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The rise and rise of Kieran McGeary

Reflecting on his journey from underage talent to Footballer of the Year.

kieran mcgeary

DURING HIS TIME studying in St Mary’s teaching college in Belfast, Kieran McGeary was asked to do up a diary of what a typical week looked like for him. 

At that stage he was working two part-time jobs, studying for a degree, playing for the Tyrone U21s, the college’s Sigerson Cup team, had been brought in to train with the county senior team, while also enjoying a social life.  

St Mary’s Sigerson manager Paddy Tally made the request, keen to give his first years a lesson in time management. 

“We’ve a lot of sports students coming in who are going to be playing at (senior) inter-county level or underage, and they’re also playing Sigerson Cup, have part-time jobs, are going to be studying and have all their social lives,” Tally tells The42

“So I wanted to show that this is what you can do if you’re disciplined. It’s a template that’s still being used in the college, we’re still using it to show that it can be done.”

At times that social life involved getting changed in Frank Burns’s car while they drove back from training in Garvaghey before joining his college mates already on a night out, but he made it work.

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“Those skills will be great for Kieran in his life because now he’s got his football, he’s also got the business, he’s a full-time teacher and he’s obviously got his own personal life too but I’ve no doubt he’ll be able to handle all those things because he’s the type of lad he is.”

During his college days, McGeary’s discipline and “mindset as regarding winning, training and preparation” made him stand out even among an exceptional group of players that included future Tyrone All-Stars Conor Meyler and Cathal McShane. 

No athlete makes it to the elite level without overcoming adversity along the way, but the teenage version of McGeary always looked destined to make it to the very top of the game.

As he made his way through the Pomeroy Plunketts underage ranks, the club knew they had a future star on their hands.

In the same age group as his close friend and team-mate Frank Burns, the pair won an All-Ireland crown and two Markey Cups at Holy Trinity Cookstown under the guidance of Peter Canavan.

kieran-mcgeary Kieran McGeary played in two All-Ireland vocational schools A finals with Holy Trinity College. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

They enjoyed success at club level too and it was no surprise when Tyrone came knocking.

“I’ve been managing youth teams from before I even retired from football myself. You just knew with Kieran,” recalls his former club minor coach Brendan Fullen.

“You knew he wasn’t going to stop at club level, he was always going to be scouted.

“We lifted a couple of trophies. We won a bit. You had one of those teams were you’d three or four excellent players at minor level that probably no other club had.”

Kieran’s older brother Hugh Pat, a member of this year’s All-Ireland winning squad, and Frank’s sibling Brendan, part of Tyrone’s panel in early 2018, formed a formidable minor crop in the club.

Even then, Kieran stood out. 

“People were asking, who’s he? Because he just stood out from the crowd. You just know they’re county standard and well above average player. Kieran just has an exceptional engine. He covered some ground and never stopped.

“Now Francis (Frank Burns) needed a kick up the ass ever now and again. He was a wee bit unlike Kieran. Kieran just done it and liked doing it. Francis just needed that extra push in the right direction.”

McGeary’s stock was steadily rising until he was dropped from the Tyrone minor squad by Mickey Donnelly. At 17, he’d reached a crossroads in his career.

It was a decision that hurt McGeary, but he described it as the “eye-opener” he needed. 

At an age when many young footballers can get distracted by the delights of their new-found freedom and social lives, he looked inward and worked even harder on his game. 

“You were dealing with a lad that wanted to play football,” says Fullen. “There’s players that needed a push, or players that were good enough to make it but didn’t want to work at it.

“Kieran wanted to work at it and play football. It’s simple. He’s where he is now by just hard work and dedication.”

vincent-litchfield-with-kieran-mcgeary McGeary won an Ulster minor title with Tyrone in 2012. Source: Jonathan Porter/INPHO

He was recalled by Donnelly for his second year minor and by the time he started studying teaching at St Mary’s, Tally knew he had a serious player on his hands. Not only that, but he figured they had the makings of a team that would give the Sigerson a decent crack before they graduated. 

“I had a fair idea of him before he came to the college, he went to Holy Trinity in Cookstown and he captained a Markey Cup winning team down there.

“Then he came to us to study PE and I knew the minute we had him in the door he was going to be very good.

“He’s a real learner and he studies the game. He doesn’t go out and play without really reflecting on his performance. He’ll look for areas to improve on and he’s always been like that. He’s really diligent in his preparation and ensure that it’s done well.”

By the time he finished his time in the Belfast college, McGeary had captained Tyrone to the All-Ireland U21 title, won a Sigerson crown and helped Pomeroy to county and Ulster intermediate honours. 

“It was Kieran and a few other lads that backboned a team that won the Sigerson in 2017,” recalls Tally.

“In all honesty if Kieran McGeary wasn’t there we wouldn’t have won it because he had a massive influence on our group of players.”

Their Sigerson Cup win in 2017 was a massive shock at the time. They beat a UCD side featuring Mick Fitzsimons, Robbie McDaid, Eoin Murchan, Jack McCaffrey, Stephen Coen, Jack Barry, Conor McCarthy, Eamonn Wallace, Paul Mannion and Colm Basquel. 

Led by McGeary, McShane and Meyler, St Mary’s had a decent outfit themselves. Matthew Fitzpatrick, Kevin McKiernan, Conor McCann, Oisin O’Neill, Ciaran Corrigan, Aaron McKay and Corey Quinn were among their leading lights with inter-county experience. 

Missing McGeary for the first two rounds of the competition due to a knee injury he picked up during Pomeroy’s run to the All-Ireland club intermediate semi-final, his return was crucial to their historic victory.

“He was back fit to go for the semi-final against Cork and then the final against UCD,” explains Tally. “If we hadn’t have had him for those two games we wouldn’t have gone through. Especially in the final, he was immense.”

One of the smallest colleges in the country, St Mary’s played a defensive, counter-attacking system under Tally. McGeary lined out at centre-forward but dropped off, doubling up as a spare defender and even man-marking at times.

After seeing Basquel rattle the net twice inside the opening three minutes, they launched an inspiring comeback with McGeary to the fore. Not normally noted as a free-taker, he curled over a vital dead ball near the end of the game – a point that turned out to be the winner.

“His leadership was immense. McGeary and those boys started leading the charge back and it was Kieran’s performance, driving the team on and keeping everybody at it. 

“There’s just so many wee facets of the game when I look back to the final when McGeary was very to the forefront of the win,” continues Tally. “That was what we required of him and he knew exactly how to behave when those times came.”

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Watching him go on to win an All-Ireland, All-Star and Footballer of the Year in 2021 was a great source of pride for Tally, who recently joined Jack O’Connor’s backroom team in Kerry and will face his former student in 2022.  

“I was so proud of Kieran this year. What he’s achieved was remarkable. If you were to ask me if it surprised me, to be honest it doesn’t.

“When you know Kieran, the type of lad he is and the type of footballers he is, you just realise he’s one of those players that’s going to be at the very top of the game.

“This year has been a dream for him and I’m delighted for him. I’ve spoke to him a few times since and it’s just great for him and he fully deserves.

“He’s a gem of a player, that’s the only way you could describe him. He really was a gem to work with because you didn’t have to ask him twice. Once you put him on the field of play you knew what you were going to get from him.

jack-mccaffrey-with-kieran-mcgeary McGeary goes past Jack McCaffrey in the 2017 Sigerson Cup final. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“He would have got better as a player (during his time in St Mary’s) but he just grew, it was a very natural thing with Kieran. He’s not one of those players that needed an awful lot of coaching in fairness.”

McGeary encountered a bump in the road earlier this year when he was whipped at half-time of the Ulster quarter-final against Cavan. Being played in a new role at centre-back under Brian Dooher and Feargal Logan, he picked up an early yellow card after a rash tackle.

At times he can be a little too loose with his tackling, but it was an aspect he improved on as the year went on.

“Again it was part of the learning,” notes Tally. “He just studied why was he giving away frees and became technically better at that aspect of his game.

“That would come down to the type of mindset he would have, before he’d look at anybody else on why he was taken off he’d look at himself and say, ‘I need to improve here to ensure it just doesn’t happen again.’

“It’s a very mature outlook and it’s one that can be used as an example to other players.”

A strong support network with his parents at home, where he still lives, has helped over the years.

“There’s no problems with him off the field. He hardly drinks, he doesn’t do any of that. His Mammy wouldn’t let it happen anyway,” Fullen laughs. “It wouldn’t happen.

“(Hugh Pat and Kieran) are cared for like an egg. Him and her (parents) go to all the games, to every club game, every county game. Wherever Hugh Pat and Kieran are, you’re sure to see mum and dad. They’re not far away.” 

Still only 27, Tally believes his best years are ahead of him. 

“You’d no fear with Kieran that he was going to lag behind, in fact he just got better. And now he’s got an All-Ireland U21 title, a senior title, a Sigerson Cup title, he’s won an intermediate title in Tyrone and Ulster with his club.

“And he’ll continue to push on. He’s now player of the year and an All-Star. That doesn’t really surprise me because that’s the type of boy you’re dealing with.”

For more great storytelling and analysis from our award-winning journalists, join the club at The42 Membership today. Click here to find out more >

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Kevin O'Brien

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