Posted by Ewan MacKenna
Wednesday 4 July 2012
Kieran McGeeney needs to start questioning himself if five years of hard work are not to be in vain.
My Dad always thinks Kildare will lose. Every time they go out for a game from January to July, just before throw-in he’ll ask for your prediction and regardless of what logic you come out with, he’ll smother it with some pessimism of his own. It’s not even that’s he is the negative sort. Instead, his is a judgment call based on a lifetime of fear and disappointment following the county and in that regard it is warranted. So often, Kildare are a side that will let you down but only after they’ve thrown you over a few slivers of false hope before announcing reality, loud and clear, with a massive underperformance.
It’s against that backdrop that Kieran McGeeney came on stage and took a bow. And it’s a history that needs to be remembered when judging the manager’s achievements as a whole across five seasons. You can spit out statements about a lack of trophies, the absence of a win against teams deemed to be better than them, smirk as you mention the fact that he’s never been so far as an All Ireland final since he stopped playing. But all that has to be put into context because it’s all relative. Kildare talk about themselves as a footballing county but that’s based on pride and passion rather than performance and produce. Their fans may always show up in numbers, but it’s usually to see them lose.
Just keep that in mind. This is a county that hasn’t raised an All Ireland since 1928, have won two Leinster titles in 56 years and have been to just 15 provincial deciders since World War II ended, an average of one every half a decade. So what McGeeney has done with Kildare is more than impressive. A Leinster final, three All Ireland quarter-finals and an All Ireland semi-final in four years should be used to celebrate rather than indict his performance. But more than that, McGeeney has done it with no more than a couple of star players. Instead, he’s manufactured a group of footballers that have been able to go toe-to-toe with the best, fight all the way to the bell and lose only on a split decision. That may not be good enough in the most successful counties, but in Kildare it’s new and exciting.
But then came Sunday. And if Kildare between 2008 and 2011 can be judged against their own low historical standards, then it’s only fair that year five be judged against their managers search for perfection. Together this panel of people have earned that right with their performances. So, if it’s accurate to appraise McGeeney’s overall tenure as hugely positive, then you have to stare the Meath result straight in the face and tell it as it is. It was diabolical and in an era where sports science makes the best predictably good and gives the underdog so little hope, something went seriously wrong for a team with five years of hard work and fine tuning behind them to blow up and be taken apart in the latter stages by a bunch of kids new to championship football. If McGeeney has been a success because of his methods up to the weekend, then you also have to look at his mindset to see this result as an even bigger failure.
You just knew to look at the Armagh native as he chewed away on a Mars when talking to the media afterwards that this is a man who will be tortured by trying to understand this and hurt by having to accept it. I’d be surprised if he’s had a good night’s sleep since as he’s that dedicated and desperate to succeed. In many ways he is a control freak so to see the result get away from his grasp must be scraping away at his soul. In fact on Sunday evening, he struggled to even lift his head to a high enough angle so he could look journalists in the eye when answering questions he didn’t want to be asked. You’d have had to be very cold or carrying an agenda not to feel for the man and his new-found struggles.
But if some of Kildare’s problems are down to the fact he cannot teach his players footballing intelligence and how to make the right pass and take the right shot in clutch situations, some of the problems are based on the same character traits that have helped McGeeney take the county this far. That unwavering self-belief and to an extent self-righteousness. He’s never really had a reason to doubt himself because he’s never failed before. His methods and his drive have always got him where he wanted to go. Until now.
Right back in my early days in the Sunday Tribune I remember my mentor Kieran Shannon referring to this guy as the zenith of football, the Roy Keane of the sport who was more dedicated and more fascinating than anyone else out there. Perhaps it was because of that memory but I’d always had the feeling this was a man that couldn’t be questioned. When he got the Kildare job late in 2007 I sat with him in Castleknock and as he sipped away on a green tea, he was interesting and engaging and exciting.
Back then McGeeney had his theories but he was also willing to listen to yours. Not anymore. These days too often he acts like it is him against the Gaelic games world and at some point you have to question how that is benefiting his players. It’s impossible to get through an article on Kildare these days without dredging up Seánie Johnston but you have to question the manager’s inability to take on anyone’s opinion that goes against the transfer. Instead he and Kildare surged ahead with giving the guy a stick in front of the nation’s media, 24 hours before what was a game that deserved to be treated with more respect. Even during that game, McGeeney’s frustrations on the sideline were obvious and misdirected.
He has long had a problem with referees and authority and in some regards he is right. But at the weekend, instead of seeing Peter Kelly’s pushes in the back of Brian Farrell, Mick Foley being dragged deep by Joe Sheridan, Ollie Lyons and Hugh McGrillen being negatively used to solely marshal the opposition when they are players that should get forward and worry opponents, he waited for each whistle to lose it as if this was again the GAA and referee against him and his team. It wasn’t. If anything, they were going against themselves with their tactics and decisions.
I’ve no doubt Kildare will be back in the All Ireland quarter-finals and while there may in hindsight have been an overestimation of this team, the danger now is to underestimate them. And the fact my Dad was confident Kildare would be back shows just what Kieran McGeeney has done for the county and what he means to people in the county too. In short, he’s been immense. But now Kildare have to pick themselves up, climb the last cliff face and those final few metres are always the hardest. Perhaps to take them, having asked Kildare to question everything about themselves five years ago, McGeeney now needs to question some of his own performances and decisions. If he can do that, then he’ll be an even greater force to be reckoned with.
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