Thursday 23 May 2019

Peter Canavan: After 30 years, football is still first and last for Kieran McGeeney

There's a lighter side to the Armagh manager - but his demands for excellence will never drop

Kieran McGeeney remains something of a mystery to those outside his inner circle. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Kieran McGeeney remains something of a mystery to those outside his inner circle. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Peter Canavan

Kieran McGeeney and I go back a long way. All the way back to the start in fact and an Ulster minor championship game in Omagh in 1989.

I don't remember much about the game other than I was centre-forward and he was centre-back. We were reigning Ulster champions going into that match and we thought we were in good shape. 'Geezer' and his friends put an end to our reign that afternoon.

Peter Canavan with McGeeney as captains of Tyrone v Armagh in the Ulster SFC of 2002. Picture credit: Pat Murphy / Sportsfile
Peter Canavan with McGeeney as captains of Tyrone v Armagh in the Ulster SFC of 2002. Picture credit: Pat Murphy / Sportsfile

We didn't know it then but we would bounce along the same road for much of our careers. We played against each other in the Sigerson Cup (he was with Queen's and I was with St Mary's) and then again at senior inter-county level. We soldiered together for Ulster in the Railway Cup, travelled on All-Star trips and even captained our counties to breakthrough All-Ireland titles within a year of each other, around a time when our teams struck up a ferocious rivalry.

Over the years, we got used to the sight of each other. 'Geezer' relished a battle and loved nothing more than tackling hard. Over the course of all our games I like to believe I curbed his fondness for making big hits. He was never fond of fellas who knew how to win frees.

Now I can't say we're best friends. We wouldn't be in regular contact or anything like that but I have gotten to know him in the near 30 years since we first clashed in Healy Park and I do know a different side to the one he presents to the media or on the sideline.

Don't get me wrong, he takes his football very seriously. His standards are exacting. I'd go so far as to say he's the type of fella who stays up at night thinking about the game and how they can win. But I think he likes the image portrayed of him as a man not to be messed with. A stoic, serious individual.


But there's a different side to him too. Kieran's father Pat has won the Bard of Armagh title in the past. And there's that side to Kieran too. He too is capable of telling a good yarn and enjoys the banter as much as any man. But I think that's only for people who have earned his trust and it can only happen at a time when it can't affect football.

Football is first and last for him.

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That's why I think that this summer there was no dressing room as desolate as Armagh's after their defeat to Fermanagh in the Ulster Championship.

They had beaten them in the league final and drawn with them in the league proper but on that day - the most important day - they were beaten in every sense. Physically, Fermanagh bested them. Tactically, they were outfoxed. Fermanagh played more football than them too. They must have felt like Fermanagh had been setting up for that fall since the draw was made. I've been on that end of things and it's sickening.

It was year four of McGeeney's term and they had yet to win a single game in Ulster. In some ways, it felt like they were running to standstill. They had reached the All-Ireland quarter-final last year but since then lost two of their most important players in Jamie Clarke and Stefan Campbell, along with a few more.

They didn't seem to have much buy-in from the Crossmaglen lads either (no one from the club started against the Erne men.) It seemed like every time they looked set to make a bit of progress, they were rocked back on their heels.

I know there's a difference of opinion in the county over his reign. There are those in Armagh who are pragmatic and aware that the talent at his disposal is nowhere near the quality that was there when McGeeney himself was playing. 

Even some of the best players from Armagh aren't in that dressing room. I know he'd demand total dedication to the cause but you'd get the best of everything from him in return. Kieran is training those lads like they are Dublin or Kerry. Is that not what you want as a player?

So if you look at it from that perspective, where they can't get their best men to commit, it's no surprise they have failed compete in Ulster. Not only have they not taken out a Tyrone or Donegal they haven't beaten anyone like Down or a Fermanagh. That's reflective of where they are at - they just don't have the quality of player they used to. Using that as a starting point, there's only so much a manager can do.

On the other hand there are others asking how come they can do well in the back door and be, as they are now, with in a game of the last eight once more but can't do it in Ulster? It's a difficult one to figure out. And I'd say on numerous occasions over the last few years it would have been easier for McGeeney to say, 'The stuff is not there, we're not going well' and he could have throw in the towel. But that's not his way.

After the Fermanagh game he took it on the chin, absorbed the blame himself and set about rebuilding through the qualifiers.

His record in the back door is remarkable (25 wins from 29 outings) and Armagh's route this time was far from straightforward.

Westmeath was a 50-50 game in my eyes. I think Sligo would have fancied themselves under new management at home and against Clare they dug it out with an extraordinary surge in the final few minutes, replicating the never-say-die attitude of their manager.

And now they stand just 70 minutes from the 'Super 8s', something that must have seemed so far away when they sat in the dressing room in Brewster Park after the loss to Fermanagh.

Roscommon will be, by some way, the best team they have faced this year. The question mark hanging over them is how they handled the three-week break since the Connacht final defeat to Galway because the pressure is on them now to perform.

I think they the have more stylish players but sometimes with Roscommon blow either hot or cold. There is no in between and I think the way Kevin McStay likes to set up will suit Armagh's style.

So it's a free shot for the Orchard men. They can go a play with no pressure. Roscommon should have that bit more about them, but if they leave the door open even a little bit, there's none better than a Kieran McGeeney side to force their way through.

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