Wednesday 17 January 2018

'People calling this a holiday have no idea how much it means to players'

Cliona Foley

Cliona Foley

STEPHEN Cluxton has already been described as the first 'non-speaking captain' of an Irish sports team, but Ciaran McKeever reckons the reclusive Dublin star will be far from silent in Australia over the next week.

"Stephen will do a fair bit of talking, I wouldn't worry about him at all on that score," said the Armagh defender from his hotel room in downtown Melbourne.

Cluxton will doubtlessly dispense plenty of advice to his players but will not speak to the media, so vice-captain McKeever will have to pick up the slack and act as the players' spokesman -- something that, remarkably, didn't occur to the Cullyhanna man until just before he had to attend yesterday's press conference.

"Anthony (Tohill) never said anything to me about that at all," said McKeever as he recalled how surprised he was when the Ireland manager called him aside at training in DCU and offered him the role of second-in-command.

"I was just honoured to be asked," he added. "I said 'yes' straight away and when he told me Stephen would be captain I was even happier."

It was a telling choice.

Few outside his native county will ever have heard McKeever speak publicly before because he's part of a transitional Armagh team that haven't yet had the success or high profile of many of their predecessors.

The St Patrick's man won an All-Ireland U-21 medal in 2004 and has four Ulster senior medals, but the last few years have yielded little nationally -- most of the publicity surrounding Armagh has been about their managerial changes.

Yet McKeever has evolved to fill the No 6 shirt of a totemic local GAA figure -- Kieran McGeeney -- with impressive doggedness.

At 28 years of age, he's now well inured to the physical and verbal hits and, having played International Rules in 2008 and 2010, knows there are plenty queuing up to have a pop at the latest series.

Australia's decision to pick such an inexperienced team has been taken to signify the AFL's lack of interest and one Irish paper reported last weekend that only 10,000 tickets had been pre-sold for today's clash.

"We haven't heard that and, from what I've seen already, there's plenty of interest here," McKeever insisted.

"Any time we walk down the street we have Australians stopping us, asking about the game and telling us they'll be there. There mightn't be a buzz about it at home, but there seems to be one here anyway."

The straight-talking Armagh defender knows all the old chestnuts that its critics raise annually about this series -- primarily that it's become a meaningless end-of-season jolly for the suits and players.

"I know, even at home fellas were saying 'it's well for you now, off to Australia for a few weeks holidays', but they have no idea how hard we've worked and what it means to players," he said.

Since Monday the Irish players have trained twice a day, on top of meetings. What, no time then for bungee-jumping or surfing?

"There's no time for socialising of any kind!" McKeever replied. "The most socialising we do is walk from the hotel to the shop."

Flying to Australia was not exactly a dream for him, either. He is not a happy flier and revealed that he needed two sleeping tablets to endure the long haul.

McKeever is self-employed as a fitness trainer -- a business he has worked hard to build up after being forced to change careers due to the recession.

"I was working on the buildings but that completely dried up so I went to Queen's (university), did a personal training course and set up two and a half years ago," he said. "I do one-to-ones as well as classes and boot camps and I've also started a running club in Cullyhanna. I always enjoyed training hard."

International duty has only added to his busy schedule, but McKeever is not complaining.

"Once Armagh were knocked out of the championship we got a call the next week. You were given a personal (fitness) programme that you had to do three to four times a week and were tested on regularly," he said.

"There were also a series of trials and then there was six weeks of training. Everyone who's here has put in three hard months of training, so it's far from a holiday in my eyes. It's a huge honour to be picked and play for your country.

"When it looked like some of the players weren't going to make it because of club games, we were texting them the whole time and keeping in touch.

"There's a good bond between all the lads and it's good to get to know fellas from other counties -- there's nowhere else you get that opportunity."


But what about inter-county rivalries? Surely there's a few fellas there that you'd rather clout than pass to?

"No, but there might have been a few there who originally thought that about me!" McKeever chuckled.

After being on the winning team in 2008 and the losing team last year, McKeever has seen first-hand how the touring side benefits from the natural bonding that occurs.

For this one he is sharing a room, not with county team-mate Stevie McDonnell, but Laois man Colm Begley.

Begley is an ex-Aussie Rules player and the number of current AFL players (six) on this year's Irish squad has also prompted the criticism that it's hardly rewarding 'home players' if so many Australia-based players get picked.

"Listen, they're Irish lads too, who just happen to be playing in Australia," McKeever insisted. "They have as much right as anyone else to play for their country and, on top of that, they're playing with the Australians all year so they can tell us all about them.

"Every year there's people who give out about the series, but they all have their own agendas. All I know is that we are really proud to play for our country and we will be doing everything we can, in training and in the games, to win the Cormac McAnallen Cup back."

Irish Independent

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