Kieran McGeeney’s record of unbroken service to the inter-county game rolls on. From Armagh player to Kildare manager, McGeeney is now back on home ground doing the job many felt he was destined for long before he vacated his county’s number six jersey.
And ahead of this weekend’s vital clash with his old side in the Athletic Grounds, he is facing some familiar faces on the sideline.
Andriú Mac Lochlainn played under McGeeney and credits the Armagh man with turning Kildare into one of the most consistent forces around.
“When you look back at it we would have felt like anyone who trained thinking, ‘oh, this year could be our year’,” he says.
“But in hindsight when you started working with Kieran and we were competitive you look back at some of those periods and think we weren’t really at the races there. We got to a Leinster final in ’03 against Laois but we weren’t competitive thereafter either in terms of consistency or performance wise. We were a team who could play lovely football but we left games behind us and let teams turn us over.
“So I like to think we put the pride back in the jersey in terms of competitiveness, that we weren’t a team to be messed with and we were a team who could play football when they wanted to. And that was a nod back to Micko’s group with Glenn (Ryan) and (Anthony) Rainbow and that crew, they put the pride back in the jersey and they weren’t a team to be messed with. We had lost that for a long time.”
The Kildare of the McGeeney era had their ups and downs. They reached the All-Ireland quarter-final on five occasions along with one semi final in 2010. They had plenty of near misses along the way. Benny Coulter’s goal in that 2010 last-four game was controversial.
There were disappointing defeats in Leinster to the likes of Wicklow while the Seánie Johnston saga didn’t do anyone any favours. They also went to the wire with Dublin on a couple of occasions and saw Kevin Cassidy’s wonder point chin them in 2011 but, save for a Division 2 final win, silverware eluded them.
And while the clubs eventually voted him out in controversial fashion, Mac Lochlainn believes the best thing he left in Kildare was a legacy where players were expected to take responsibility. As they progressed, senior members would often lead video sessions.
They also did their own fundraising which was used to kit out their own gym in a unit in the K Club, that had gone unused since the venue hosted the Ryder Cup, and fund their training holidays.
“He made a good impression off the bat,” remembers Mac Lochlainn.
“He had open trials across the county which I always think is a good thing. It was a different approach, training was very competitive, lots of football-based stuff, match scenarios, teams were picked on form with an open-ended panel. So if you aren’t playing well you could be moved off.
“Sometimes across all codes you have panel players and maybe they are not really adding anything. Others who are not making the team can be hugely influential on the group and there are others who are just hanging on and he would have changed that bit of culture too.
“And we had a very competitive second team and that was his doing. We didn’t have a junior team, we had a second team, and I know that’s only really framing but that framing is very important – they trained on the same nights as us, sometimes right beside us and if we needed numbers someone got pulled across who was playing well and into a live game.”
Mac Lochlainn looks back at some matches and wonders what might have been had certain calls gone their way, not least the Coulter goal or had Tomás O’Connor’s goal against Donegal been allowed to stand or had the free in 2011 not been given against him against Dublin.
“I’m a big believer that even in business there’s always room for more. So there’s things, maybe personally, I would have done slightly different with hindsight. And I don’t know but I imagine with the type of person Kieran is he might have done things slightly different and as a collective that might have added up to put you in a stronger place.
“But at the same time I don’t think there was much more we could have done. And with all sport, when you’re down to the last few teams, there is an element of luck required when the bounce of a ball is all that separates a team.
“It’s probably one of the things that I would be proud of. You try and hand back the jersey in a better place and we got to the stage where teams couldn’t outrun us, they couldn’t outmuscle us, teams couldn’t out-football us, we could play any way you wanted to play. And if a team got the better of you on the day then that’s football, it happens. But it was never because of a lack of willingness or that we were a soft touch.”
Mac Lochlainn, who is a director with the Kildare and Galway-based Murray & Spelman Financial Services, turns 39 later this year. He is still active with Ellistown and believes Ryan and his management team was exactly what the current panel needed.
“Like Kieran, people know what type of steel was in that group of management as players and they might pick players with similar characteristics. You expect people in a county panel to have a certain level of football ability but it is (what is) in the head and thereafter that separates teams.
“I think it’s a plus the way we are playing at the minute. We are trying to win games, rather than trying not to lose, there’s a bit more penetration and not keeping the ball for the sake of keeping it and going left to right and right to left which drains the life out of me.
“They are trying to get the ball forward and there’s tenaciousness in the backs, trying to get a hand in, Shea Ryan kicking a ball off the goal line there (against Dublin) so there’s great effort and desire and all those attributes are there and that is the most pleasing thing for me.
“Guys are wearing their hearts on their sleeves which is all you can really ask.”