both, as it happens, under the guise of the greatest manager of all time. Don't forget too that it took Micko six years to win his first provincial title in Kildare. So McGeeney has a year still to plug that gap. When he arrived in 2008, he saw how far Kildare's fortunes had ebbed and knew it would take time to instill the belief that is innate to other counties.

It's a work in progress. As he is too. "Most people would feel I'm opinionated," he says, "and I probably am. I also know that I'm only beginning. Every Sunday is like a new book. The best thing about coaching or managing is you get to do it for real rather than just read about it. It is like opening a new book every week."

It's gone 10 now. His session done, he pushes back out through the metal door, points his car towards the Red Cow roundabout and swings right onto the M50 towards his home in west Dublin. A page-turner himself, keeping you gripped right until the very last full-stop.

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