Sometimes you need to go down the dark rabbit hole to discover the light. As Kieran McGeary – who lifted the PwC Footballer of the Year for 2021 – reflected on Tyrone's journey to All-Ireland success, that darkest of days when beaten out of sight by Kerry in an Allianz National League game in Killarney back in June provided the moment of truth to kick into gear en route to claiming the Sam Maguire Cup.
“It’s very easy now for everybody to look back and say Killarney was the kick up the backside [we] needed, but it’s only a kick up the backside if you make it a kick up the backside,” said McGeary of that 6-15 to 1-14 hammering that the Tyrone team used as a turning point in their season by trusting the process to right a wrong.
He added: “What we did that day in Kerry was probably needed for a long time. We went 15 on 15 and tried to play football with one of the best footballing teams ever. We lost the game and lost miserably. We tried things that didn’t work. We tried to go individually to win the game, play for play, ball for ball. We got ourselves handed to us. After that [defeat], it would have been very easy to revert to a defensive style of play, dropping in behind the ball. But after that, the exposure we had one v one in training was incredible. It was one of those ones where you keep being uncomfortable in a situation until you’re comfortable.”
‘Like a gazelle’
As a case in point, McGeary focused on one-to-ones with returned Aussie Rules player Conor McKenna. “At the start, it was scary. You could have Conor coming like a gazelle at you; a side step and your feet are in a twist and he’s gone past you. But if you do that time and time and time again, you start to learn where you need to get your feet placed or what you need for your body position.”
History will show that Tyrone’s response to that lesson from Kerry in a summer league match served them well, as their eventual route to the Sam Maguire saw them beat Cavan, Donegal and Monaghan in claiming Ulster and then on to a shock semi-final win over Kerry and ultimately victory over Mayo in the final.
And of his personal hunger heading into next year as the 2021 footballer of the year, McGeary observed: “You have to live up to it. No matter the weather or where the match is or the occasion, you’ll always be expected to try your best and to show up. It would be easy for people to say ‘he’s not the same as he was last year’ or ‘that went to his head’ . . . The hunger’s still there. Hard work is one of my main ingredients on the pitch. I mightn’t be as skilful as some men that are on it but I’ll [always] try my damnest.”