Sunday 17 February 2019

Martin Breheny: 'McGeeney's work in the Orchard needs to yield a lot more apples'

Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney. Photo: Sportsfile
Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney. Photo: Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

If Armagh needed any reminding of the county's poor record in the Dr McKenna Cup, they will find it with their manager, who was only 23 years old the last time the title dropped in the Orchard.

That was back in 1994 at a time when Kieran McGeeney was still developing a career that made him one of the greatest warriors in Armagh history.

Antrim are the only other county not to have won the McKenna Cup since then and while the absence of success in a provincial tournament isn't exactly a dark stain on Armagh's canvas, they would dearly like to end the barren run by beating Tyrone in the final in the Athletic Grounds tonight.

It would be the perfect lead-in to the main action, which starts next weekend, for while the rivalry between the counties isn't nearly as intense as in the 2000-2006 war period, it still has a sharp edge.

Back then, the championship encounters were a source of fascination all over the country, while engaging the two counties to such a degree that a crowd of 19,631 attended the 2006 McKenna Cup semi-final in Casement Park.

It was an extraordinary turnout for a pre-season game, but then it came after the superb three-match saga between them in the 2005 championship which delivered one win each and a draw. Tyrone won the most crucial contest - the All-Ireland semi-final replay - before going on to beat Kerry in the final.

The power balance has shifted dramatically over the last decade, with Tyrone continuing to challenge for the big pots while Armagh have been ushered away from the top table.

Since dropping out of Division 1 in 2012, they have alternated between Divisions 2 and 3, while also enduring a terrible sequence in the Ulster Championship.

It has left their supporters with a deep sense of nostalgia for the glory days under Joe Kernan when Armagh enjoyed the best run in their history.

McGeeney was a major figure too as captain and centre-back, a dual role he fulfilled so effectively that he will always be a revered figure in the county.

Unquestionably, that status has helped him in his managerial role over the last few seasons when patience among the Armagh public has left him the envy of many other bosses around the country, who have come under far more pressure in a shorter timescale.

Having worked under Paul Grimley in 2014, he took over at the end of a season where Armagh had built on steady progress through the qualifiers before losing to Donegal by a point in the All-Ireland quarter-final.

It was a performance which looked all the more impressive when Donegal demolished Dublin in the semi-final. After six seasons (2008-'13) as Kildare manager and one year plugging back into the Armagh scene alongside Grimley, McGeeney's return home looked perfectly timed.

Such was the belief in him that he was handed a five-year term, with the county board expressing confidence that 'under his leadership, this promising team can achieve the success yearned for by the county and its loyal supporters.'

Progress

It hasn't happened. Divisions 2 and 3 have continued to house them in the league and, while not exactly what the supporters expect, it wouldn't be a major issue if progress had been made in the Ulster Championship.

That hasn't happened either. Indeed, it has been a complete wasteland, with Armagh losing four successive first round games in 2015-'16-'17-'18. It's their worst run since 1995-'98, years when McGeeney experienced repeated disappointment as a player.

There was no second chance back then, unlike nowadays when teams re-launch for the All-Ireland race. Armagh made good progress through the 'back door' in 2017, beating Fermanagh, Westmeath, Tipperary and Kildare to reach the All-Ireland quarter-final.

Harsh reality awaited in the form of Tyrone, who beat them by 18 points, a setback McGeeney partially attributed to mindset.

"There's not a big difference between county players in different counties, but there is a big difference in how they think. Having success behind you is part of that, or an environment or a culture where people constantly look for perfection to push on.

"It's harder in those counties that don't get that because everybody says, 'You're wasting your time, come back here and work with the club'. There's a constant driving force in those other counties. Still, I'd rather be taking defeats like that, learning from them and pushing on than be sitting on the sidelines looking on at it," he said.

All of which sounded logical enough, but the fact remains that Armagh's last three defeats (Fermanagh, Down, Cavan) in the Ulster Championship were against opposition who weren't exactly brimming over with confidence built on recent success. The five-point defeat by Fermanagh last May was especially dismal. Armagh scored only seven points (two from play), the lowest return by any team in the 68-game championship. They did better in the qualifiers, beating Westmeath, Sligo and Clare before losing to Roscommon in Round 4.

Admittedly, several players were absent for various reasons last year, but the fact remains that after four years in charge, McGeeney has yet to preside over a single provincial win.

Only Antrim, Wexford, Limerick, Waterford and London have similarly bad records in that period. And with respect to all, Armagh's ambitions are higher.

Kildare, under McGeeney, never really blossomed in the provincial championship either, reaching only one Leinster final in six seasons a being eliminated in the first round on two occasions.

It was different in the qualifiers, which they used to negotiate a path to the All-Ireland quarter-final in five successive seasons. The contrast between the Lilywhites in Leinster and the qualifiers divided opinion in the county about McGeeney to such a degree that it came down to a vote on whether he should be retained for 2014.

He lost the county board ballot 29-28, a decision that drew an angry response from some of the players.

Emmet Bolton described it as "a disgraceful way to treat a man who put so much heart and effort into Kildare football".

Nobody disputed McGeeney's commitment but, after six years, it was easy to understand why the call for change arose since only the most successful managers survive that long without challenge.

McGeeney is heading into his fifth year at the Armagh helm this year and while he has escaped major criticism so far, patience is limited in every county.

Tonight's clash with Tyrone won't define their season, but their supporters will be looking for signs that there's something different about them this time.

That will continue into the Allianz League, where Armagh are fourth favourites behind Donegal, Kildare and Cork for promotion from Division 2.

Ultimately, though, the first real season-defining test will come on May 19, when Armagh play Down in the Ulster quarter-final in Newry. Down have dropped into Division 3, so it's not as if their confidence tanks are overflowing.

If Armagh lose, the McGeeney project could well be at an end unless they deliver something special in the qualifiers.

Irish Independent

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