On the eve of his sixth championship
adventure with Kildare manager Kieran
McGeeney finds himself at a strange crossroards
Where at first he was the one being wooed, courted by a county that was near the basement, now it may well be the case that Kieran McGeeney needs Kildare as much as Kildare needs McGeeney. For a few seasons now he has been under pressure to deliver silverware. Whether it is pundits or supporters, the chorus of dissent has grown, particularly in the last two years.
To be fair he has delivered as much as anyone could have expected. Trophies are hard-won things, especially by Kildare. Say what you like about O’Byrne Cups and National Leagues, McGeeney has worked hard to develop the winning habit. Of all the changes he has brought about since assuming control of the Kildare senior footballers in 2007, the most significant alteration has been the way in which he has radicalised the mentality of his adopted county.
After yet another depressing championship campaign in ’07, any kind of win would have lifted the gloom surrounding Kildare football the following year. Five years later Kildare fans were calling for the manager’s head when he failed to progress beyond the All-Ireland quarter-finals. McGeeney only has himself to blame for raising expectations to the point where it is almost impossible for him to satisfy them but supporters should also be grateful to the Armagh man for enabling them to dream big again.
Maybe that is what attracted McGeeney to come to Kildare. A man with big ambition, he scaled the Everest of Gaelic football on what was a landmark expedition by his native county but what kind of expectations must he have had when he first played with Armagh in 1993? Kildare were nearer an All-Ireland at that point and by the time McGeeney won his first Ulster title, Kildare had come within touching distance of Sam. McGeeney has often said that it took him ten years to win anything with Armagh whenever the lack of silverware during his time in Kildare is mentioned. In other words he is a man who knows how hard it is to win. As grimly determined as he was during his career, he must have been a dreamer at heart. How else to explain his fanatical devotion to a game that borught him nothing but heartache for the early part of his career?
In Kildare, he found like-minded people – dreamers with big ambitions who had suffered because of that sunny disposition. Kildare fans and footballers have known more heartbreak than they should because they have never run out of hope.
When McGeeney touched down here in 2007, that supply of hope had almost run out. Fnas had watched the county freefall from the dizzy heights of Leinster finals to first round exits. From 2006 to 2008, Kildare didn’t win a game in their provincial championship. Micko’s team had broken up and too many new faces looked lost in the transition. John Doyle became a byword for Kildare, as if the county didn’t possess another footballer worthy of recognition beyond its borders.
In 1990, Kildare became the great football project almost overnight. Mick O’Dwyer took over a county team but it was like he had taken charge of the circus. There was a feverish atmosphere around Kildare that culminated in Croke Park eight years later. Ultimately O’Dwyer had to pack up the roadshow before he could conjure his greatest act and in the aftermath there was uncertainty.
About the time Kieran McGeeney came to Kildare, the county had all but admitted it was lost. It wasn’t quite 1989 all over again but the parallels were obvious. Another disastrous run of results had precipitated the push for a big-name manager but the euphoria was not quite the same. McGeeney arrived wearing a hardened expression for the 2007 county final and his public expression didn’t change before he slipped away quietly from St Conleth’s Park after Moorefield were crowned champions. With Paul Grimley by his side, it was like Kildare had been taken over by a radical, new wave leader.
In 1990 the crowds poured into the county final to watch Naas win a championship but just as many people were there to see O’Dwyer. Afterwards the crowd followed him to the Keadeen Hotel in Newbridge where a press conference was held. A football God had come to Newbridge and the congregation reacted accordingly. From day one, Kildare fans loved Mick O’Dwyer and no matter what he did after that, they were always going to love him simply because he was willing to come here.
You could not say that Kildare fans hated Kieran McGeeney when he emerged as Kildare manager in 2007 but there was a coolness towards him that suggested supporters would struggle to embrace him. To some die-hards, the Armagh way of playing football, however successful, was alien to the game they loved. Whereas they bended the knee to O’Dwyer, they insisted that the Armagh-style could not be imposed upon Kildare.
Of course McGeeney, being a subborn-natured individual, wasn’t worried what others thought. He faltly told the players what the outside world thought of them – a soft touch, just like the Kildare team of the pre-Mick days. For someone like John Doyle, that stung. Even if you had to respect McGeeney’s acheievements, it must have been hard to stomach such fortright views the first time you met him.
It set the tone for what was to come. Kildare stuttered through Division 1 of the league, got relegated and then got dumped out of the championship by Wicklow – Mick O’Dwyer’s new team. Before that game, McGeeney walked across the pitch and knew in his heart that his new team wouldn’t win. It was simple: Kildare weren’t scoring enough. They lost 13-9 and it looked like Kieran McGeeney’s reign might be a short-lived affair. Who would have guessed right then that he would be still in charge six years later, still struggling to win over the supporters?
Did McGeeney imagine he would still be here in 2013? Many might have thought the Kildare job would be just a stepping stone to one day managing Armagh but it hasn’t turned out quite like that. Armagh have fallen below Kildare in the pecking order now and even though McGeeney looks unlikely to deliver championship silverware so long as Dublin stand in the way, he may well have come to the realisation that, right now at least, Kildare is the best job out there.
Where else could McGeeney manage? He is, for all intents and purposes, a full-time Gaelic football manager who also took charge of the county’s under-21 side this year. He has been frustrated by the financial situation in Kildare – he didn’t get to bring his squad away from a training camp this year for example – and he has been in the dock with a lot of Lilywhites ever since the under-21s All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Galway. At times it seems he can’t win in this county but then there are few counties where he would even have a chance of winning.
With a fanatical support base and a big crop of talented under-21s, Kildare is a football county on the rise again. Established in Division 1 of the league and consistently among the top eight in the country, McGeeney has taken this county a long way in his time. But the county has also taken him a long way. Inter-county football management jobs are thin on the ground and of those counties who rank above Kildare, no one is likely to come knocking at McGeeney’s door. The alternatives, bar Armagh, would be a step sideways at the very least for a man who desires nothing less than the ultimate prize.
The strange thing is that as Kildare have improved under McGeeney, McGeeney has become more indispensable to the county. If Kildare underperform this season and the county board want to consider a new manager, where does McGeeney go? Kildare are an attractive county for prospective managers but how attractive is McGeeney to other counties? And how attracted is McGeeney to other counties?
As he gets ready for championship 2013, Kieran McGeeney has as much riding on the outcome of it as the players. Make no mistake, managing Kildare is a job he wants to hold onto and for the things that he desires, we know he is prepared to go to incredible lengths. Don’t be surprised how far he pushes Kildare in 2013, he could well surprise everyone before the year is out.