‘I used to joke with Kieran that he would have a lot easier life if he smiled a bit more!’

As Armagh boss Kieran McGeeney prepares to face his former Kildare charges in tomorrow night’s All-Ireland Qualifier at Croke Park, Brendan Crossan learns that ‘Geezer’ still holds a special place in the hearts of the Lilywhites.

In his first meeting with the Kildare players in Newbridge Kieran McGeeney never held anything back.

The new manager told the group exactly what the GAA public thought of them.

They were soft. They didn’t have it downstairs when it mattered.

They had succumbed to the pull of mediocrity and that everybody loved playing the Lilywhites.

It was the autumn of 2007 and a few months after McGeeney had played his last game for Armagh (a one-point defeat to Derry in the All-Ireland Qualifiers).

That summer Kildare were dumped out of Leinster by Meath and humbled by Louth in a second round Qualifier.

Kildare football was at a low ebb.

“I remember the first night Kieran and Paul Grimley met us and he told us exactly what the outside world thought of us,” recalls Johnny Doyle, who represented Kildare at senior level between 2000 and 2013.

“I suppose I’d been captain the previous two years and what he was saying wasn’t nice to hear. I took it in and I listened.

“I liked the honesty of it but I’m sure there were lads in the room that were thinking: ‘Who the fuck is this fella coming down the road insulting us?’

“When Kieran came I was heading for 30. I’d reached a bit of a crossroads, I’d been involved for eight or nine years and we’d failed and failed miserably over the last few years and you were questioning your own ability and all that.”

Andrui Mac Lochlainn, a teak-tough defender, was another player who was prepared to absorb the “hard honesty” of McGeeney’s first address as Kildare manager.

“We were a very naïve team back then, very weak in a lot of areas,” Mac Lochlainn says.

“A lot of guys that were physically weak didn’t know it. We played a lot like a club team with no real direction.”

Local sports journalist Daragh Ó Conchúir, who charted McGeeney’s six years in Kildare, says: “I don’t remember anyone saying in 2008 that the Kildare job would be a great job to get.

“People weren’t saying: ‘This is the team you want to get your hands on’.

“Nobody was talking about Emmet Bolton in 2007 or James Kavanagh or Alan Smith or any of these guys.

“I remember Ronan Sweeney [now a Kildare selector] said to me: ‘It wasn’t that we were lazy; we thought we were working as hard as we could work, and then Kieran came along. We realised we weren’t working as hard as we could.’”

The Kildare players kitted out a gym for themselves and started digging new foundations.

They would become a fearsome, self-sufficient unit.

“I was sort of caught between two generations,” says Doyle.

“When I came onto the team, obviously Dermot [Earley] was on it and we were playing with some of the greats — Glen Ryan and Anthony Rainbow. These guys were superstars in my eyes and they drifted off.

“‘Geezer’, I suppose, was building a new team — there were some really good characters in that team. Brian Flanagan, Emmet Bolton, Morgan O’Flaherty…they challenged each other.

“It takes an awful lot of players to make up a team: It takes skilful players, it takes lads with aggression, it takes lads with a bit of cut in them and I think we had a mixture of everything. We’d some really great readers of the game, some really tough competitors.

“Daryl Flynn would train night and day, a huge competitor and a teddy bear off the field. But on the field he was just brilliant.”

McGeeney was slated in his first year in charge [2008] as the Lilywhites fell to Mick O’Dwyer’s Wicklow in the opening round of the Leinster Championship.

They made a decent fist of it through the back door, reaching the All-Ireland quarter-finals — but they didn’t really convince.

Accused of trying to turn Kildare into Armagh, Mac Lochlainn notes: “I don’t know if it was the Armagh template, we just had a lot of work to do and there’s only so much you can get done in a year.

“We did a savage amount of training — not that we weren’t trained hard before but it was more specific training.”

Between 2009 and 2011, Kildare were transformed. These were the undoubted peak years of McGeeney’s time in charge.

“We were like a machine — we could run any team off the park,” says Mac Lochlainn.

“Our scoring ratio was the top two or three in the country and we were always tight in what we were leaking.”

But it was McGeeney’s man-management skills that most impressed Mac Lochlainn and Doyle. “His man-management was brilliant,” Mac Lochlainn says.

“He would want to know what was going on in the players’ lives; what guy needed help. I know guys that didn’t get great Leaving Certs and he pulled them aside, found what they were interested in, got them onto courses or tuition. But that was all under the radar — nobody knew that stuff. And he wasn’t looking for credit for it. For me, that was a massive thing.”

“He wasn’t the dictator that people say he was,” insists Doyle.

“I remember one occasion — it was coming up to the Leinster final in 2009 — and he was telling me I was taking too much on with the captaincy and he was saying that I needed to look after my own game. But I said: ‘I’m grand, I’m grand.’”

McGeeney had a friend who owned a hotel down the country and he insisted that Doyle and his partner take off for a few days.

“These were the things that nobody else saw,” Doyle adds.

“He was saying: ‘Go on, get away. Have a few pints.’

“Now, of course, he didn’t want you falling out of the local nightclub. He was such a players’ man.”

Within two years ‘Geezer’ had built a physically imposing, mobile, free-scoring football team.

Respect had been well and truly restored to the white jersey.

In defence, Morgan O’Flaherty was a supreme reader of the game.

Beside him, Emmet Bolton and Mac Lochlainn were fulfilling their rich potential.

There wasn’t a better midfield axis in the country than Daryl Flynn and Dermot Earley.

By 2010, Kildare’s kick-out strategy was nearing perfection. Shane Connolly would launch the ball to Earley; he would pat it down into the path of Eamonn Callaghan and their attacks took off from there. This well-rehearsed tactic rained scores.

James Kavanagh and Alan Smith were their go-to men in attack while McGeeney shaved the rough edges off Tomas O’Connor and Ronan Sweeney. Eoghan O’Flaherty was their trusted free-taker and the irrepressible Johnny Doyle the beating heart of the team, covering acres of ground and still scoring heavily.

“Johnny was the type of fella who improved all the time,” says Ó Conchúir. “Johnny was made for Kieran.”

Kildare’s scoring may have been “off the charts” in those years, but they still couldn’t get over the line in Leinster despite feeling equal to Dublin. For some Kildare players, the one that got away was the 2009 Leinster final defeat to the Dubs, who were down a man.

Even though Louth knocked them out of the provincial series the following year Kildare recovered magnificently and proceeded to knock their All-Ireland Qualifier opposition over like skittles.

In one of the most memorable and dramatic All-Ireland semi-finals in the modern era, the width of a crossbar — and a resurgent Down team — prevented them from playing in the 2010 All-Ireland final against Cork.

And, of course, there was Benny Coulter’s early goal that should have been chalked off.

“Benny Coulter was so far in the square he was almost over the end line,” Mac Lochlainn says.

‘I used to joke with Kieran that he would have a lot easier life if he smiled a bit more!’

“Had we beaten Down I felt we would have beaten Cork to win the All-Ireland in 2010.”

More hard-luck stories awaited the Lilywhites in 2011.

With their pulsating Leinster semi-final with Dublin still in the melting pot, referee Cormac Reilly penalised Mac Lochlainn for an alleged pull on Bernard Brogan.

TV replays offer compelling evidence to the contrary.

Brogan dusted himself down and floated the resultant free between Kildare’s posts at the Canal End to win the game.

“I didn’t mind being the only defender in the 50-yard line marking these guys,” Mac Lochlainn says.

“The ball was heading for the sideline and if Brogan got it he would have to beat me, which he hadn’t been doing all day because I was eating him.

“I’d a cover player coming back in young [Paudie] Brophy… In fairness to Bernard, he didn’t go down, he didn’t look for a free. But there was no contact whatsoever.

“My hands are out. I tried not to remonstrate too much because I didn’t want the free to be brought in.

“But I felt we would have beaten Dublin in a replay — we had no fear of that team whatsoever.”

Just over a month later more heartache visited Kildare.

The biggest shame of their unforgettable All-Ireland quarter-final loss to Donegal after extra-time was that only 39,612 witnessed it.

In a subsequent interview with The Irish Times, Jim McGuinness captured perfectly the drama of the night.

“To me, that was living,” said the Glenties man who would lead Donegal to the Holy Grail the following year.

“People are very rarely ‘alive’, you know. And for those 20 minutes in extra time what was going through my mind was: This is unbelievable. Because those boys are in the thick of this now. They were living in the fullest sense. The atmosphere that evening was as raw as I have ever felt.”

The Irish News the following Monday reported: “This was a game for the ages — a truly magnificent spectacle...

“In front of 39,612 delirious supporters, the Donegal and Kildare players bared their souls on the famous turf in an unforgettable All-Ireland quarter-final on Saturday night.

“It may have lacked in aesthetics at times, but that didn’t matter.

“Something more virtuous was found in the thumping hearts that defiantly bellowed beneath us for 90 enthralling minutes.

“The biggest hero of all on Saturday night was eventual match-winner Kevin Cassidy whose footballing gifts were sent from above.

“With just three seconds remaining in extra-time, the ball was ferried into Cassidy’s arms and from 50 metres, Gaoth Dobhair’s finest let fly with his divine left foot.”

Cassidy recalls: “I had a chance just before the point I got at the end of the game and it didn’t go over. I remember running past Jim and he said: ‘Don’t fucking try that again!’

“You ask any young player and they’ll tell you: ‘I want a shot in the last minute of a game.’

“I was underneath the stand for the first chance and the second I was more central so it was a wee bit better.”

Six years on from that night Cassidy acknowledges Donegal were “slightly lucky” to win.

“Had they gone on to beat us that day, Kildare could have gone on to achieve great things. They were a top four side in our eyes.”

Mac Lochlainn says: “I felt we were better than Donegal. Kevin Cassidy misses a chance with his good foot and hits one over with his bad foot. Where’s the justice?”

Despite Kildare’s gargantuan efforts on the field, storm clouds were gathering.

Kildare GAA were in financial meltdown and needed a rescue package from Croke Park.

The perception around the country was that the senior team was the biggest financial drain on the county — a charge firmly rejected by Doyle.

The Allenwood clubman recalls the entire squad putting their government grants into one pot to help pay for a training camp in Portugal.

“I remember sitting in Portugal and you got yesterday’s papers the following day and there was a big spread on Kildare GAA where they were handed €800,000 from Croke Park, and in the middle of it there was Kieran and the Kildare players.

“That drove me mad. The picture was the senior team and it suggested we were the problem and we were in Portugal sunning ourselves.

“I knew Kieran so well and I knew what he was about and all the little things that he had done that people don’t know about.”

Kildare still managed to reach yet another All-Ireland quarter-final in 2012 but Cork proved far too strong.

And the much-documented Seanie Johnston transfer to Kildare didn’t help the mood music as the affair courted a lot of negative publicity.

“Maybe we shouldn’t have gone down the Seanie Johnston road,” Mac Lochlainn reflects, “but one of the Tipperary hurlers [Ryan O’Dwyer] transferred to Dublin which is a far bigger story than a Cavan player going to Kildare and there wasn’t the same outcry.”

An All-Ireland Qualifier defeat to Tyrone in Newbridge on July 20 2013 was McGeeney’s last game in charge of Kildare.

He was already starting to build a new team and was keen to remain for another term.

But the natives were restless. It was put to a vote at county board level and McGeeney lost by one.

“There were so many shenanigans about who should have votes and who shouldn’t but the fact it was split that much was enough,” Ó Conchúir reflects.

“I’d be sorry he went through that because what he did for Kildare. But I talk to people who I would consider good football people and they still think: ‘He didn’t win us anything’.

“I think there were two things here: He didn’t kiss enough babies — he didn’t do political — and the Seanie Johnston thing annoyed a lot of club people.”

Mac Lochlainn remains bitter with the way Geezer’s departure was handled.

“I feel there is unfinished business with Kieran in Kildare,” he says.

“I feel the supporters and the players in particular never wanted to get rid of Kieran.

“It was very badly handled and it was really disrespectful. Kieran brought Kildare football from the doldrums back into a position where we could be proud again.

“He put pride back into the jersey. We’d to work hard to get respect and Kieran did that for us — Niall Carew, Aidan O’Rourke and ‘Grimbo’ [Paul Grimley] had a major impact too.

Describing his former manager as a “special fella”, Doyle insists: “My biggest regret is that we didn’t win a Leinster during Kieran’s time. We didn’t deliver what Kieran gave us or gave me anyway.

“It’s a stick to beat him with all over the place. We came very, very close but apart from a Division Two title we didn’t win any silverware.”

Doyle adds: “I used to joke with Kieran that he would have a lot easier life if he smiled a bit more!

“But he’s the straightest guy I ever met. Sometimes you didn’t like what he told you but you had respect for him because he told you straight and there was no bullshit with Kieran.

“We failed Kieran more than Kieran failed us. I’m sure there are players in Kildare who wouldn’t agree with me but I would argue that point to the very last.”

This interview first appeared in The Irish News


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