McGeeney relishes chance of revenge
This weekend's big game sees Armagh take on Cavan in Kingspan Breffni Park, and for many, it seems mainly to be about a man who won't be playing - Kieran McGeeney.
As a player and a manager, McGeeney has often been compared to Roy Keane. This is because they have a (perceived) preoccupation with perfection, a ferocious commitment, a track record of leading by example, and when it comes to preparation, an obsession with attention to detail no matter how big or small. And, oh yes, a shared ability to fix a 'killer' stare at members of the media who specialise in asking questions which double as statements in the 'most bleeding obvious'.
To be honest, I'm not sure if he appreciates the comparison, but I really think Roy should be flattered.
I have known McGeeney for 27 years and a more fierce competitor I have yet to meet. We first crossed swords in 1989 in the first round of Ulster minor championship. Tyrone were the reigning Ulster champions and expected to win. I was centre-forward and he was Armagh centre-back. We lost and without any doubt, the fact he got the better of our battle was a factor.
Over the years we had many more duels, and I can recall another early one in which I was full-forward with St Mary's College, Belfast and he was the Queen's full-back. This time, I came out on top and kicked a bagful of frees after he spent the afternoon fouling me. I actually had to ask him a couple of times during the game did he know how to tackle - ever since, he has had a fixation with the tackle in Gaelic football and I often wonder is that the day it started.
Our paths crossed many times after that in some famous Tyrone-Armagh jousts and on an individual basis, it was probably honours even. I had - and have - the utmost regard for him as an opponent. You knew what you got with McGeeney. There was never any nonsense. If he wanted to stop you, he'd go straight through you - man, ball and all.
That's his personality. He's a straight-shooter. If he's asked for an opinion, he'll always give it honestly. No sugar-coating. But in today's PC-orientated world, you are not allowed to say what you mean: you have to dress it up like a political spin doctor so that you're 'seen' to champion the overall majority, but don't offend the significant minority. Being forthright, as is the McGeeney way, is seen a deficiency and when you get it wrong, as he has at times, then there's no shortage of hurlers - and ex-footballers - on the ditch willing to have a pop. So when he looks up in the sky heading into Sunday's match, I'm sure he can spot a vulture or two circling.
When the teams met in the league, Armagh were humiliated by Cavan - 17 points between the teams at the finish and clearly reeling by the drubbing, the losing manager came out with his hands up.
"I think I have quality there and I have to change what I'm doing because I don't think they're that bad," McGeeney told reporters. "We just fell asunder there and it's me that has to look at it, not them."
It was an incredible defence of his players by a manager. As a player, if you don't summon character after that, well you shouldn't be near a county panel. In fairness, Armagh did respond and were much improved in their last three league games - drawing with Tyrone, beating Derry and drawing with Galway after conceding a last-gasp goal. This still didn't prevent them from being relegated to Division 3, but it, at least, showed the players believe in their manager.
Now, McGeeney is not without his faults. A few surfaced during his time with Kildare, but the good far outweighed the bad - five All-Ireland quarter-finals in six seasons was a hell of a record and they were only kick of a ball from a final in 2010. Kildare let him go and look at them now: lost by 27 points to Kerry last August and not able to beat Clare in a Division 3 final.
As a man who has made plenty mistakes on the sideline, I know that every day is a school day when it comes senior inter-county management. You make a mistake, you try to learn from it and get it right the next time.
Of course, sometimes, there isn't a next time and that applies for Aaron Kernan this Sunday. To my mind, he was allowed to retire too early from Armagh and McGeeney should have persuaded him to stay. Aaron was a solid defender, with good leadership skills who would consistently drive forward from the half-back line and get a score.
The value of a half-back bounding forward and kicking a point is huge in the modern game. Tomas O Se always seemed to do it at the right time for Kerry, Lee Keegan comes forward on a regular basis with Mayo, Karl Lacey fills a similar role with Donegal, all of the current Dublin half-backs can do it and you saw Peter Harte do it effectively for Tyrone last Sunday against Derry.
The fact that Armagh have a lot of young players coming through was, to me, another strong reason for Aaron to stay around and guide them on the right path. Was Aaron's departure a legacy of previous issues with Joe? I don't know. Only two men can answer that question.
Another absentee that will be mentioned this weekend will be Jamie Clarke. No doubt he is a big loss, but I don't think the manager can be blamed for his non-availability. Jamie's a free spirit who does things his own way - as evidenced by him scoring the winner for the not-so-well-known Cartwheel United in the AOH Cup Final last weekend. Armagh fans would prefer to see him in a different code and I venture he will be back next season.
In the circumstances, Cavan have been installed short-priced favourites and the players will be confident in their ability to justify that tag. Unlike a decade ago, Armagh will hold no fears for them.
However, Cavan could never be accused of being models of consistency and I feel we're in for a surprise. McGeeney certainly won't have needed to say anything to motivate his troops - Cavan 3-18, Armagh 0-10 was the scoreline in Breffni two months ago. The opportunity to consign that humiliation to the league's dust-ridden history books should be seized with relish.