When you sit in a dressing room amongst a team striving to be successful, you should be looking around at a room full of strong characters. Characters that possess a will to win, an unbelievable desire to gain the advantage on their direct opponent, guys who never panic when the pressure comes on, guys that are leaders amongst men. In that regard, I was lucky with the Armagh team that I played in. We had these characters in abundance. I would even go as far as to say that there wasn’t one of the 2000–2006 team that didn’t possess great leadership qualities.
The stand-out leaders were obviously Joe Kernan, Paul Grimley and Brian McAlinden from the management team. On the playing side of things we had Paul McGrane, the McEntee brothers John and Tony, the McNulty brothers Enda and Justin, Kieran Hughes, Diarmuid Marsden, John Toal… the list goes on and on but the one guy that stood head and shoulders above the rest in this department was Kieran McGeeney. Geezer was everything that you would want from a captain. Some have even made comparisons of him with Roy Keane. He trained harder than anyone else and this was still the case in the twilight of his career. He was the guy that made more match-winning interceptions and blocks than anyone else and he was the driving force behind the team on the field of play. One unbelievable example of this came when we played for Ireland against Australia in Pearse Stadium in Galway in 2006: the guy marking me was Campbell Brown and he was a similar build to Geezer. He had blistering pace too. In the dying minutes of that match, a ball was bouncing around the middle of the park just under the stand. Brown was odds-on to win possession as his pace was taking him further away from me. Out of nowhere, Geezer came towards the ball too. Both reached the ball at the same time and there was only ever going to be one winner. Geezer hit Brown with one of the hardest but fairest shoulders I have ever seen. The ball spilled to me and we went on the attack. He had my back.
It’s no coincidence that his performances earned him the footballer of the year award in 2002 as he helped instil a drive and belief in the team. One thing that he had a great habit of doing was having a quiet word in the ear of others to target certain guys in training in a physical and challenging way to make them feel the full force of every tackle if he felt they required a kick in the ass or if they had stepped out of line. I was often that guy and I had to accept it and take my punishment. I can assure you there were many nights I came home in physical pain as a result but I learnt a lot about the game this way, particularly the physical aspect of it. Looking back now, I believe this was great leadership on his behalf; he was taking ownership of potentially tricky situations.
Each and every player has their own routine in a dressing room to help prepare them for a match. Mine was relaxed and while putting on my gear I would often memorise some good scores that I kicked. This filled me with confidence. At this point, I would take time out to focus my mind on my own job while stretching out at the same time. This was my way of getting into the zone. Geezer had his way and while not giving away anything on anyone else’s routine, I can tell you his way worked for him. Quite often, what made me admire Kieran so much was his ability to inspire his team-mates with words. His team-talks were inspirational but I can never justify quite how good and effective they were. Often filled with emotion, he would stand in the circle and eyeball each and every player as if he was having a one-to-one conversation with each of us. He always did that and it worked so often. The hair would be standing on the back of our necks and we would be champing at the bit to get onto the Clones or Croke Park pitch. He had us bouncing and he regularly backed up what he was saying with his own actions on the pitch.
Any player that had the privilege of playing for Armagh or Ireland under Geezer’s captaincy will be able to relate to exactly what I have said. I roomed with him the night before the 2002 final and I will always remember his handshake and words before leaving the room that morning – “Let’s get the job done”. I knew he meant business. Not all leaders are like Kieran McGeeney – and you don’t need to be. Leadership can come in many different ways. I actually believe that Kieran only developed into the leader that he became because of suffering heartache from the many championship defeats early in his career with Armagh. Defeats from which he learned so much. Defeats that ultimately led to his success as a player. A quote that springs to mind which reminds me of Kieran is “Winners are not people who never fail, but people who never quit.” One thing that I know for sure about Kieran is that he is a man of character and, as the quote clearly states, he is a man that does not know what it means to give up.