Fitzmaurice a calm hand at the tiller as the Kingdom seek to rediscover the elusive winning formula
The loss of some famous names has signalled a changing of the guard in Kerrly
Eamonn Fitzmaurice: “Everyone is working really hard and we are not that far from getting a result. There was a lot more head-scratching this time last year. It is frustrating but that is the nature of Division One football now. But I am not a worrier.” Photo: James Crombie/Inpho
“Welcome to Kerry,” Eamonn Fitzmaurice says cheerfully as the lunchtime bell sounds in Pobalscoil Chorca Dhuibhne and students turn the bright corridors into a beehive. Nobody is going outside today: the rain is terrible and although there is something of the lost weekend about Dingle even on a slumbering Thursday in March, the entire peninsula is hibernating in this weather.
Fitzmaurice makes us tea and has sandwiches prepared and chats away and as he moves through clusters of students lost in their own conversations and it becomes abundantly clear that Fitzmaurice has a working existence entirely separate to that of his public role – his summer life – as manager of the Kerry senior football team.
“They don’t take any notice of me,” he explains with a laugh when we sit down in an empty classroom. “I’m just another teacher giving them homework.”
History is his subject. There could be no more appropriate speciality for a man whose other life revolves around the inheritance of Kerry football, that restless cause which is simultaneously pulled by the extraordinary richness of its past and an incessant obligation to its future.
Irish teenagers of 2014 are just as interested in Irish history as ever, Fitzmaurice believes. It is an optional subject for Leaving Cert so the kids he teaches are there by choice. In Kerry, history and Gaelic football mingle anyhow. Sometimes, when teaching the Civil War section of the course, Fitzmaurice will refer to the darker passages of local political atrocity – the Ballyseedy massacre or the ambush at Knocknagoshel. And he will talk about the Kerry football team of the 1920s, who had Con Brosnan, a Free State officer, and John Joe Sheehy, an unyielding Republican among its central figures.
“They co-operated in order to play for Kerry, basically. And they won All-Irelands. So bitter as that war was here, I do think it is true that football helped people heal more quickly. That period really does fascinate me because of the challenges that they had.”
Everything is relative. For the second season in succession, Fitzmaurice is enduring a testing winter as Kerry manager. The retirement of Paul Galvin, the punk spirit of the modern Kerry team and, as it happens, Fitzmaurice’s brother-in-law was a setback to the cause.
The injury suffered by genius-in-residence Colm Cooper a few weeks later was sufficient for many commentators to write off Kerry’s season. Three league defeats have added to the gloom and Tyrone arrive in Killarney this weekend to offer a rigorous examination of just how vulnerable their old friends are right now.
But the Lixnaw man carries himself now with the same unflappable composure that distinguished him during his playing days, when he served as an understated and indispensable centre-back on All-Ireland-winning Kerry teams lit with the best and the brightest. He agrees beating Tyrone tomorrow would be nice. But losing won’t disturb him unduly. “I don’t,” he sighs when asked if he is beginning to feel the pressure.
“I don’t...because everyone is working really hard and we are not that far from getting a result. There was a lot more head -scratching this time last year. It is frustrating but that is the nature of Division One football now. But I am not a worrier. I can’t be fretting over the next game.”
Fitzmaurice is only 35, a precociously young age to land the commander-in-chief role of Kerry football. When Jack O’Connor spoke about Fitzmaurice’s strengths, he often referred to his attention to detail.
And when Fitzmaurice speaks about his life, he seems to have perfected the balance of a rigorously organised methodology and a very relaxed attitude. For instance, although he has always taught here in Dingle, he lives in Tralee.
The attractions of Dingle are obvious. “It’s on the must-do list,” he vows when asked if he has ever attended any of the fabled Other Voices concerts in St James’s church. But Tralee is more central. It means he has arguably the most spectacular work commute in Europe, driving the Conor Pass daily. “It was a bit tight this morning,” he laughs, and it was, with the narrow road shrouded in mist and a car filled with foreign tourists paused at the mouth of the pass, wondering at the sign for falling rocks warning them to turn back and at the procession of Kerry motorists blithely driving on, rocks and mist and danger be damned. The mountainous drive gives Fitzmaurice a chance to catch breath. He moves from school to home to training without having to ‘be’ the Kerry manager all the time. When he thinks of last summer and Kerry’s breathtaking semi-final with Dublin, he feels now that he maybe was a bit too underground in his day to day life and won’t make that mistake again.
“Myself and Tina spoke about it and probably at times I was too much like a monk last summer. I had routines . . . I would play a bit of golf in Ballybunion and went there either very early or very late in the evening. I was within a circle of family and close friends and didn’t stray outside that much. Maybe I didn’t get that right . . . But here in school it is fine . . . I am busy with the school teams but I have always been involved with them. Being Kerry manager makes no difference to my family. So it doesn’t affect my normal life. .”
Fire and brimstone
Despite that independent streak, he believes that if former players he shared a dressing room with saw him managing, they would see the influences of the voices that governed them, particularly that of the late Páidí Ó Sé.
“People thought Páidí was all fire and brimstone. And there was that...because he was ferociously proud of Kerry and was obsessed with it. But he would always encourage fellas to visualise difficult situations and how to get out of them. Stuff that sports psychologists do now. He knew that intuitively. And Páidí was very good at getting the best out of players, of managing people. There was a lot to him that people didn’t see.”
Not long after Fitzmaurice was appointed as Kerry manager, he got a letter from Ó Sé. “He would tend to do that at different times....he could send you a note. And he sent me a lovely letter wishing me the best and telling me how important the job was.”
Fitzmaurice made a mental note to drive back to Ventry some evening after school to thank Ó Sé and have a chat; to ask for any advice he might have. Flash forward to late December 2012 and he still hadn’t made the visit but reasoned he would see Ó Sé at Diarmuid Murphy’s wedding. As it happened, Ó Sé’s sudden death occurred on the very morning of the wedding. “It took it out of me. It shocked me. I have a big regret that I never did visit because if I thought of it once, I thought of it a hundred times to call back. And I have no excuse. He is only back the road from here. I can’t understand why I didn’t just drive back to say how I appreciated that note and it is still a regret . . .
It is only now that people are beginning to fully appreciate the luminosity of the period from 1997 to 2009. The retirement of Tomás Ó Sé before Christmas seemed like the definitive declaration that the curtain was falling on a particular era. Fitzmaurice agrees the Kerry dressing room now is a different place to the one he sat in as an up-and-comer in 1997. There has been a generational and a cultural shift. He notices it on the bus during road trips.
“Any manager will probably tell you the same....the phones are a big thing. It isn’t just social media; it is texting, checking things out. And headphones too...everyone can be in their own world. That is fine, especially on the way to a game. But you would like to see fellas have a bit of fun and enjoying the company too.”
But because he works with young people, Fitzmaurice knows that in truth, nothing has changed. Players can romanticise their own time, believing it to have been the best. “From about 21 to 27, you have most of your cohorts around you. Then you hit 30 and you are in a different place in your life. So you feel as if it is all changing. And in fairness to players now, their commitment is at a new level, I think. We thought we were mighty men and that our social life was non-existent. But there were windows that aren’t really there now.”
Fitzmaurice retired at just 29. He left because he could see the writing was on the wall. In 2005, he felt he was playing exceptional football but couldn’t get a break. In 2006, he operated at centre forward for periods and then competed with Séamus Moynihan for the number six jersey. He vowed to give it an unsparing effort the following spring to see if he could reclaim his spot at centre-back. In the last league game against Dublin, Aidan O’Mahony came off injured and Daniel Bohane replaced him.
“And I just said: ‘look, you are not filling management’s eye here’. So I pulled the plug the following day. I had no regrets. I wasn’t going to enjoy that summer as a substitute. Pat [O’Shea] understood I wasn’t for dissuading. It was rational. It wasn’t a fella throwing his toys out of the pram. It wasn’t happening for me. I wasn’t the right fit for the kind of centre back management wanted. That was fine. I had no beef with that. And I understand even more now that certain players fit your eye. So we won a county championship with Feale Rangers and a hurling title with Lixnaw and I got married . . . . so there was plenty going on.”
Fitzmaurice has a stunning collection of medals from his playing days. The medal won by his great-grandfather Maurice Fitzmaurice, who kept goal for the 1891 Ballyduff team that won that year’s All-Ireland hurling championship, is in his parents’ house. The memento sits nicely with the trove of national and domestic medals Fitzmaurice won: he has a unique collection of Kerry novice, junior, intermediate and senior medals. His final game as a footballer was in Croke Park, when Finuge lost the All-Ireland Intermediate final to Cookstown last February. Earlier in that campaign Fitzmaurice played on despite having his jaw broken. “Well, that happened at the end of the game,” he protests to deny any suggestion of heroism.
By then, he was Kerry manager. In the days after that thrilling All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin last summer, he missed not having a team to turn to.
“It was hard to take. We were close but should have finished better. So there was a space there and yeah, I analysed a lot. I analysed the players and our own performance. We could have all been better. . . I don’t really need people to tell me that we should have done things differently. I know that myself, really. I have a tight circle around me that I trust and that would be it: I wouldn’t be seeking counsel all the time.”
It is afternoon now and the students are gathering outside the door. History lessons beckon. There will be training tonight in Killarney; the rain is unrelenting. But Fitzmaurice isn’t bothered. The weather will clear. It always does. And when that happens in Kerry, the views are heaven sent.