PADDY HEANEY: Some men can only play second fiddle for so long

In response to the AFL sending an aboriginal International Rules squad to Ireland, the GAA has been presented with a wonderful opportunity to respond in kind.

Roy Keane and Kieran McGeeney — two driven men, whose irrepressible drive propelled them top of their chosen sport.

They were the ‘alpha footballers’ of their generation. By sheer force of will, they dragged themselves to the top of the sporting pyramid.

Natural leaders on the field, it was widely believed that Keane and McGeeney would be able to transfer those qualities into management.

But, it hasn’t worked out like that. More recently, the former No.1 footballers have had to settle for No.2 positions in management.

Ah George, where did it all go wrong? To answer that question, we need to go back to the beginning.

Keane and McGeeney’s careers have largely followed parallel lines. Both born in 1971, Keane on August 10, McGeeney on October 18.

As boys, neither of them were outstanding natural talents. Unlike a few of his team-mates at Rockmount, Keane was never invited for a trial in England. Undeterred, he wrote to clubs begging for a chance to show them what he could do. He was rejected by every one of them.

Initially, McGeeney excelled at athletics, the sprint and long jump. He has stated on several occasions that his brother, Patrick was a much better footballer than him. However, Patrick, like every other Gaelic footballer in Ireland, didn’t share his brother’s manic obsession.

Despite the fact that neither player was adorned with the natural gifts of Seamus Moynihan or Lionel Messi, it didn’t stop them from realising their dreams.

In 2000, Keane’s fellow soccer professionals voted him as the Player of the Year. Two seasons later, McGeeney was the GAA’s Footballer of the Year.

Although widely admired for their playing ability, both men were venerated for their style of leadership. They set the tone at training. They created the atmosphere in the changing room. Everything had to be done at full tilt. Anything less was unacceptable.

Because they walked the walk, and because they were the first ones over the trench, team-mates followed them.

Not surprisingly, when their powers started to fade on the pitch, both raged against the dying of the light. In both cases, this led to strained relationships with their respective managers, Keane with Ferguson, and McGeeney with Joe Kernan.

The similarities with the pair didn’t end when they hung up the boots. Both went straight into management, Keane with Sunderland 2006/2007, McGeeney with Kildare in 2007.

Neither was an outright failure. Keane secured promotion for Sunderland in his first season. With the exception of this season, Kildare reached the All-Ireland quarter-finals in every year of McGeeney’s tenure.

But neither was an outright success. Ipswich gave Keane his P45 in January 2011. Three months ago, by a count of 29 to 28, the Kildare board voted in favour of severing their links with McGeeney.

It wasn’t a huge surprise that neither flourished. After all, they hadn’t served any type of apprenticeship. They jumped in at the deep end.

Nevertheless, there were still grounds to believe they could prosper. Ludicrously talented footballers usually make the worst managers. Unable to empathise with mere mortals, they are often useless at coaching gifts which were God-given and performed instinctively.

Keane and McGeeney both had to learn their trades and make their way through the ranks. Players of this ilk usually make better managers as they can empathise with footballers who need to work on various aspects of their game.

It appears McGeeney was much more adept at dealing with players than Keane, who repeatedly allowed his short fuse get the better of him.

When Keane first went to Notts Forest, he suffered terrible homesickness but Brian Clough allowed him extended weekends in Cork.

Keane seemed to forget that he was once a lonely, young man in Nottingham who had to rely on the kindness of a manager. When Keane assumed control at Sunderland, he often railed against the “softness” of the modern professional. When things weren’t going well, he barracked and harangued his players.

When Keane resigned from Sunderland, it was reported that his players celebrated. In contrast, McGeeney enjoyed huge loyalty from Kildare players, many of whom expressed their disgust when the county board got rid of him.

The big surprise about McGeeney and his first foray into management came from the areas in which he struggled. Renowned for his sternness and tunnel vision, few would have predicted that his man-management skills would prove to be his greatest strength. It was McGeeney’s decision-making and tactical acumen which generated the most criticism.

There is no transfer market in Gaelic football, which is just as well for ‘Geezer’. In dire need of a forward, Cavan’s Seanie Johnston ended up in a white jersey. It wasn’t quite Djemba Djemba. But it was close.

Tactically, McGeeney defied expectations. As a footballer, he played on a successful Armagh team that followed a prescriptive system. But as a manager, McGeeney believed players should be given freedom to express themselves. In 2010, as Kildare reached the All-Ireland semi-final, Aidan O’Rourke installed a regimental defence where every player had a specific job. McGeeney later abandoned that approach to allow players greater flexibility.

Yet McGeeney’s faith in his players contributed to Kildare’s capitulation against Dublin in this year’s Leinster semi-final. Against a more talented Dublin team, McGeeney went man-to-man. Final score: Dublin 4-16 Kildare 1-9.

Now, McGeeney is also going to spend some time in the background. With Paul Grimley in the hot-seat at Armagh, he can take a broader view of the management game. And two years after being sacked by Ipswich, Keane is going to work under an Ireland manager, who unlike him served a lengthy apprenticeship. Long before he took Celtic to a Uefa Cup final, Martin O’Neill learned his trade at Grantham Town, Shepshed Waterhouse and Wycombe.

Keane will watch, listen and learn. McGeeney will take time to reflect before making his next move. Neither man will plan to stand in the shadows for long. Being No.2 is just not their thing.


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