HANS Christian Anderson’s literary folktale “The Emperor’s New Clothes” was first published in April 1837 and tells the story of a vain Emperor who spends lavishly on clothing at the expense of state matters.
Posing as weavers, two swindlers offer to supply the Emperor with magnificent clothes that are invisible to those who are stupid or incompetent. Hired by the Emperor the swindlers set up looms and weaves and set to work with nothing. When the Emperor’s advisers come to inspect the works each see the looms empty but pretend otherwise so not to be thought the fool. The swindlers then mime dressing the Emperor for a procession in front of the whole city. The townsfolk look on uncomfortably, going along with the pretence, fearful of being thought stupid or inept. That is until a child blurts out that the Emperor is wearing nothing at all with the people realising everyone has been fooled.
Earlier last month, Kieran McGeeney, the Armagh icon and legend, was unanimously ratified as Armagh’s senior football team manager for the ninth consecutive season in 2023. In a recent interview with RTE following his reappointment he stated proudly that: “I have got to as many quarter-finals as most managers out there”, which I felt was an interesting benchmark.
Though the follow up question was never asked, I would pose the question: is reaching quarter-final stage of the All-Ireland Championship the extent of Armagh ambitions? Throw in three wins in the Ulster Championship in eight years and the unanimity of the ratification of Kieran by the Armagh County Board appears questionable.
By Kieran’s previous managerial standards, 2022 was a year of progress, which included retaining Division One status and a run to the All-Ireland quarter-finals. But when a reasonable assessment of the year is completed, the exit from the Ulster Championship in Ballybofey without so much of a whimper of defiance cannot be glossed over.
The number of false dawns during Kieran’s managerial reign is long and arduous. Back in July 2021 ahead of the Ulster semi-final with Monaghan, it was reported that “Armagh are finally looking like making real progress in what’s now the seventh year of [Kieran’s] reign.” We all know what happened that day in Páirc Esler in what was a very entertaining game for the neutral but ultimately resulted in Armagh being dumped out of the Ulster Championship, exposing a level of naivety in the process.
Entering the 2023 season, Armagh will have last contested an Ulster final in 2008 and it cannot be said that the management has not been backed by the county board.
Publicly Kieran’s past teammates, such as Jarlath Burns during the BBC coverage of the Ulster Championship this year, called for further support for Kieran and his management team, as if any more support could be given or was warranted.
There is certainly a lack of critical analysis when it comes to Kieran’s management reign at Armagh – most of the analysis boils down to the number of melees Kieran’s teams are involved in and the lack of discipline within the group.
Inter-county management is an unforgiving business, and I suggest that in any other county Kieran would not be in situ at this stage.
By way of example, take what has been presented as a breakout year for the Armagh team. During the memorable loss to Galway in the All-Ireland quarter final, the decision to drop off the final kick-out, a decision, obviously taken by management given Kieran Donaghy’s rushing onto the field to instruct the players back, got very little critical coverage. It was a grave error in my opinion that ultimately lost Armagh the game – the responsibility for this error rests with management. If they had pushed up and won the kick-out it was game over.
I am constantly told that McGeeney has the backing of the players and the county board. He is an idol, a legend in Armagh so there is never going to be any proper critique from the county board, and the players will love any manager who plays them.
If some critical thinking was applied to McGeeney’s tenure, and the fact that he is the only man to captain Armagh footballers to an All-Ireland title is set aside, then his reappointment may not have been a foregone conclusion. Unfortunately critical thinking about McGeeney in the Orchard County equates to blasphemy. in Kerry if you’re not cutting the muster, no matter how talented and up and coming the team is, you are gone.
Now Armagh, with one football All Ireland, cannot be compared realistically to Kerry but there is no time for nostalgia at inter-county management level.
Personally, I think someone like Malachy O’Rourke would provide Armagh with a better platform for Ulster and All-Ireland success. With such an appointment, Armagh, could move from an also-ran to the winners’ enclosure, just look at what has happened in Derry.
The weaves and the looms have been tightened but there’s nothing on the strings. 2023 is likely to be a year full of promise and possibility but like the past years may ultimately flatter to deceive. McGeeney has brought big names and resources to Armagh football but has little to show for his eight years at the helm.
Will year nine be any different or will the Orchard County be left with nothing more than the Emperor’s new clothes.