“IF I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere, it’s up to you New York New York.” Frank Sinatra’s famous New York New York lyrics need no explanation and this year, Johnny McGeeney made it. The Armagh native created his very own slice of history.
History that New York or indeed the GAA have never before experienced. The city that never sleeps is a far cry from the little town blues of Culloville, but for over a decade now, it’s where McGeeney has called home.
Switching the Orchard County for the Big Apple surely wasn’t an easy decision, but the time and graft put into the GAA in New York paid off in 2023.
McGeeney guided the Yanks to a first ever Connacht Championship victory, in the most dramatic fashion, and led the red, white and blue footballers to an All-Ireland title.
It may not be the Sam Maguire or even the Tailteann Cup, but still, their All-Ireland Junior title is indicative of the good work that McGeeney and co are doing in the states.
“For 26 native American born lads to get to walk up those steps and even Gareth Bailie, one of our selectors, he done it with Down in 1994, he won an All-Ireland medal,” explained McGeeney.
“You try and tell him after the final whistle that it didn’t mean the world to him. I’ve had some of these lads since they were 15, there’s actually one of them, Ian Kavanagh, I had him since u-10 and now he’s running out onto Croke Park and winning an All-Ireland.
“It’s mad when you think of it that way and these boys won’t care if it’s Sam Maguire or not, they’re enjoying their week.”
While climbing the steps of the Hogan Stand is a highlight, that famous night in New York City when the Exiles claimed a first ever championship victory will be engrained in the annals of time forever.
It’s been coming for a couple of years, but New York finally smashed through that glass ceiling with a penalty shootout win over Leitrim.
“When I was playing,” recalled the 37-year-old, who decided to make a brand-new start of it, “We cut down the squad to 26 but when I came in, I just said we’d keep the panel at 40.
“That way we would have a game every week and the boys would be chomping at the bit to play each other. This year we kept the Juniors in and mixed them in with the Seniors and I think that’s why we did so well in both codes.
“When you go back to the Sligo game last year (2022), it’s only when the game was over that I thought if we had of done this or done that, we could have got over the line.
“Me being new to it and maybe not being smart enough to go about things differently, I think that showed against Leitrim, we were ready for it. We got back together early; we kept the main core of the group, and we did think that we were going to really give it a good shot.
“The boys do be joking about it that it’s the only penalty shootout that my county was involved in, and we actually won, you just have to look at the heartbreak with Armagh, it’s just nice to win one of them.
“I didn’t even watch the penalties, any work that we’d done beforehand it all goes out the window. You’ve done what you’ve done, and you can’t do anymore so it’s lady luck at the end of the day when it comes to penalties.”
Division Four league champions Sligo posed much stiffer opposition in the semi-final and while it brought the dream to an end, McGeeney got to rekindle a few friendships from his former life in Ireland.
“We didn’t really expect to be going over because it’s never happened before. The logistics of getting hotels booked, getting flights and lads trying to organise visas and trying to get boys back to training because they’re out celebrating the victory, it was tough.
“But it was great too. We didn’t expect to beat Sligo, we thought we could have stayed in the game a bit longer, but it was a great experience for the lads.
“I would have played against Tony (McEntee, the Sligo manager) for years, Tony and John. I’d be there neighbouring club (of Crossmaglen) and I actually travelled home when John took us (Culloville) over in 2010, so I would know the McEntees fairly well.”
Travelling halfway across the world for the love of the GAA is one thing, but putting your life on hold for your club is another. McGeeney’s vagabond shoes had been longing to stray, but when the call came, he decided to come home and give his lot to Culloville one last time.
“John Mac took Culloville, and I wanted to play for him, so I said I’d come back,” recalled the New York boss. “I didn’t really play in the league because I’d a problem with my back but in the championship I played.
“We’d been beaten in three (Intermediate Championship) finals and a semi-final the four years previous, so it was something I wanted to do.
“The day we won it, I flew back to America the next day and then I travelled to and from for the Ulster Championship (where they lost to Craigbane of Derry in the final).”
Now that McGeeney is “a number one, top of the list, King of the hill,” he can relax and reflect on the achievements that have been years in the making. In New York New York, anything is possible, and McGeeney made everything possible this year.