Fionn Fitzgerald warns that Kerry v Mayo will be just as tactical as Dublin v Donegal
The Kerry captain is one of the new breed: no piseogs, just a focus on performance
Kerry captain Fionn Fitzgerald: “There’s a structure for us to play within, obviously. But the reason James [O’Donoghue] is able to play the way he plays is that we’re encouraged to cut loose and have our own freedom. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
sWe know how it goes by now. The easy shorthand for the next two weekends has the purists knocking every last bit of available enjoyment out of Kerry v Mayo on Sunday before shielding the children’s eyes when Dublin v Donegal comes around seven days later. So it is written, so it is deemed it will come to pass.
Reality hums a different tune, though. The notion that elite sides at this time of year will merrily allow an All-Ireland semi-final to turn into a raucous sing-along got its answer when Tipperary doused all expectations of a shoot-out last Sunday.
Anyone who believes Kerry v Mayo will be a forward’s bonanza with scores falling from the sky at will is likely to be similarly disappointed.
This will be dense as Sudoku, every last move thought through and teased out by both sides.
“There might be a perception that Dublin v Donegal will be slightly different to ours,” says Kerry captain Fionn Fitzgerald. “But I think the way the game has gone, there’s going to be huge intensity in our game as well.
“Both teams have very good systems in place and are tactically quite strong. But ultimately we do both go out to play football.
“If there’s such a thing as free-flowing football anymore, I’m not too sure. But we’d like to think that we play it the best we can anyway.”
So in its own way, it’ll be as tactical as the other game?
“Absolutely, that’s my point, basically. We tactically go about things and we have a good system going at the moment. And Mayo have their own system and they’ve been very, very successful with it.
Tactical“It might be different game for the onlooker but it’s a really tactical type of game at this level no matter who’s playing.”
It’s a far cry from just a few years ago when Kerry were able to outfox Mayo in an All Ireland final through the entirely straight-forward ploy of kicking high ball in to Colm Cooper.
Fitzgerald is one of Kerry’s new breed, 24 years old and not a yerra in sight. There’s no attempt to shroud the game in mystic piseogs – the game is the game and as a modern player, part of his duty is to drill down into the game. He wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Yeah, even over the last three or four years it’s changed an awful lot. It’s definitely gone that way.
“As a player, you want to be in games where you’re teasing out those tactical scenarios. Everyone wants to play free-flowing football but the reality is that at this stage of the year, there’s two sides to it.
“There’s cutting loose and trying to play with freedom but you have to have a bit of structure and system to your game. That’s what we enjoy teasing out.”
Fitzgerald has just finished a Masters in Sports Performance at UL, a course that has taken him to the far reaches of the sporting earth in the course of his studies. He spent a winter in New Zealand working with elite underage rugby players in the Chiefs’ system. Last winter, he went to Dallas where he liked up with former Clare trainer Micheál Cahill in the land of Friday Night Lights high school football.
Relative age effectHis thesis explored the relative age effect in sport – the idea popularised (for good and ill) by Malcolm Gladwell whereby people born earlier in the year are supposed to enjoy advantages as regards their own sporting prowess compared to those born later.
In short, Fitzgerald is a man who thinks about sport, who studies it intently – much like most modern players. The notion that he and his like would throw caution to the wind against Mayo any more than Michael Murphy and the rest would against Dublin is nonsense.
If nothing else, Eamonn Fitzmaurice wouldn’t have him near the place if that was his way of thinking. The Kerry manager is one of the keenest tactical minds in the game, a coach who tries to lay out a plan for every happenstance. What happens after that is up to his players.
“Yeah, he does,” agrees Fitzgerald. “But one of the big things he does too is he empowers us to play our own game.
“There’s a structure for us to play within, obviously. But the reason James [O’Donoghue] is able to play the way he plays is that we’re encouraged to cut loose and have our own freedom.
“That’s important as well. It was always a part of Kerry football and they day it goes, something will be wrong.”