Ahead of the start of the 2015 Allianz Football League next weekend, we spoke to Armagh football manager Kieran McGeeney.
For many reasons, long after his playing days have ended, McGeeney remains one of the most iconic and revered figures in Gaelic Games and, frequently, a lightning rod for controversy.
Having captained Armagh to their only All-Ireland title in 2002, McGeeney is now in his first season as manager of the Orchard County having worked alongside Paul Grimley as assistant manager last year.
Already, McGeeney’s training methods have come under close scrutiny and have been cited as an example of the huge demands being placed on inter-county players in the recent burnout debate.
In this interview, McGeeney addresses some of those issues, insisting the elite culture of inter-county Gaelic Games should be “embraced not ridiculed” and he looks ahead to an exciting first season in sole charge of his native Armagh.
Q: How confident are you of winning promotion from Division III?
Kieran McGeeney: “Every division is competitive and if you lose one, even in a division that turns out to not be competitive that year, that means you have to win all your matches. I think it’s going to be a lot tougher than people realise. You have teams who have made a big effort this year trying to push up. When you see the likes of Clare pulling hurlers into their football team, and the same with Tipperary, you know they mean business.
Limerick have new management and have put a big effort in so there’s going to be a lot (of competition). Ourselves and Louth are always competitive no matter what, same with ourselves and Wexford, while Fermanagh have shown they’ll be difficult this year. You couldn’t say for definite that we’d be guaranteed a win in any of them.”
Q: Given Armagh reached an All-Ireland quarter-final last year, surely promotion is expected within the county?
K McG: “That’s what a lot of people would expect, I don’t know whether we can say that at this stage if we’re good enough to say we can win seven games on the trot. We didn’t have a consistency last year in the league that we would have liked and if we do that this year, it will cost us. Just because we had a good run in one summer – if we had three or four summers like that behind us, we would have to say ‘yeah’. But one good summer doesn’t make us.
Q: Of course, Armagh won Sam Maguire in 2002 having emerged from the equivalent of Division III…
K McG: “Yeah I remember. Monaghan did it (won Ulster in 2013) from Division III but it’s the exception rather than the rule. Don’t get me wrong, this is not saying that I don’t want our team to push on but the expectation out there isn’t measured in terms of where we actually are at the moment. We have to prove that over the next couple of weeks. If we’re at that level, or whether we have another bit to go.”
Q: Do you have to drill it into the players that promotion is not a done deal?
K McG: “They would understand that and will very quickly be reminded of that on Sunday against Tipperary, who play a tough brand of football. (They are) very good in the tackle, have a good counter-attacking style and play two tall fellas up front, are able to get back in numbers and tackles, (they have) great pace out of the half-backs. They have a lot but we’re hopeful that we’ll be competitive and that’s all we can hope for. The Athletic Grounds is a narrow pitch too so it will suit that style. We’ll probably have more of a realisation of where we are on Sunday, because our last game against Tyrone (in the McKenna Cup semi-final) was dead. There wasn’t any hard tackling in it so we’ll see what happens on Sunday.”
Q: There has been an awful lot of talk recently about the amount of training Armagh are doing. Firstly, are the reports, which detail a punishing pre-christmas training schedule true, and why do you think Armagh have come under such scrutiny?
K McG: “I’ve talked to the people who wrote them and gave them our training schedule but a lot of people just aren’t interested in the truth. I can’t put it any plainer than that. I showed them our exact training schedule. It’s very hard to lie when there’s 40 people there so that’s it. To say that we’re training ten times a week, at six in the morning, and then two games at the weekend, 12 times a week.
“The reality is that we’re training three or four times a week and that’s it, there wouldn’t be any more than that (other than) gym sessions. There wouldn’t be any more than three hours’ contact time. Of all the teams in Ireland, I would say that we were probably doing the least. They work hard but it’s a very small amount of contact times. The more you tell people the truth, the less they want to print it.”
Q: So, the report that Armagh had done 12 sessions between December 16 and 30 was inaccurate?
K McG: “Yeah, the story was we’d done 12 training sessions that week. When actually we’d done two. We had a Christmas, and then Charlie Vernon’s wedding, so we probably did more drinking that week than training. As I say, sometimes the story isn’t as good when the truth is involved. I can’t do much about it.”
Q: You have already spoken about your wish that there was more positivity in the media coverage of Gaelic Games. But is that realistic?
K McG: “Talk to anyone who’s even trying to lose a bit of weight. If you’re not training three or four times a week it’s no good. Or the talk of this drinking culture, that if you’re not out drinking pints at the weekend, you’re not looking after yourself. But anyone who is even just keep-fit orientated will train three or four nights a week. Minimum. And you look at an amateur cyclist, or rower, or triathlete, boxer, they would train much more than Gaelic footballers, because that’s what is needed for that particular sport.
“Generally, most county teams train Tuesday and Thursday on the pitch, maybe two gym sessions of around 40 minutes, then something at the weekend. Sometimes coming up to the summer you might get away for a training camp, and do two sessions a day for a few days, but that’s the exception rather than the norm. Some people just like to be negative.”
Q: Another story doing the rounds is that a number of Crossmaglen Rangers players left the squad because of the training schedule. What’s your reaction to that?
K McG: “Well nobody talked to them about that. Tony (Kernan) mentioned someone was giving out about Armagh training at six in the morning, but it was Cross’ that were doing it, and we were lauding them. You can’t say one thing is right or wrong. Teams will do that they want at a particular moment in time.
“People were training at six in the morning 20 years ago. But the people who are over the fitness of teams now know what they’re at. They really do. I know when I was training there was a cone in the corner, with the one light from the clubhouse, and I’d spend half an hour running around that pitch. It used to be demoralising.
“Now, all the training evolves around football. And games. But we were training four nights a week, like that. And there was talk back then of even top class managers training 28 days on the trot. And there was no one giving out about it then, and they were winning All-Irelands and that was correct.”
Q: In a recent interview, Armagh player Kevin Dyas said a lot of the focus was because of an obsession with your own dedication and commitment as a player and, perhaps, because of your interest in Mixed Martial Arts. Would you agree with that?
K McG: “Probably is, and the fact you lads like the fact I bite back! It’s part of my personality. I just know other teams train harder than us – like I know I trained longer hours when I was training. Maybe people will tell you I needed that. And people made out that I had a dour existence, but I think it was them who had the dour existence. Because there was no passion or love for what they were doing. If they didn’t want to be there, go home. I loved it. I couldn’t wait to get to training. With (Diarmuid) Marsden to knock the head off me. We had good times. It was a big part of my life. I loved it and I wouldn’t change any of it.
“I think most players would say the same. To have that type of focus and passion for something in your life is important because most of us can have a very mundane existence. We get up, we got to work, some people are very lucky that they work at what their passion is, but in general most people don’t. This is a good thing to have. Yeah, there are hard times in it, nobody likes the hard training part but the camaraderie and stuff comes afterwards and those are the things associated with it. I think it is something unique in the GAA that we have such a passion for a particular sport that doesn’t exist anywhere else, unless you make it to the top levels. We have that passion here at all levels. I think it’s a unique thing and one that should be embraced, not ridiculed.”
Q: One of Joe Brolly’s assertions in his recent column and subsequent radio interviews was that the standard of Gaelic football is dropping as a direct result of the obsession with training and physical preparation. Do you agree with him?
K McG: “That’s one thing I am very happy TV is about for, to put an end to all that nonsense. Don’t get me wrong, there are bad games every year and sometimes you will have a bad championship. But in general the level of sport goes up. Unfortunately with that level comes huge expectations to play. I remember All-Ireland semi-finals when they were brutal, but people forget them because TV was not covering them in the same way 20, 25 years ago than they do now.
“Even now our back door games, there are some real crackers there. You just have to compare them, you shouldn’t have to explain it. You do have some exceptions like I think it was 1994 Down against Derry, some of those games were fantastic but they were exceptions. In general it does move up. Some teams do dominate at times and it can take away, like the way Dublin have dominated Leinster, but you see Meath and Kildare starting to come again now and hopefully that will create more competition.
“But don’t believe it has an adverse effect. People don’t like some of the athleticism that is involved but we hear the same in rugby. Fellas are saying ‘oh, those fellas are doing all those weights and stuff but they wouldn’t have been as tough as men in our days.’ You sort of laugh and go ‘yeah, but I wouldn’t like to run into them compared to you.’
“I suppose it’s all part of the games that go around, the media have to create and put stories together. There are always going to be strong opinions, I’m going to have mine and somebody else is going to have theirs but I think in general it’s fair to say that the games are improving. I suppose there are small bits we need to work on, the calendar year needs to be looked at.”
Q: Did you ever expect to become Armagh manager so quickly?
K McG: “I’ve always loved Armagh, it’s been in my blood since I was a kid. From as far back as I was running, I represented Armagh at sprint level and long-jump level and then all the underage so it’s a big part of me.
“It was tough for me to leave Armagh, and at that particular time there were a few things around that time that stung a wee bit too. But I think that’s the thing about the GAA, it sort of always brings you back in even though it stings. It gets under your skin and it has to be part of what you do. There are huge expectations but I’ve also learned that I’m going to have a shelf-life where I am. People say it is five years but it could be a lot shorter than that. But you know you have a shelf-life now in Gaelic football and that’s understandable. Even managers out there with tremendous success, a year after they don’t do well it’s like, ‘we need to get rid of him, he’s terrible, look what he’s doing’.”
Q: Is there an extra pressure to win silverware when managing your own county?
K McG: “There’s always going to be that sort of thing hanging over and if I ever do get it then there will be something else like ‘he never got two’ the same way as when you were a player. The fact of the matter is we know that the structure isn’t designed for breakthroughs, it’s more of a status quo. To get that breakthrough it needs a tremendous amount of work and a wee bit of luck and the decisions going your way.
“That’s one of the things we have at the minute, big decisions are costing games and it’s unfortunate that things like that happen. You see the All-Ireland semi-final between Kerry and Mayo, everybody sort of saying that’s the way football should be played. If our rules were implemented in that game would there be a completely different outcome? And if that’s the case then we have to look at that sort of stuff.
“Expectations of winning silverware, there is always going to be that because the minute you take the job, whether you are taking it, from fourth division right up to first division, if you are there people expect you to win and that is just the reality of the situation.”
Kieran McGeeney was speaking at the launch of the 2015 Allianz Football League in Croke Park on Monday. Armagh open their 2015 Allianz League III campaign against Tipperary at the Athletic Grounds on Sunday (2pm).