Kieran McGeeney: Four decades of dedication

KIERAN McGeeney was just entering his teenage years when he first pulled on the Armagh jersey that would go on to define his very existence. An Armagh select headed south for a challenge game with Cork when ‘Geezer’ ticked the first box in a list of lifetime ambitions.

After three years with the county minors, McGeeney joined the Armagh senior panel for preseason training in 1989 and from then until now, he’s been involved at the top level of his chosen sport.

35 years of unbroken service to the inter-county game is a phenomenal achievement. He had a few seasons in charge of Kildare, taking them to within an inch of the crossbar away from an All-Ireland final, but outside of that, his dedication to Armagh has been endless.

“The first time I actually wore an Armagh jersey was an u14 game against Cork down in Cork,” recalled McGeeney, who was part of the late Malachy McGeeney’s Armagh select that made the long trip back in 1984.

“I think myself and Cathal Quinn did midfield for that Armagh select that went down, we stayed in Bishopstown I think. I have a long and varied history with Armagh.”

He joined the minors in 1987, although he was dropped before the championship. However, he made up for it in the next two years and helped Armagh reach the Ulster final in 1989, although they lost to Derry.

“I marked Peter (Canavan) in the first round, Stephen McGinley against Monaghan in the semis. (Anthony) Tohill’s minor team beat us in the Ulster final and back then, preseason started in September even before the All-Ireland final, so I was brought onto the senior team.

“The big thing about that was that I remember going in my school uniform, I was seventh year in the Abbey that September so that was interesting. I had my PE teacher (James McCartan Snr) playing against me against Down.”

McGeeney represented Armagh during his early years involved with athletics at the community games, competing in the 100m sprint and the long jump, but the lure of Gaelic Football soon engulfed the Mullaghbawn youngster and that was where he found his real passion.

He was on the panel ten years before Armagh finally landed some provincial silverware. The two Brian’s (Canavan and McAlinden) led the Orchard County to glory, and Geezer hails the little bit of luck his side had back then.

“Outside of that one team (1999-2008) Armagh won seven Ulster championships in 150 years. Those seven were more or less two teams. A team from the late 70s and early 80s and a team from the 50s, so it’s only really three teams that won those titles.

“It took us ten years to break that duck and we got a wee bit of luck (against Derry in 1999). Paddy McKeever, it was a great tackle by Henry Downey, it was a hard shoulder, but we got a free kick from it and scored it.

“We struggled with Derry around that time. Derry was very strong with (Kieran) McKeever, (Tony) Scullion, (Brian) McGilligan, they started to leave but you still had (Anthony) Tohill, Henry and Seamus (Downey), Damian Barton and Damian Heaney, really top-class players.

“We got that wee bit of a break that day and when you win one it can make a big difference and we went on to win seven out of the next ten (Ulster titles).”

That same strike of fortune helped Armagh accomplish their greatest ever achievement in 2002 when McGeeney captained Joe Kernan’s men to the All-Ireland title.

That luck that’s required to win major trophies, was absent in the previous years, however as Armagh set their sights on the big prize.

“When you look back and look at those games, we had a lot of luck that year (2002),” added McGeeney. “There were other years that we played just as well if not better and just didn’t have the luck.

“Like Meath in 1999, we were two-points ahead with a couple of minutes left, Reidy (Gerard Reid) got sent off and they banged over a couple of points, and we just fizzled out.

“We came back and played Kerry the following year and give them a great start, I think they went 7-0 up, we came back and drew the game. Oisin McConville passed me the ball and I scored a point, and I thought it was the winner.

“John Bannon gave a free, I’ll never forget it, against Paul McGrane inside our own half, but he gave it from where the ball landed and Maurice (Fitzgerald) put it over and it went to extra time.

“It was the same in the replay, two clinkers of games. Real tough, hard-hitting games and that was a great Kerry team, full of all-time greats. They were great games and there was no quarter asked nor given.

“Those two games and the three games against Tyrone in 2005 would be the games that I would still look back on as real battles. Those were games that you loved being a part of.

“The one we won against Tyrone that year (the Ulster final replay) we probably weren’t the better team and then we lost to them in the All-Ireland semi-final when we were probably the better team, but that’s football. It’s not always fair.

Win or learn is a term coined by McGeeney’s friend and MMA coach John Kavanagh, and unfortunately for Armagh it’s been more about learning than winning in the last few years, but the support for the Orchard men has never changed.

“Armagh have such great support, really, really honest football people that just want to see us do well. Even since I was a child playing, there was always that same diehard approach, there’s 2000 or 3000 people and you see them at every game.

“The likes of Roy Tiffney, Patrick McCann, people like that. You see the same faces at every game and they’re just dying to see Armagh do well. You see the same people after games too and you can see the joy in their faceSs when we’re doing well.

“It’s a great thing to see and we have great sponsors out there at the minute too, we have a lot of good people behind Armagh at the minute and you just hope, whether it’s me that gets them over the line or somebody else, this bunch deserve it.

“We’ve been really unlucky over the last couple of years, just missing out on that little bit extra to get us there, so you hope that lady luck will give us a wee bit this year.

“I love Armagh. Always have and always will. I love being involved in football and I’ll always love Armagh. It’s something that’s been in my blood ever since I’ve been able to hold a ball, so I’m sure it’ll be in me until they put me in the box.”

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