Eamonn Fitzmaurice and Jim McGuinness are in the final because they’re the best man- managers

Kerry and Donegal are teams built on trust and honesty, led by two men who insist on it

Wed, Sep 3, 2014, 12:00

I was sitting beside a true-blue Dub in Croke Park on Sunday. No more than the rest of us, he didn’t end up seeing the game he thought he was coming to see. Like everybody else, he had his expectations turned on their head. Sport does it to all of us. Here’s how the conversation went the longer the afternoon went on . . .

Pre-game: “I’ll tell you what, Darragh, the last thing we need here is another 10-point win. That won’t do our boys any good at all.”

When Dublin led 9-4: “This no good for us, Darragh. No good. We need a test here.”

Half-time, Donegal a point ahead: “Now we have it, Darragh. This is exactly what we need. These boys have got it too handy for too long. This will be the making of them.”

Fifteen minutes left: “Jeez, they’d want to get the finger out here . . .”

Full-time: “. . .”

Fantastic experiences

It was that sort of weekend. Both matches were just fantastic experiences to be a part of, no matter who you were shouting for and no matter what side of the result your team came out on. Both games left you speechless.

What we’re left with is a great All-Ireland final. I’ve heard a lot of people saying since the weekend it’s the best two managers in the game that are still standing at the end but nothing is ever just that simple.

Maybe they are and maybe they aren’t – all you can say for certain is Jim McGuinness and Eamonn Fitzmaurice are the best managers this year.

They’re the two who’ve got most out of the squads they had available to them and they came through semi-finals with what were perceived as weaker panels, beating teams they weren’t supposed to beat. On the simplest level, those are real managerial achievements.

Leave aside the tactical side of things for a minute. Plenty of time for that in the coming weeks. The man-management involved here was huge. Jim McGuinness picked his players up after getting a hiding at the end of last year. Eamonn Fitzmaurice saw a load of All-Ireland medals walk out the door and lost Colm Cooper even before the clocks went forward. They’re both in an All-Ireland final.

Think about what that takes. It’s about moulding minds over a long period of time, making fellas believe it’s possible. You’re taking 30 bodies in through the door to training every night and each one of them has a different button that you need to press if you’re going to get what you need out of them.

Attention to detail

They’re teachers, they’re students, they’re gardaí, they’re business managers, they’re farmers, they’re unemployed. They come to training in good form, they come to training in foul humour, they come in every mood in between. You’re the one who has to be able to pick up on every little thing and catch small problems before they become big ones. People talk about good managers having great attention to detail – that’s what it means.

I played with Eamonn Fitz for years. I was a selector under him with the under-21s for a year before he took the senior job. I even lived with him for a while. Attention to detail is his whole thing. I always say that if I shot somebody in the morning, Fitzy would be the first call I’d make. He’d know what to do and how to handle it.

For the next two-and-a-half weeks, he’ll devote his time to the challenge Donegal will bring. If they’re going to have 13 bodies inside their own 45, how do Kerry draw them out? Do they keep trying to kick massive points with the outside of the boot like Dublin did or do they try to come up with a different way?

Fitzy will have to gear up practice sessions for it in training and inevitably he’s going to be making fellas do things they’re not used to and that they never did before. He’ll be putting guys in the position of pretending they’re Donegal players, packing the defence, wing forwards playing as sweepers, the whole shebang. In their heads, some of them are bound to be going, ‘Well, how can he see me at my best if this is what he has me doing?’

These are players who want to push for a starting place in an All-Ireland final but because of the unique problem Donegal present, they’re going to be saddled with being crash-test dummies simulating the game Kerry are going to be facing.

The only way he’s able to get them to do that with a full heart is if they’ve trusted him all along, right through the year.

Last Saturday against Mayo, with everything on the line, 23 of the squad got a chance to come in and show what they could do. He trusts them, they trust him.

He is good at that side of the job because he is sincere. He talks at a slowish pace because he wants to get the right words in his head before he says them.

You know that if Eamonn is telling you something, he’s not telling it to you to get rid of you. There is no time for waffle or plamás.

I would say it’s no accident you’ve heard Jim McGuinness use the word “honesty” a load of times since Sunday. That’s what his approach is based on, the same as Eamonn.

Through that, you build a bond. At full-time on Saturday, young lads and older fellas throughout the squad were jumping around the place overjoyed. Watching them, I thought back to the last league game of the spring in Tralee when Cork beat Kerry by 10 points.

I remember that day Kerry people talking about Fitzy in an almost sympathetic way. The gist of it was, ‘Ah, the poor divil, look what he has to put up with - no Gooch and a hosing from Cork in front of his own crowd’.

But he went away and built a trust throughout the team. His ethos and McGuinness’s would be very similar. ‘Here’s the gameplan lads – learn it, trust it, be true to it and we won’t go far wrong. Do everything for the team, don’t go off on solo runs’.

So far in Fitzmaurice’s managerial career it has brought two Munster titles, an All-Ireland final, as well as a Hogan Cup win with a school that only has a few hundred pupils against St Pat’s, Maghera which has over 1,300. That’s fair clipping.


McGuinness’s achievement is incredible as well. And just like Fitzy, it comes down to the trust his players clearly have in him. I played against Neil Gallagher away back when he was a young player. It was obvious he had the skills it took to make a serious midfielder – good engine, brave, good fielder, tough as you want. But I could see as well he didn’t really trust what he had.

Look at him now. He runs around the place like these are the last steps he’s ever going to take and as if he might keel over at any moment. But who beats him in a foot race? Very few people. He got to a ball ahead of Michael Darragh Macauley on Sunday that he never looked favourite for but was never letting himself get beaten to.

Watch the way he holds on to possession now. It can sometimes look like he slows the game down and maybe in a different team that would be a negative against him. But Donegal’s whole counter-attacking game is about finding space for the players to break into. And if you’re going to do that, then players have to be comfortable hanging on to the ball until the very last second so as to commit tacklers to them.

There was a great moment in the second half on Sunday when Gallagher got the ball out on the sideline underneath the Cusack Stand, midway between his own 20-metre line and his 45. At the start of his career, he would have got rid of it as soon as possible, probably with a big, long kick upfield.

But instead, he took a hop and just sort of sauntered with the ball until four Dublin players came rushing in on him. He held it until the very last second before popping it off and just like that, four Dublin players were bypassed.

The maturity, the confidence, the balls to do that as the traffic came at him – that’s what Jim McGuinness has put into these guys.

They all had a terrible year last year. Every last one of them. And it isn’t like they were young guys who could afford to take a year of failure and still have their whole career ahead of them. These are men with jobs and wives and kids who could very easily have said, ‘Look, we won our All-Ireland, what more do we need out of life?’

This whole thing is a game of tiny margins. If Diarmuid Connolly scores his goal last Sunday or if Eoghan O’Gara takes his, Dublin are away out the gap and nobody’s talking about the managerial genius Jim McGuinness.

The same goes for Eamonn Fitzmaurice if Rob Hennelly’s free catches a gust of wind and drops over the bar.

But those are bits of luck, as likely to go with you as go against you. The way to judge a manager is on what he gets out of what he’s given. On that count, we can definitely say that the year’s best two managers will line up for the final.

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