BY CHRIS MCNULTY
JACK O’Connor gathered the Kerry players into a room in Fitzgerald Stadium, Killarney on the week of the 2006 All-Ireland quarter-final.
They were set to grapple with Armagh in Croke Park and the Kingdom had a score to settle, still scarred from the experience of losing the 2002 All-Ireland final against the Orchard.
Kerry collected Sam Maguire in 2004, but the wound from ‘02 was still gaping as O’Connor rallied his troops, five days before they were set to face Joe Kernan’s men, who’d just won their sixth Ulster SFC in eight years. Their paths hadn’t crossed, but Armagh were under Kerry’s skin. Not to the same degree as Tyrone, but they were an annoyance to the aristocrats nonetheless.
Of Armagh’s many warriors, O’Connor focussed on one.
‘We speak about Armagh for a few minutes, especially about Kieran McGeeney,’ he wrote in his autobiography, Keys To The Kingdom.
‘Armagh have created a sense of myth around themselves. McGeeney is the best example. He is indestructible! He trains twice a day every day and then goes to the shops and spends thirty euros a day on fruit! And Francie Bellew is Cú Chullain.
‘A big part of Armagh’s success is this aura. They’ve turned around the GAA thing of playing yourself down.’
Kerry managed to turn the tables on Armagh – on the same afternoon as Cork edged out Brian McIver’s Donegal in the second game – and returned Sam to the Kingdom again that September.
It was telling, though, that O’Connor put much of his focus on the influence of McGeeney, Armagh’s captain for their All-Ireland success in ‘02.
The Mulllaghbawn man perfectly described his journey of relentless hard work and toil, a sheer refusal to accept what others believed to be impossible, when he spoke in the aftermath of what remains the most glorious day in Armagh football.
He said at the time: “When somebody tells you all your life that something is beyond your reach, that it’s impossible, that you’ll never get there, and then you do, well – there’s that feeling that the work and toil that you put yourself through for 13 or 14 years has all come to fruition.”
In January, Armagh footballer Kevin Dyas attempted to dispel a myth that McGeeney was flogging Armagh’s footballers in the early moments of his tenure as manager of his native county. At the time, Dyas also dealt with the criticism aimed at McGeeney’s teams.
“It’s the whole fascination around people trying to have a pop at Geezer,” Dyas mentioned.
“Everybody knows that Geezer is into his MMA stuff. People automatically associate that with a scuffle on a GAA field.”
McGeeney trains at John Kavanagh’s Straight Blast Gym in Dublin, the home of UFC sensation Conor McGregor. Last August, McGregor spoke about McGeeney, a purple belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
“He’s an animal,” McGregor said.
“He’s been great for John as well. John has taken a lot from him. He has coached at a high level and, I tell you what, he’s a hard worker. He instils hard work in people.”
That hard working mentality is something that comes naturally to McGeeney – and it’s something he demands from his players.
Kavanagh once told a story about the former Kildare manager that outlines the sort of character that will stand on the opposing sideline to Donegal this Sunday at the Athletic Grounds.
He said: “There’s a drill I can do that wears people down. If you wear someone down, then you can teach them technique.
“The drill would normally take between three and five minutes. After three or five minutes, even somebody quite fit will be sore.
“I did it for sixty minutes and McGeeney never stopped.”
He never does stop.
McGeeney was alongside Paul Grimley with Armagh last year when they just missed out on defeating Donegal in an All-Ireland quarter-final. It was an ill-tempered clash during which all sorts of off-the-ball shennanigans were happening. Donegal team surgeon, Mr Kevin Moran, was shoved to the ground in one of the more ugly incidents of the afternoon.
With Donegal heading for the Orchard on Sunday they expectation is that the red carpet won’t be waiting. This one will be a war.
McGeeney was perhaps trying to prod the coals recently when he was asked about Donegal’s physicality.
“The physicality I think is seen more in Ulster than in other provinces, you look at it a different way but from a playing point of view I can categorically state they are not even in the same ball park,” was his answer.
“They might be closer, because of the northern thing – and you might as well call it northern thing- and you might as well call it northern more than Ulster – there is more of a rivalry and there is more friction in it.
“But in terms of actual physicality, you are on about bigger men and harder hitters. In fairness, Mayo have stepped up too in the last couple of years in terms of the size of the men they have and the way they hit.”
McGregor spoke of McGeeney discussing the ‘mind’ with him a lot and certainly the Armagh boss, during his playing and non-playing days, is regarded as one of the masters of the darkest of arts. While he was the Kildare manager, McGeeney had a few run-ins with Jim McGuinness and it made for a white hot contest any time the two collided.
Armagh’s dark side was shown last year in a clash with Cavan that happened pre-game in the parade, but Ciarán McKeever, the Armagh captain, believes that was blown out of proportion.
He said: “We got the blame for that one as well. I think people forget what happened at throw in as well. Our two midfielders were fired to the ground but some people didn’t see that. We won the game and that was the main thing for us. It wasn’t what happened in between.
“I felt that after the Cavan game that they (media) were trying to highlight every incident. That was the least of our worries, we had a task in front of us and that was to win matches and take Armagh to the next level and that’s what we wanted to do.”
The future of the provincial championships has been up for its annual debate already this year, but for Sunday’s participants – and those who’ll pack themselves into the compact Athletic Grounds – winning the Anglo-Celt would mean everything.
As McKeever puts it: “The Ulster Championship, we’re under no illusion how competitive it is. There are only 30 medals given out each year and you always want to have one every year.”
Like Donegal in 2010 when Jim McGuinness took the reigns, Armagh finally have the man at the wheel that the county craved. Watching him lead Kildare hurt the four corners of Armagh, but now ‘Geezer’ is back at home – and his passion for his native county cannot be underestimated.
He said: “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.”
When Armagh held an Indian sign over Donegal in the early noughties, McGeeney was one of their arch nemesis.
Now, even though he’s on the sideline as the Armagh manager, he’s the man whose in the middle of Donegal’s crosshairs.