A bad Kerry display will leave Fitzmaurice on borrowed time

There is an undeniable sense of a dam about to burst if Kerry don’t beat Monaghan

Éamonn Fitzmaurice: When Kerry fans are nit-picking at the energy he’s showing, it’s obviously a symptom of something much bigger. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Éamonn Fitzmaurice: When Kerry fans are nit-picking at the energy he’s showing, it’s obviously a symptom of something much bigger. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

 

After just four minutes last Sunday, the loudest voice in Croke Park belonged to Liam Hassett. No matter where you were in the morgue/stadium, you could hear the Kerry maor foirne barking from the sideline, already obviously annoyed at the players’ lack of urgency out on the pitch. As Galway were attacking through the middle, not with any great pace or vim, Hassett’s foghorn rang out.

“Pressure outside, lads!”

“Contact, Jack, contact!”

“James! James! All the way, all the way!”

The temptation, of course, is to retrofit an early sense of their day being doomed from the outset. On another day, if Kerry had been Kerry and found their way through the fog to fashion a result, it would barely be worth remarking on. But the Kerry sideline appeared to cotton on before everyone else that their players weren’t at it, such was the lethargy of their display.

The contrast with the Munster final against Cork couldn’t have been more stark. Kerry didn’t start that game especially well on the scoreboard – Cork had two goals inside the first nine minutes, after all. But the visual contrast between that evening in Páirc Uí Chaoimh and the Galway game tells a story all by itself.

Nobody needed to exhort pressure outside that night. Jack Barry didn’t need to be reminded of the need for contact, James O’Donoghue did not have to be told to follow his man all the way back. Kerry players were snapping into tackles, annexing the space between Cork players all over the pitch.

Most crucially of all, they were playing on their own terms, dictating what was going to be needed to prosper in the game. Even after four minutes in Croke Park, it was obvious that wasn’t going to be the case against Galway. The Kerry sideline could see it, everyone could see it.

“The quick decision-making that we saw in Páirc Uí Chaoimh just wasn’t there,” says four-time All-Ireland winner Seán O’Sullivan. “Even small little things like quick frees, quick sideline balls, quickness in the tackle, getting hands in and around the Galway players, doubling up on fellas. None of that was there against Galway.

“We saw none of that. Stephen O’Brien’s running was such a big thing early on in the game against Cork, but I think he might have got going once only against Galway. Gavin White, how many times did he drive forward? Paul Murphy the same. With Tadhg Morley out, where was Peter Crowley to do that hard, positive running from defence? He was back playing sweeper when he should have been out front taking the game to Galway. The sweeper didn’t work for Kerry – it never does.

“We knew we got no test off Clare and no test off Cork. But still, as bad as they were, we imposed our game on them. We went on the front foot every opportunity we got. There was none of that the last day.”

Sliver of light

Does any of this matter? Only in the sense that it provides Éamonn Fitzmaurice with his one sliver of light in a pitch-black week. If Kerry had been outclassed by Galway because they weren’t good enough to live with Kevin Walsh’s side, they’d be in real trouble. As it is, Fitzmaurice must know that if his players can rediscover the snap and crackle they brought to the Munster final, the trip to Clones tomorrow ought not be so daunting.

That’s the rub, though. The level of invective towards Fitzmaurice and his management team this week in Kerry has been such that nobody can be in any doubt that it’s been coming a while. This isn’t the first time a Kerry team has looked sluggish and uninspired under his watch. Sunday goes on the list that already features last year’s All-Ireland semi-final replay against Mayo and the game it most resembled, the 2015 All-Ireland final against Dublin.

On all three occasions, Kerry went back down the road having barely bothered to come up it. After the 2015 final, we scratched our heads and traced our fingers back through the years to work out when was the last time they had a game in Croke Park where they simply didn’t turn up. Best anyone could make out, the 2010 quarter-final against Down. Before that, it was Meath in 2001. From two in 15 years to three in four. Not a good look.

O’Sullivan was leery from even before the ball was thrown in. A personal trainer himself, with strength and conditioning a special area of interest, he watched the Kerry warm-up closely and was far from impressed with what he saw.

“I accept this is very easy to say after a defeat but they warmed up down in front of the Hill and I found them very sluggish from where I was sitting. They were playing a possession game and look, you can bring the conditions into account, but genuinely they looked very sluggish and heavy on their feet. Regardless of the conditions in Croke Park, you can’t have that. You need to be hopping off the ground. If that epidemic continues on Sunday, they’re gone.”

The shield weakens

This is at the nub of Fitzmaurice’s troubles. Nobody doubts his devotion to Kerry, nor his diligence or determination to get them back where they belong. But with each passing year, distance from the 2014 All-Ireland victory weakens the shield it provided him. Kerry’s football culture makes everyone an expert and gives everyone a stake. Losing epics to Dublin like in 2013 and 2016 isn’t great but it’s deemed more or less acceptable. Last Sunday, very much not.

“It has been very hot and heavy for him down here this week,” O’Sullivan says. “The major question marks that have been thrown at the management as a whole – Éamonn is getting the brunt of it because he’s the manager obviously – but in general the main one is why did we pay Galway so much respect in setting up with a sweeper? Then when the game was going away from us, why didn’t we throw Donaghy in?

“And then the last one, which I don’t buy into myself but it’s the subtext to a lot of what I’ve been hearing all week – we speak about a lack of urgency on the field but there’s maybe a lack of urgency from the sideline. Now, I would argue that Éamonn’s demeanour is the same now as it ever was, and if it wasn’t a problem before, you can hardly say it’s a problem now. That said, I would have thought they’d make more changes at half-time or shortly after it on Sunday and they didn’t.”

Whatever the strength of those arguments – and O’Sullivan is surely correct to dismiss the sideline issue – the very fact that it is coming up at all tells you something about where Fitzmaurice stands among the Kerry public just now. When they’re nit-picking at the energy he’s showing, it’s obviously a symptom of something much bigger. You don’t hear many Dubs cribbing about Jim Gavin’s lack of emotion during games, after all.

Dam about to burst

In truth, there’s an undeniable sense of a dam about to burst on the Kerry manager. The general low-level irritation at his underuse of underage talent in the couple of seasons the followed the 2014 All-Ireland has curdled – deservedly or not – into a mistrust of his tactical nous. The couple of times Kerry have employed a full-time sweeper have ended in neither-fish-nor-fowl disasters. They’ve chopped and changed goalkeepers both between seasons and within them, meaning they constantly seem to be back at the kick-out drawing-board.

Above all, on the worst days, they haven’t dictated terms. Fitzmaurice can say with ample justification that it’s not as simple as all that – the other crowd have been training three nights a week since before Christmas too. But the Kerry job is what it is. When you’re given a full-forward line of Paul Geaney, James O’Donoghue and David Clifford, nobody wants to hear about how hard it is to fit them into a workable system in the modern game.

The upshot is that the consequences of a defeat in Clones tomorrow hardly need to be spelled out. The appalling vista of a dead-rubber game against Kildare in Killarney on the bank holiday weekend isn’t far from anyone’s mind. O’Sullivan accepts that it would be a rotten way for the summer to end but doesn’t stint in his backing of Fitzmaurice all the same.

“I played with Éamonn. He understands Kerry better than anyone. He is what you see on the sideline. He takes the good with the bad; he is the same man regardless of the situation. He doesn’t get too up or too down. But he’s in no way shy about telling home truths – half-time, full-time or during the week.

“There were definitely fellas waiting down here in the long grass for him this week, ready to have a cut. That’s absolutely true. There was an air of discontent for a while. I suppose there were a few raised eyebrows when he decided to stay on for a three-year term.

“But I genuinely think – and I wrote at the time in the Kerryman and I stand by it – I genuinely think he is the best man to lead Kerry forward. And that’s regardless of what happens this Sunday. I’ve seen it first hand with these young players because I work with the development squads – he’s the guy in the best position to bring that group through. I have no doubt about that.

“The feedback from those players is uniformly positive about him. He has a great relationship with them, they follow him all the way and they’re learning all the time from him and the rest of the management. Éamonn will know when it’s time to go, believe me. If he felt he should have gone, he would have. There’s no self-gratification involved here. He’s not doing it for himself, he’s doing it for Kerry.”

For how much longer, results will surely dictate.

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