ONLY one man – Colm Collins in Clare – has been in an inter-county football management role longer than Kieran McGeeney.
But nobody can match the Mullaghban man for longevity when it comes to his overall involvement in football at this level.
Since he was called into the Armagh minor panel in the late 1980s, progressing into the seniors at 19, McGeeney has not had a summer off from county football. Between playing for Armagh, his six-season stint with Kildare, moving back into the Orchard set-up in 2014 as coach and stepping up the year after, he is approaching a solid quarter of a century in inter-county football.
That’s in keeping with some of the image built up around him. He is a competitor. He does take things personally – some journalists have compared notes on the glare he can fix you with whenever you are in the bad books.
But he is also one of the more interesting voices in the game to talk to when he engages. And he is not without wit. He can produce zingers.
A few years back with Armagh struggling in Division Three, they had an away fixture against Kildare coming the following week. A journalist said about it: “You used to be well got about Kildare...” to which he replied: “I used to be well got about Armagh too!”
But he has come to a crossroads. In August 2019, the Armagh county board extended his contract for another two years on top of the five he’d already served.
Saturday evening’s defeat to Monaghan represented the end of that period. Knockout football is brutal like that, and afterwards the question is always going to be asked if the manager has an appetite to continue. Most of the time it is batted back but occasionally, they resign on the spot. When it was asked of McGeeney, he said: “There’s loads of positives, we’ve come from the Third Division to the First and doing well. There is a lot more in us.
“I’ll always want to be about Armagh. It’s in my blood no matter where I go. It’s been part of who I am for my whole life but there is always an end point for everybody but as long as the players want you and the county board, you will definitely sit down and chat about it but whether it’s me or someone else they’re a good bunch, they’re going places and I’m very proud to be associated with them.”
McGeeney knows that this current group can achieve. As things stand though, they have been to the last three Ulster semi-finals, coming close on Saturday and taking Cavan to a replay in 2019.
There is much to admire about them. Rian O’Neill is a remarkable player but he is backed up by talents such as Aidan Forker, Rory Grugan, Conor Turbitt, Ross McQuillan, Niall Grimley; you could name an awful lot more but let’s stop here for brevity.
One of his greatest achievements has been to keep a group together while not really, truly being in the running for the highest honours. Back when they were in Division Three, the likes of Stephen O’Neill and Connaire Mackin could not get a look-in.
But they stuck with it, completed their gym programmes and learned how to hang in with a panel until such a time as they were ready. It’s a quality lamented by former Player of the Year and McGeeney team-mate Stephen McDonnell, who himself had to be patient to get his place.
“They don’t listen to the noise,” McGeeney said about that kind of player recently. Pressed to explain what he meant by ‘the noise’, he suggested it was voices from the clubs of fringe players, telling them they would be better off getting regular club football instead of just being training ground fodder.
It is almost impossible to think of one player who has departed the Armagh set-up in acrimonious circumstances over the last seven seasons since McGeeney took sole charge.
That level of continuity is critical to a team seeking success.
But it’s not as if Armagh were no-hopers either. The year before McGeeney took over, they ran a Jim McGuinness-era Donegal to a point in the All-Ireland quarter-final.
McGeeney’s record in the Ulster Championship has not been successful. Their three victories in seven years were all over teams operating in lower divisions. They never claimed a scalp. They found themselves losing games in bizarre circumstances more often than not.
McGeeney has seen it all. And he would have seen how the two Brians – McAlinden and Canavan – were given their dues when Joe Kernan succeeded them as manager and brought them to an All-Ireland title in his first year of 2002.
He’d have spotted the pattern a year later, when Mickey Harte took on a Tyrone team of undisputed talents, and gave them a framework and organisation to achieve an All-Ireland.
Nothing lasts forever. Maybe he deserves another year in any case. For all the distaste McGeeney holds for GAA officialdom when it comes to rules changes and so on, he’s always been skilled at managing up.
That, and his standing as captain of Armagh’s only All-Ireland-winning team, means for him to walk away is unthinkable. If someone else wants the job, they’d have to fight for it.