What's next for Kieran McGeeney and Armagh?

After Armagh’s exited the championship in the qualifiers to Laois, it might be time for McGeeney to move on.

ARMAGH ARE ON the rise. That was the notice that was put up for the entire country to see after the Orchard County ran Donegal to within a point in the 2014 All-Ireland quarter-final. Donegal, All-Ireland champions just two years previous, needed a 69th minute point from substitute Paddy McBrearty to sneak into the last four.

Kieran McGeeney Presseye / Matt Mackey/INPHO Presseye / Matt Mackey/INPHO / Matt Mackey/INPHO

A well-drilled Armagh outfit couldn’t quite close the deal but, with Kieran McGeeney taking the reigns from Paul Grimley for the following season, it was assumed their progress would continue into 2015. A selector in Grimley’s final year, McGeeney was appointed as manager for a five year-term.

Fast forward two years and things haven’t exactly gone to plan. Armagh’s interests in this year’s championship ended after their defeat to Laois in the round 1 qualifier re-fixture. They were relegated to Division 3 in the spring and limped out of the Ulster championship with an eight point loss to Cavan.

In two years under McGeeney, the only team Armagh have beaten in the championship is Wicklow. Their play has significantly regressed since 2014. After those two defeats to Laois, the knives may come out and McGeeney will have to watch his back the most.

It’s not like Armagh are loaded with assets, but surely things shouldn’t be this bad. 

The Armagh team Tom Beary / INPHO Tom Beary / INPHO / INPHO

How did we get to this point? McGeeney was the driving force behind Armagh’s incredible run in the last decade. In a team featuring big personalities like Oisin McConville, Steven McDonnell, John McEntee and Enda McNulty, he was its heartbeat.

He was the vocal point of a group that ousted a technically superior Kerry team in the 2002 All-Ireland final. Psychologically he dominated games. His leadership qualities meant management was the obvious next step after he retired.

Kildare struggled for long time before they appointed him in 2008. He introduced professional standards to the set up and they became perennial All-Ireland quarter-finalists. But Kildare never figured out a way to beat a big team.

They lost out season-defining crunch games against Down in 2010 and Donegal in 2011. Things weren’t quite as rosy in 2012 and 2013, as Kildare’s decline began.

It’s no coincidence that Kildare’s descent started shortly after the Seanie Johnston affair unfolded. What message did it send to his players? Johnston played his last game for Kildare in 2013. McGeeney was moved on shortly afterwards.

The problem with trying to recreate the Kildare glory years with Armagh is that they weren’t all that glorious.

Kieran McGeeney talks to his players after the game Donall Farmer / INPHO Donall Farmer / INPHO / INPHO

In championship fixtures under McGeeney, Armagh’s record stands at 1-5. Outside of Dublin, Kerry and Mayo, building a team capable of regularly reaching the last eight in Ireland isn’t easy. To do it without some of your best players is pretty much impossible.

Injuries robbed them of Kevin Dyas and Andrew Murnin this season, while for various reasons Aaron Kernan, Jamie Clarke, Caolan Rafferty and Paul Hughes have decided to not to link up with the panel. Would one or two of them have played if a different manger was in charge?

Only two teams in the top two tiers of the 2016 league scored less than Armagh (Down and Fermanagh). Just four teams conceded more (Cork, Down, Derry and Laois). In their three championship games under McGeeney in 2015, Armagh averaged 16.6 points per game. That figure dropped to 12.3 this season.

Tactically, Armagh have looked almost robotic at times. They play without freedom in a defensively minded system that doesn’t encourage individuality.

“Kieran wanted us to run with the ball,” Clarke said recently. “Whereas the likes of the Gooch [Cooper] when he gets the ball he turns his head to look to make the pass.

“To have that freedom wasn’t really allowed because you were playing to the team’s system and you don’t really want to alter that.”

Jamie Clarke chased by Gary Sice Presseye / Declan Roughan/INPHO Presseye / Declan Roughan/INPHO / Declan Roughan/INPHO

Yet McGeeney showed his penchant for thinking outside the box when he started Paul Courtney in goals against Cavan in the Ulster quarter-final. Courtney played several kick-outs short, took the return and moved up field in possession. The irony of the situation is McGeeney never allowed his players to be anywhere near as imaginative.

The 44-year-old no doubt imposed a grueling training regime with his home county. Like any inter-county squad, their lives centered around training, gym work, nutrition, flexibility and recovery. So why publicly question if county players are elite athletes?

“I still can’t see where GAA players train that hard,” he said in January. “We don’t train hard despite what people may say – any other sport trains much harder. The whole amateur thing is brought in again, they’re all amateurs in this country.”

A penny for the thoughts of his players after that line.

Many of his former players would go through a wall for him. The Kildare squad considered going on strike when the county board let him go. But the problem is his message doesn’t seem to be working anymore. After 27 straight years involved with senior inter-county teams, taking some time away could be the best move for McGeeney.

The book on McGeeney’s management career isn’t finished yet. But it might be time to move onto the next chapter.

‘We’re facing our biggest challenge as a group’ – Aidan O’Shea

‘At this stage he is out of the game’ – Donegal thinking without McGee despite appeal

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