Different Kerry, same old Maurice


We will, of course, never know. The man has too much class and poise to ever fall into discussion of these past few weeks with those beyond the inner sanctum. As speculation raged and sparked over where Maurice Fitzgerald should spend his Sundays, the man himself carried the air of one breezily indifferent to the issue.

Half an hour into Saturday's All-Ireland final, he was summoned from the bench and languidly ran the line a few times before discarding the track-suit top. Liam Hassett had just blazed a point as Fitzgerald made his introduction and, as he ambled across field, the Kerry crowd erupted at the return of the tanned and nonchalant frame.

His introduction marked the conclusion to a delicate footnote in Kerry football history. Plagued by a shocking series of injuries, Fitzgerald only began kicking football half way through the championship. Paidi O Se had blended a team by then, and faced with a selection dilemma, he used his forward more sparingly than some saw fit. Had Kerry lost against Galway, the manager would have faced the wrath of those who believe that fielding a team without Fitzgerald is to field a team without soul. Throughout it all, the player said nothing.

"I had great support at home and throughout the county and I had my own belief that I had something to offer the Kerry team. But I don't want to dwell on that, it's about the 27 players who dug so deep for this."

It was hard not to feel sympathy for Paidi O Se, who had the concerns of an entire panel to consider. To blithely discard a forward to accommodate Fitzgerald's return might have had disastrous consequences on team morale. And yet, ignoring Fitzgerald could have been construed as foolhardy.

"He is the Mick O'Connell of our era," declared Mike Frank Russell on Saturday night. "I'm sick of thanking Maurice for all the passes he has given me, I'm sure he is getting tired of it himself." Fitzgerald exists in that vaguely uneasy twilight of those who are a true revelation in their chosen art at a young age. The Cahirciveen man was hailed as a genius while still in his early 20s. When Kerry struggled at the beginning of the last decade, he was often portrayed as a figure out of time, representative of the great players that had once roamed the county in abundance.

And when, four summers ago, Kerry ended a long trail of tears that dated back to 1986, Fitzgerald was depicted as the chosen one, the gift from above. He existed on a different plane that summer, lordly and magnificent and at one with his talent. In the All-Ireland final against Mayo, the entire occasion spun around him. He altered time to suit himself. He was peerless. And it is that year, that celestial perfection, with which Fitzgerald will always be associated. So to some, the sight of him on the bench was inexplicable. So what if four years have passed and the great man is 30 and awakening from a freakish sequence of injuries? He is still Maurice.

Thing is, Kerry are a different team now. "Look, it didn't matter," insists Liam Hassett when asked about Fitzgerald's coming into the final.

"Everyone knows what kind of player he is, what he is capable of. Paidi got a bit of criticism for not starting him and all, but that was a great player to bring in. He caught some brilliant balls and turned things for us. But Maurice knows that it takes 15 players to win a game."

And that is the truth of it. When Fitzgerald was felled by viciously bad luck, Kerry were forced to identify a new dynamic. He returned to an altered team, a bunch of players that had found voice. Fitzgerald is an intensely private man and so when he speaks, those around him hush. He relived his minutes in Saturday's final in a low, cascading monologue, sounding like a parishioner at rosary.

"I felt we had a lethal full forward line, very quick . . . and they need quick supply and I was just anxious to go out there and get the ball into them. I knew they could do damage and then as well, we had players like Liam Hassett raiding down the middle and kicking some fine scores so there was a good balance. And this team, well I won't say they came of age out there because it has been the same all year."

He played his role to perfection, clever and understated. Then came his moment. With nine minutes left and a point between the sides, he soared to cradle a Martin McNamara kick-out and glided downfield, all the time in the world. His shot, a high, looping arc, stole inside the posts and the ball fell straight as an exclamation mark.

He sauntered back to his position, head down, expression subdued, and it was just like old times.

Afterwards, someone asked him how long he felt he could play with Kerry and a rare instance of mischief streaked his face.

"Forever," he grinned, slinging his bag over his shoulder.

And we'd watch him forever too, if we could.