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Geezer can be a real diamond for Armagh

By Declan Bogue

A funny thing happened on the first weekend of January.

Oisin McConville drove in from Crossmaglen to Armagh city. He parked up and made his way to the Athletic Grounds on foot. When he got there and surveyed the scene, he turned on his heel and went home.

8,463 souls had turned up for a first-round group stage game between Armagh and Tyrone. This was the McKenna Cup, but it was also the beginning of 'The Age of Geezer'.

The hype kept coming as the two sides met a few weeks later in the semi-final, when 7,552 attended a mid-week game between the old rivals. Armagh were defeated without much of a fight.

That month came off the back of Chinese Whispers. Rumour had it that Kieran McGeeney, in his first year as number one, was acting as a John Kreese-character in the Cobra Kai dojo for the pre-season. Columnists launched thinly-veiled attacks on the Armagh manager. He then defended himself and made a few calls to speak to his accusers directly.

And then...

Nothing.

Consider this. Last season during the National League, Armagh were on Setanta Sports at home against Monaghan and Down, and away to Meath.

They played seven games in the Championship, with all but their Ulster semi-final replay defeat to Monaghan screened live.

It would seem that in going from Division Two to Division Three, you acquire a leper's bell. Your face no longer fits with live TV coverage and your highlights will not be needed for the League Sunday round ups.

For their first game against Tipperary, a mere 3,708 punters paid through the gates. McGeeney has done an exceptional job in dampening expectation in the county while simultaneously leading them to the top of the table with a three from three record.

New media protocols have to be observed for the former Kildare manager. Last Thursday he made himself available for interview after training. However, when it took place, it took place in another county altogether (Inniskeen, Co Monaghan), and although it was promised he would talk from 9.30pm, he was not free until 10.15pm.

When he did talk, he was engaging and entertaining as ever.

"The thing about sport is that you become very cliched, and the reason you speak in cliches is because normally the simplest things are the truest things," he reflected on their progress. "You focus on what is in front of you and you look at what is next until what is in front of you is over. Even though you might have a vision or a goal that goes way beyond Sunday, you can't overlook it or else you will trip. As the man says, 'it is not the mountain you have to climb it is the pebbles that are in your shoes that can wear you down.'"

This weekend, Fermanagh are coming to town, also with a 100% record. Something's got to give.

Inside the Orchard camp, little has changed. McGeeney retains Julie Davis and James Daly as speed, strength and conditioning experts. Martin McQuillan and Peter McDonnell are still there as selectors and Denis Hollywood has a major influence as coach. In this instance, McGeeney has preferred stability for this group of players.

At the end of January, long-serving goalkeeper Philip McEvoy walked away. Unburdened by having stepped outside the county bubble, he became a father last August. After he studied the league fixtures and how many weekends away he would spend on the road, he felt that although he had the support of his wife Majella, he couldn't spend as much time away from his son, Charlie.

The pre-seasons that you heard about amused him.

"My father-in-law was asking me at the time, 'How are you coping with the half-six training sessions?' at the time, and I was laughing at him, sitting with Charlie in my lap feeding him at that time," recalls the Dromintee man, employed by Bank of Ireland.

"I was speaking to players from other counties within the bank and they were onto me at that time and telling me what their schedules were, they were pretty much the exact same as ours."

McEvoy hardly fell out of love with the game, being as he is the county minors goalkeeping coach, doubling up the coaching he does in Jonesborough and Dromintee Primary Schools for his club.

But he could be spared the sensationalism all the same.

"It was tough going, of course it was, but every pre-season, under Paddy O'Rourke and going back to Peter McDonnell's time, was the same."

McEvoy is aware that a manager such as McGeeney will attract attention, even in the Division Three backwaters.

"I think the press have a fascination with Geezer sometimes, they build him up," he explained.

"But I couldn't have any more respect for Geezer, the way that if you had any kind of problems, he would always try to help you out. If you had difficulty he has flexibility, there is none of this thing that you are made do this, made do that.

"You have to be 100% committed, but he works with you. He wanted me to stay and I appreciated it, but for me, my mind was made up."

McGeeney has watched the injuries mount up and a number of players now realistically targeting the Championship for a comeback.

Such as Kevin Dyas, who damaged his medial ligament following a collision in the Tipperary game, "mentally very strong," says McEvoy, "Because he is a clubmate of mine, I know that he is a quick healer."

Others have suffered bizarre injuries, such as Stefan 'Soup' Campbell who went over his ankle while assisting in a goalkeeping drill.

On the plus side, Andrew Murnin made his senior debut against Limerick, while Peter Carragher also got 52 minutes. Miceal McKenna has been excellent and prolific. James Morgan is back in contention after his commitments with St Mary's.

Sometime soon, Armagh will be big news again. It's inevitable.

Belfast Telegraph

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