KIERAN McGEENEY ambles into the café, drops a book on the table – he is rarely without one — smiles and shakes your hand.
It’s a firm grip, hardly a surprise. He has the build of a fella that could break my hand without a second thought, but this is no bogeyman.
The stereotype dictates otherwise. Dour, boorish. Not helped by the depiction of his Kildare side as Public Enemy Number One this year.
By their own admission, the county board’s finances are a mess, but quite how they received more attention and scorn from Central Council than the plights of Wexford, Waterford or Mayo is bemusing.
The finger has been pointed at McGeeney’s senior set-up as the cause of Kildare’s €300,000 deficit, and the Armagh man is also blamed in many quarters for the prolonged debacle of Seanie Johnston’s bid to transfer allegiances.
Behind the curtain though, McGeeney raises thousands of euro and organises sponsorship agreements thanks to his impressive network of contacts (he didn’t mention it during this interview or in any conversation this reporter has been privy to either).
He’s not the one that keeps postponing Johnston’s hearing dates, that has delayed proceedings further by calling up county boards and clubs separately looking for P60s, a PPS number and records of tax credits.
Yes, he is prickly at times. He can overreact and be a touch too sensitive. But he loves football. So bureaucracy, injustice and anything else he feels is preventing him carrying that out will always be in his crosshairs. He reckons that means he is always in theirs.
The 40-year-old has been to the gym. It’s a sanctuary that helps blow off steam. There is a lot of pressure associated with being an inter-county manager, and a businessman.
Ultimately, though, he thrives on it. He looks like he’d make that Orchard jersey strain at the seams even more now than it did just under 10 years ago when he became the first Armagh captain to lift the Sam Maguire Cup.
We all know he’s competitive. If you can’t see it in his eyes, you can in the nicks, bruising and cuts tat surround them.
Kick-boxing is his drug of choice now, replacing the hand-to-hand combat of almost 20 years of senior football for Armagh. He retains that voracious appetite for improvement that was his trademark as a player.
For him, football came before work. He doesn’t expect that of his own charges now but his standards are high. That is why he took time out to consider his future with Kildare after the controversial All-Ireland quarter-final loss to Donegal. He needed to consider whether his “wonderful bunch of fellas” could pick themselves up off the canvas one more time.
“It wasn’t so much what I wanted, but more what the players wanted,” McGeeney explains. “What their appetite was for it. I always find it very hard to leave any sort of situation if I feel that business isn’t finished or we haven’t given it our best shot.
“I needed a couple of weeks off. My girlfriend is from Kerry so that’s where I went to get away from football!.
“I talked to a lot of the players who were in constant contact, and fair play to them. You need buy-in from everybody to do something and that’s what we were still looking for. To win anything, it’s not just the backroom team, county boards. Everybody needs to be into it because it’s hard enough to win anything with everyone pulling in the one direction.”
After losing the All-Ireland semi-final to Down in 2010, McGeeney articulated his emotions in heartfelt fashion, referring to a hole in him that needed to be filled. It was no different last year and post-match analysis didn’t improve the mood. But not all of it was wide of the mark.
“Everybody probably feels that after games. But then you’ve the fellas who know everything telling you where you went wrong the day after, people having snipes that were a wee bit deeper. But that’s life in the public domain. You wanna take the slaps in the back, you have to be able to take the kicks in the ass too. Contrary to what most people think, I don’t mind that. But I get annoyed when it gets personal. And people who don’t know what they’re on about gets you a wee bit too.
“But you see fellas that analyse games, you look at what they’re saying and you know they’re right even though it hurts. That’s good analytical work. You sit back and see some of the things you tried that were wrong. None of us can look into the future and see what’s going to work. I know well I make loads of mistakes and that’s how you try to learn.”
While he is in the first term of a three-year extension, McGeeney reassesses at the end of every Championship season. Will the players still want to go through the wall? Will he have the backing of the county board? Will he have the backing of the supporters? Right now, his popularity quotient within Kildare is through the roof. The team is firmly established in the top six having struggled to squeeze into the top 20 when he arrived for the 2008 season.
There are detractors though. The availability of players to the club is one issue. The big gap between championship games is another. It is not a problem exclusive to Kildare but it is generally perceived that county managers are the cause.
“I always find it quite amusing when I read about managers who have too much power. I don’t know where that comes from. I don’t see it. Whether it’s dates of championship matches, anything. We don’t have a say. We have to go on what we’re told. Ideally you’re looking for your players all the time but you have to understand that clubs are looking for their players too.
“It’s very hard to serve two masters. There’s 12 months of the year. You’d think they could come up with something… the organisation is unique and the club is the cornerstone of it but the counties are the window. One makes the money but the other is foundation on which it’s built, it’s the glue.”
So he wants proper dialogue. A debate. Or as he calls it himself “arguing”. He thinks the solution is simple. Two separate seasons for club and county.
“What have you got? Eight, ten games maximum in the league? Ten games in the championship? So say 20 games and they can’t play that in six or seven months? It’s the same then with the club. You could easily have an 11-month year that could cross somewhere in the middle.
“Playing two championships at the one time is insane. You can’t blame club managers. They want their good players. But we want our good players too.”
He sympathised with Roy Keane when FAI chief executive John Delaney suggested that the Cork man should let Saipanrest. As if Keane brings the topic up with journalists. So it is with McGeeney and referees.
There are no referees today but we do have Johnston. The saga drags on, seven months after the wheels were set in motion when Val Andrews dropped the former captain from the county squad. A third application to transfer from Cavan to Kildare – a second to switch from Cavan Gaels to St Kevin’s – is now being considered, but that it has taken so long beggars belief.
“There are people out there that have said nasty things and alleged nasty things about Seanie and myself, making up lies just to suit themselves.
“I can say one thing about Seanie since the beginning of this, that he’s been honest. And that’s probably been his biggest mistake. He should’ve been like a lot of other people in the past and told lies. But he’s been honest.
“I couldn’t speak highly enough of the fella. He’s training every night with us. He drives up to work in the morning, he’s down, he goes to training. His work ethic is great and he keeps his head down.
“If people knew the full story of what has been asked of him… it’s hard on him.”
McGeeney insists there remain no guarantees Johnston will make the team if he does get the green light, even though he is performing well in training right now. To talk as if he has a nailed-on number 13 jersey is an insult to everyone connected with the team but especially James Kavanagh, Alan Smith, young League final hero Podge Fogarty and the other neophyte Fionn Dowling, who is flying again after a run of injuries.
“I know this thing is said about us that we’ve no natural forwards... although we score more than most. I said to Seanie — he said it himself — he has to work for his place. There are a lot of good footballers.
“One of the first things he said was ‘Holy fuck these boys are fast’. He knows he’ll have his work cut out to make the squad. But he keeps on working to do what he wants to do. Play football.”
As for Kildare’s financial difficulties, he is fully cognisant of the talk that he is on a big wedge of cash and that he has accumulated a massive backroom team that hoovers up another exorbitant satchel of money. In short, the seniors are crippling the county.
“It’s disappointing that nobody puts the facts out there, the figures that prove otherwise. I hate going into it. We’re all in it together: county board, team, underage teams, the supporters, the whole county.
“The Kildare supporters are great supporters. No matter what you have they’ll turn up in numbers. They’ll support in their droves. There’s no doubt Kildare could be more successful [financially] than they are at the minute and that’s everybody’s responsibility.
“There’s a lot more counties in similar positions and possibly worse positions but we will get the headlines because of the profile. But that’s also something that should help us get potential sponsors and other things and anyone that’s out there…”
That’s the thing with the profile. He brought it and then raised it further with increased achievement. It is a double-edged sword but the opportunities it provides are endless.
With the right planning and some foresight, Kildare’s finances will be back on track in no time, McGeeney reckons. If that means the players helping out, as they’ve done in the past even though they have more than enough on their plate, it’s something they are willing to facilitate he says.
Winning the Division 2 league certainly did no harm. It was also important in terms of providing a tangible return for the investment that has been made. As well as that, it answered questions about Kildare’s ability to beat a top team, and to grasp a big game in the last ten minutes. Mind you, he maintains that too much is made of the latter line of thought.
“Tyrone are a good team and it was in the balance with eight minutes to go. It could easily have gone the other way, and it was the other way in February [when Tyrone beat Kildare]. Neither everything’s right about what you do or everything’s wrong. It’s never as simple as that.”
It does put Kildare in a good place for an assault on the Leinster title and maybe even the All-Ireland. He doesn’t say it but they must be the targets. He is unbeaten as a manager through the qualifiers, which is some record over four years, but winning a championship is what drives him and the players.
He won’t say that though because of a healthy respect for Offaly, Kildare’s quarter-final opponents in Portlaoise on June 17.
“It’s amazing what can happen. Confidence is a great thing. Fermanagh beat Armagh by a point [in 2004] and they should’ve beaten Mayo in the semi-final after a replay. They would’ve been in an All-Ireland final.
“Next thing people started noticing Marty McGrath, Barry Owens, Tom Brewster, players that everybody thought before were no good but are now brilliant.
“It’s the same with Louth. In fairness to Peter McDonnell, who was in with them that time and is a good friend of my own, he made a good difference to them. The next thing, not to open any old wounds, but they’re unlucky not to win Leinster.
“So we go into Offaly. I played against Offaly myself a few times. One thing you can always be sure about when you run into an Offaly man is you’ll remember it the next time they come on. They’ll always feel they’re physically superior to Kildare, that they’re tougher men.
“Tom’s [Coffey] in there with a fantastic pedigree with his own coaching background. He has everybody behind him, the McNamees [Niall and Alan] are back, Anton O’Sullivan, [Ken] Casey – they’re quality players.
“So it’s not a cliché. That’s our job at the minute. I know from previous painful experience what happens if you take your eye off the ball… if you believe anything else you are seriously in trouble.”
Of course he has plans in place for taking the direct route and the backdoor. But that’s all behind the scenes. It’s been Offaly since January.
As for the overall picture, Cork are his favourites, with Kerry and Dublin completing a top three. He lists Tyrone and Donegal are amongst the next tier.
“And Kildare too,” I venture?.
“It’s very quickly people can knock you out of that position” comes the response.
Never resting easy.
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