This week, I caught up with Derry legend Kieran McKeever. It's fair to say he's one of the best defenders that the game has ever seen, and if anyone needed confirmation of that, they just need to read the Sunday Life interview with Mickey Linden and a recent interview with Peter Canavan in which they described McKeever as their toughest ever opponent - high praise indeed from two of the sport's finest.
Those players talked about his no-nonsense approach and how he quietly went about his job, no trash talk needed. Probably the first of the footballing corner-backs, an area on a Gaelic pitch that had taken a lot of bad press was resurrected and refined largely due to this man.
As adept with a hurl as a football, McKeever has now helped his club stabilise through his role as chairman and, when his county needs him most, he has taken on the role as vice-chairman, hell bent on securing a brighter future for Derry. Who better to offer all of that than one of their greatest sons?
Oisin: How have you been coping with lockdown?
Kieran: Great, thanks. I was off work but I’m back now. I have spent a lot more time at home, though I definitely wasn’t lying around. There were plenty of jobs to be taken care of, such as the fence being painted, windows cleaned and painted. The garden has never looked so good! As a club we were also very proactive in the community with a food bank and hot dinner service. The Dungiven community response group is a cross-community group set up to look after the vulnerable.
Oisin: How has it impacted on your life?
Kieran: Well, I had been in touch with a surgeon in Altnagelvin hospital right at the start of the lockdown and I was under no illusions just how serious a situation we were in. It’s a bit like faith and believing in God, until you see with your own eyes it’s hard to know what form it will take. We have been very lucky as to the best of my knowledge we have had no deaths locally.
Oisin: GAA is coming back soon, players are training and matches planned — as a former player, are we moving too quickly or at just the right pace?
Kieran: Well, for players it’s been tough for their mental health. Players are used to focusing on the training and games and they have found it difficult to be cocooned and away from friends and teammates. The R rate is really low, so I think it’s a good time to get back, but that threat is still there with no vaccine, so we still need to be as responsible as we do adventurous.
Oisin: Can you understand if players don’t want to return?
Kieran: I 100% understand that some players with young families with medical conditions or players with elderly parents may opt out.
Oisin: Going back to your Derry days, many quality players refer to you as their toughest opponent. That must be a tremendous compliment.
Kieran: Of course it’s a massive compliment to be recognised in that way by those players who had great careers themselves. It definitely makes it worthwhile. I was always all about the team but it’s nice that there is an element of personal satisfaction after everything I put into the game.
Oisin: Why were you so good?
Kieran: Well, I hated losing for starters. I was mentally strong and very single-minded. I wasn’t actually a corner-back until I turned 23. Growing up I played half-back and half-forward and even had a spell as the free taker.
Oisin: So who was your toughest opponent?
Kieran: Peter Canavan more than anyone, but there were a lot of great players around during that period — Mickey Linden, Manus Boyle, Declan Bonner, Bernard Flynn and Charlie Redmond. Every day was a brand new challenge and I loved that part of it. Obviously everything was about the team game. At that stage football was about man to man and winning your own battle first and team second.
Oisin: Why were your Derry team so good?
Kieran: We had so many leaders on the pitch and there was a huge desire to win at all costs and a drive to be the best.
Oisin: What is your favourite memory in a Derry shirt?
Kieran: Obviously the All-Ireland win was something to remember, but for me the favourite memory was being called up by Derry. It was a very proud day for me and my family.
Oisin: How can this current Derry side get back to the top?
Kieran: Firstly they need to believe they are better than Division Three. Derry club football is excellent and we need to feed off that. There needs to be a renewal of competitiveness. It takes hard work, to be there for your team-mate, putting the Derry unit first. I feel the tide is turning in Derry and it will come within the next couple of years. No one expected Derry to go from Division One to Four, so to turn things around it will take everyone pulling together and that is already happening with the county board and Club Derry leading the way.
Oisin: Is there anything the GAA can do to improve our sport?
Kieran: As a spectacle. In the late ’90s there was an influx of a lot of coaches with a lot of cones. Those coaches were teaching players to go from A to B but not to C. They started looking at other sports and that took a lot of the defensive tactics from soccer. Some players would be happy winning a game 2-1 but that takes away from the game. Football is on the turn once again though, Dublin are leading the way and thankfully some other teams like Kerry, Mayo and Donegal are following their lead and letting players express themselves.
Oisin: Donegal and Tyrone are the dominant forces in Ulster at the minute, will that continue for the foreseeable future?
Kieran: I don’t think so. Armagh, Cavan and Derry are improving slowly and in Ulster it has always been very competitive, so I think the dominance of these two teams won’t last.
Oisin: Which team/player do you like to watch?
Kieran: David Clifford. I watch him and wonder whether I could have done a job on him!
Oisin: Do the GAA look after their former players well enough?
Kieran: No, they don’t look after them that well at all. There doesn’t seem to be that much back-up for ex-GAA players. There is supposed to be something through the GPA but I don’t see it being promoted or made known. A lot more can be done in that regard.
Oisin: Do you still believe you have more to offer the GAA?
Kieran: I love coaching, but I’ve been the chairman of the club for five years and I'm in my first season as vice-chairman of Derry. I have no future plans to coach, but feel I can help improve things from the administrative side.
Oisin: What player past or present would you like to have played with?
Kieran: My former manager, Jim McKeever. He was the best player ever to play for Derry.