Kieran McGeeney and Armagh savouring return to top flight

Armagh boss has added Kerry legend Donaghy to the Orchard County’s coaching team

Kieran McGeeney opens with a joke about wanting another Kieran on the Armagh sideline to supplement his own sense of humour. That being Kieran Donaghy, the former Kerry forward who last December agreed to join the Armagh coaching team for 2021.

“Kieran is a very gregarious type of character anyway, he’s good fun,” says McGeeney. “I know they find it hard to stop laughing at me all the time, so it’s nice to have someone else now with a good sense of humour.”

McGeeney then recalls the joke his dad made at his son's wedding to a Kerry woman, from Castleisland, in 2014, how that might help Armagh to balance things a bit more with Kerry; in truth Donaghy being from an old rival county makes no difference.

“I don’t think it’s so much where people come from, there’s a great humility about him [Kieran] too, I just that’s the sort of thing adds to any set-up,” says McGeeney, who captained Armagh in their 2002 All-Ireland final win over Kerry.

"The reason I went after Kieran this year, Kieran made a career out of bringing other people into the game, and I think that was something we were sort of missing in Armagh. It's always hard to explain to people, but sometimes you can have too many good forwards. You need people to make them tick, like [Ciaran ]Kilkenny does with Dublin, and like Kieran did with Kerry, and with his basketball background."

The Armagh manager is indeed in fine humour, talking ahead of the resumption of the Allianz Football League this weekend, also marking Armagh's return to Division One for the first time since 2012; not exactly a change of scenery though, with Monaghan, Tyrone and Donegal also in their new geographical split.

“Ach, it would have been nice to travel around and see some of the other teams. But there’s no point complaining, they’re all going to be top games, and they’ll probably see us as the sort of whipping boys coming up, but hopefully we can give a good account of ourselves. It’s going to be hard and heavy, it is what it is.

“It’s taken us a few long years to get back up there [in Division One], and having pressure in all games is going to be paramount to the development of this squad.”

The Kieran-Kieran pairing this year isn't to be confused with former Armagh captain Ciaran McKeever, also part of the new backroom team, or indeed Ciaran McKinney for that matter, the Armagh goalkeeper now acting in a coaching role too. McGeeney is upbeat about what they'll all bring to the mix.

Same boat

For McGeeney, who took over as Armagh manager in 2015, having been with Kildare from 2007 to 2013, the question of what he learned most from the lockdown is answered philosophically, even on the matter of whether or not “elite” inter-county teams should have faced any training ban to begin with.

“If there’s one thing the pandemic has shown it is that we all have opinions, and maybe one of the sad things about that is we’re all dressing our opinions off as facts. So the answer is I don’t know. I have my strong opinions on whether we’re at the same level as other sports or not, but that’s just opinion, all it is. Not knowing was the big part, the hardest part, but everyone was in the same boat.”

He also spent much of the first lockdown recovering from shoulder reconstruction surgery – “years of self-abuse and self-harm I suppose”, and “getting old” (McGeeney turns 50 in October), but is slow to admit changing in any profound way.

“I don’t know, I suppose it’s changed us all to some degree. I suppose how other sports are looked upon, for the last four months all we could read about was rugby and soccer. And seeing no Gaelic, it was interesting to see other sports talk about themselves compared to us. But there’s probably a couple of headlines, you know, but I’ll keep them to myself.”

Stemming from his own playing days with Na Fianna, perhaps, he has nothing but high praise and admiration for Dublin’s enduring football dominance.

"It's interesting seeing it from the point of view when I was there, those players were starting to come through, they're now being called some of the greatest players ever, the same people back then were calling them useless. I remember people talking about Paul Flynn, the club he was from and hadn't won anything, and James McCarthy, what had he done? And even Jonny Cooper in our own club, whether he had it or not.

"But those fellas put in a hell of a lot of work, whether it's Diarmuid Connolly, or James McCarthy, you have to admire the work ethic over the last six or seven years. And I'd be a big admirer of what they do, and how they behave.

“I would still see them around Dublin and there’s not one who would not stop and say hello and chat about football. No airs or graces, and I think to date they’ve been a credit to the county and their clubs, got what they deserved, put a lot in.”

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics