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.