Posted by Daragh Ó Conchúir

Loyalty to his players meant Kieran McGeeney walked willingly towards the firing squad but a lack of leadership at the top is at the core of the chasm between club and county that ultimately cost him his job

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It has been another week to forget for Kildare GAA. Last Tuesday they decided they no longer wanted Kieran McGeeney as manager by the odd vote in 57 and two days later, a statement on behalf of the 2013 squad slammed the county board as “dysfunctional”, while also calling for McGeeney’s reinstatement.

The county is divided and the top table is divided, with four officers going against the proposal that McGeeney be retained.

It is hard to get your head around the idea of McGeeney getting the boot given where the senior team was when he arrived. The likes of Eoin Liston, Mark McHugh, Billy Joe Padden, Paddy Bradley and Philip Jordan were just some of those who were amazed. Liston went so far as to express hope that the Armagh man would not now be bound for Cork.

Any argument that the decision was based purely on results doesn’t hold water. The detractors point to the heavy defeat by Cork in last year’s All-Ireland quarter-final. For a start, it shows how blasé they have become. It was their fifth consecutive quarter-final of the McGeeney era, having reached the semis in 2010.

They were blown away but the fact that they were down to 14 men for most of the second half ensured a skewed look to the ultimate scoreline, although it did not affect the result.

That told the manager that changes were needed. Former Wexford manager, Jason Ryan was brought on board in place of John Rafferty as coach. Damien Hendy came in when Niall Carew decided to stand down before taking on the Waterford job.

 

Complete overhaul

There was a complete overhaul of the team too and by the end of the championship, seven U21s were handed debuts while nine played. Five of those debutants were starters throughout. James Kavanagh and Andriú Mac Lochlainn had to withdraw from the Kildare panel for personal reasons at the start of the year. Injury forced the legendary Dermot Earley into retirement. Gary White, Brian Flanagan and Ollie Lyons were key operators throughout the league that were unavailable for the championship.

The decision to go toe-to-toe with Dublin in the Leinster championship was surprising and costly and if the Dubs had been more clinical, the margin would have been significantly greater than 16 points. Losing to Tyrone in Newbridge was disappointing too but ultimately, there was no surprise in the results. Dublin are now favourites to win the All-Ireland final, while Tyrone got to the semi-final.

Kildare’s last game before McGeeney arrived was a qualifier loss in Newbridge. To Louth, who didn’t reach any All-Ireland semi-final.

Yes, there were unforseen losses to Wicklow (in his very first championship game), Louth (in the year that the Wee County were robbed of the Leinster title) and Meath (on a day they didn’t perform at all). And they only beat two Division 1 teams in the championship.

But it shows how far Kildare have come that people now pour scorn on beating Derry in Celtic Park, overcoming Meath five times in a row, being too strong for Sligo, hammering Laois and Offaly. Because these were teams they were losing to in the years before McGeeney’s arrival.

That’s the recent history. The overall history tells you Kildare have won two Leinster senior titles in 57 years. The last All-Ireland was 85 years ago. At the end of 2011, Kildare were considered contenders, having operated at the sharp end for three consecutive seasons.

This with a group of players scarred by successive embarrassments. Nobody was saying when he arrived that Kieran McGeeney was lucky to be starting his managerial career with this crop of players. Such was the improvement wrought that four Kildare players have earned All-Stars since his arrival – many more received nominations.

So the standards that McGeeney had set were used against him when his time was up for renewal. Not even overseeing the Leinster U21 success was sufficient. Clearly, it shouldn’t have been about results. It was for some but it shouldn’t have been. Ultimately, it wasn’t results that cost McGeeney the job.

 

Club v County

The big issue is the disconnect between club and county. The former manager was seen in some circles as the reason for that but really, he was just a symptom. For this is a long-standing problem, and it’s a nationwide one.

Sure, McGeeney could have made himself more popular by attending a few more medal presentations and club functions. It was the general unavailability of players for domestic league games that grated though.

The ire was aimed in the wrong direction however. A manager is responsible for one team and should do whatever he can for the benefit of that team. It is the board’s job to run the GAA in the county; to decree when games are played and who plays in them. That requires leadership. With all due respect to the well-meaning folk at Kildare’s top table, it has been lacking here.

Another factor was the protracted Seanie Johnston transfer saga last year. The fact that it was made public the previous week that Johnston was returning to Cavan Gaels after playing no game for St Kevin’s this year and failing to make an impact with the Lilies was bad timing.

There were some grumblings about the financial situation too although the county board’s spend on the senior team is well below the leading counties’ expenses and was reduced further this year. That’s not to mention the fundraising McGeeney has done personally, the discounted gear he has organised for county teams at all levels and the major role he played in a securing Brady’s Ham as a county sponsor.

So it was well signposted that McGeeney would face a battle to be restored. Given all he has done, he should not have been subjected to such a public rejection. It was very unseemly and didn’t reflect well on anyone.

 

Leadership and loyalty

It should never have gotten to that. Strong leadership would have ensured that the clubs’ concerns would have been addressed. If it was obvious that they were going to shoot McGeeney down, a thanks-for-the-memories conversation should have been had.

The thing is, McGeeney knew it was going to be tight. He could have walked away. The countrywide reaction confirms he would have done so with his reputation intact and his skills likely to be in demand. Indeed, he is reputed to have been offered a job a couple of weeks before the vote, with his Kildare term officially at an end.

The players’ decision to publicly back him made his mind up however. Loyalty is everything to the Mullaghbawn native. He was willing to face the firing squad because the guys he spent all his time on the coalface with had stuck their neck out for him.

Jack O’Connor, Cian O’Neill, Kevin McStay, Glenn Ryan and Darragh Ó Sé are just some of the names mentioned as possible replacements. Unless McGeeney returns but that is very unlikely.

No matter how much you’re up for a fight, would it be wise to come back for one year, given the age profile, the little matter of Dublin being around and the distrust of so many clubs bubbling just beneath the surface?

The lessons must be learned and there will be collateral damage but it’s time to move on.

 

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