Eamonn Fitzmaurice: a manager in search of the Kerry norm

Championship preview: Football 2013

Eamonn Fitzmaurice: “People expect Kerry to be winning matches so when you’re having to check the record books to find the last time Kerry went a half without scoring [as they did against Mayo] or when they last lost four games in a row, that’s not the norm and it hasn’t been the norm.”

Eamonn Fitzmaurice: “People expect Kerry to be winning matches so when you’re having to check the record books to find the last time Kerry went a half without scoring [as they did against Mayo] or when they last lost four games in a row, that’s not the norm and it hasn’t been the norm.”

 

On the last Saturday in March, Eamonn Fitzmaurice covered the thick end of 4,100km between leaving his bed and crawling back into it and he didn’t even do it for Kerry football. Well, he did, but just not for the slice of Kerry football that springs immediately to mind when you hear his name. He did it because life has a way of spilling out over the tops of the boxes you try to fit everything into. It makes merry with those who try to lid it down.

At the end of March, seams were bursting all over the place. Kerry had a training weekend in the Algarve and having just finally clawed their first win of a fraught league against Down, there were wagons to uncircle and bones to unpick. But four weeks before they went, one of the other trains on Fitzmaurice’s timetable suddenly shifted tracks and headed straight for trouble.

Pobalscoil Chorca Dhuibhne, the Dingle school where Fitzmaurice teaches history, won the Corn Uí Mhuire for the second year in a row to land an All-Ireland semi-final against St Pat’s, Navan. Scheduled, yes, for the same weekend he’d be in Portugal. Choices, choices. No choice at all.

“It was planes, trains and automobiles that day,” he smiles. “I flew into Knock [at 7.30am, the only flight into Ireland that would get him to the lunchtime game], drove down to Nenagh, we lost the game by a couple of points and then I flew out of Dublin that night back to Faro. It was an interesting day out. To lose a game then in the middle of it was tough.”

Variations on that theme have been the way of it for much of the spring. His club Finuge refused to do him the favour of letting their championship run fizzle out, keeping him in boots in his farewell season right the way up to the All-Ireland Intermediate final. Which, of course, fell the night before Kerry’s league game against Dublin.

Weekends don’t come a lot rougher – beaten by six points with Finuge in Croke Park, torched in Killarney by the Dubs 18 hours later. Stop all the clocks, tell the barman to leave the bottle. Chance would be a fine thing.

“It was very hectic at the start in January and February. Finuge were still on the go and I hadn’t factored that in really. It was something we’d been trying to do for years and so naturally enough, it came to pass the one year I wasn’t able to give it as much as I would have liked. I’d have loved to be with the Finuge lads morning, noon and night in terms of training and meetings but I just wasn’t able to give it as much as it deserved.

“We worked around it a bit – Kerry trained on Tuesday and Thursday and we tried to fit Finuge in around that. But every weekend, there’d be something with Kerry, something with Finuge, often something with the school as well. So it was hectic and it was probably a bit too hectic at the start. But once things settled down, it was grand.”

Yeah, but there’s grand and there’s grand. In Kerry, the settling line is that bit higher than elsewhere. Jack O’Connor had to win an All-Ireland before he could shake the stink of losing an early league game to Longford way back when. Fitzmaurice says he got plenty of support even as Kerry lost their first four games in the league but that doesn’t mean he didn’t feel the weight of it. It’s his nature to be calm and reasonable. It’s also his nature to hate defeat.

“We had flagged it a bit at the start of the league. We said we were down bodies just for the first couple of months and we were going to be trying a few things. That’s always going to be tough but especially so in this year’s league with the quality of it. We had four very tough games to start off with but I thought we’d maybe get at least one win. I did feel that it was a possibility that we’d lose three out of the four games. We felt it could happen if things didn’t go our way.

“At the same time, it was very disappointing. We had won the McGrath Cup and training was going well but when we went up to Mayo, we were just so flat. We were even still in that game with 10 minutes to go but we made no shape at it at all. We didn’t perform. We got them into training that week and said we expected a reaction against Dublin but it didn’t come. We were bad, very bad that day.

“People expect Kerry to be winning matches so when you’re having to check the record books to find the last time Kerry went a half without scoring [as they did against Mayo] or when they last lost four games in a row, that’s not the norm and it hasn’t been the norm.”

In his search for a return to said norm, Fitzmaurice had to go dialling numbers he hadn’t wanted to dial. If he’d hoped for one bit of succour from the early part of the league, it would have been that someone – anyone – from the next generation of Kerry players would have stuck their hand in the air and made the older breed sweat for their place. Only Johnny Buckley, the flame-haired Dr Crokes midfielder who has been the next big thing for a few seasons now, did so. And he’s 24.

So Fitzmaurice had to mobilise his fleet a good few weeks before he’d planned to ask them to leave dock. The forward line that started (and lost) against Kildare on March 10th read: Mike O’Donoghue, Donnacha Walsh, Buckley, Kieran O’Leary, James O’Donoghue, Barry John Keane. The one that started (and won) against Tyrone on April 7th read: Jonathan Lyne, Colm Cooper, Paul Galvin, Declan O’Sullivan, Kieran Donaghy, Darran O’Sullivan. The hard truth clanged like a school bell – when the klieg lights blazed brightest, Fitzmaurice looked like he couldn’t rely on his supporting cast.

“That’s the way the league played out. It’s not perception, it’s fact. But we still have a lot of time for the younger lads. In an ideal world, you’d love to be blending in a couple of younger players at a time rather than having to try to bring in a whole gang of them at once without established leaders around them.

“I think especially up front in the earlier games of the league, we didn’t have too many leaders. It’s tough for younger players in that situation because they don’t have the experience, they’re not sure how to deal with it. They don’t know how to dig in and they don’t know what they’re supposed to do in that kind of situation. How do they toughen? Who do they look to?

“Whereas when they have experienced players around them, it makes it that bit easier. So we haven’t lost faith in those players at all. But of course when our senior players came back in, they made a big difference to us. Especially when we had a bit of leadership up front, it made a big difference.”

Ordinarily, league is league and it doesn’t amount to a puff of dust. But having to reach for the stars to keep Kerry in Division One makes a wider point about the job Fitzmaurice has ahead of him.

Not just this year but in those to come. Some of the players he was using early on were young enough but they weren’t teenagers. The O’Donoghues are 23 and 25, Keane 23 and O’Leary 25.

They’ve been around and about the Kerry panel for a while already, have featured in All-Ireland finals even. Kerry’s may be the toughest forward line in which to nail down a championship spot but only O’Leary has come close to it. This was their chance and yet nobody made themselves indispensable.

The fear – and it’s neither insignificant nor unexpressed – is that Kerry have nothing coming behind. Fitzmaurice spent a year as under-21 manager and knows better than anybody what’s around. One of the reasons he was initially unsure about going for the top job was that he felt the underage scene needed more than just the six months he’d given it. “Unfinished business,” is how he sums it up.

“I just thought that the young lads didn’t maybe realise what it was to play for Kerry. There had been no success at minor or under-21 level for a long time. I just felt that there could be changes made in terms of getting commitment from the players.

“I had heard about previous years where the management were trying very hard to do things but the players weren’t as committed as they should be. I just felt that if there were changes made on small things like that, you would end up with big gains.

“I was in the last Kerry minor team that won an All-Ireland. That’ll tell you how long ago that is. It’s hard to put your finger on exactly what is behind it. But definitely the fact that there was success at senior level camouflaged a lot of the shortcomings at underage.

“Kerry were in six All-Ireland finals in a row and every year there was a new player coming through, which is all you really need to maintain the success and keep it fresh. So we maybe ignored or didn’t look to see were there bigger problems.”

Everybody has their own theories. Fitzmaurice has been at the coalface ever since his inter-county career ended in 2007. He was a Kerry selector under O’Connor at the age of 31, so he can run his finger from the very top of the game in the county right down through various levels of schools and underage without missing a beat.

He sees kids in other counties and what they’re capable of and knows there’s no good reason the same shouldn’t go for those from his own. Yet there’s no All-Ireland minor title since 1994 and only one All-Ireland under-21 in the past 15 years. Something’s got lost somewhere.

“One of the big problems is the amount of football lads are playing,” he says. “I know some of the lads in the school there would have had three games last weekend. They were playing with the Kerry minors on Saturday, they were playing club championship on Sunday and then a schools game on Monday. It’s a lot, it’s too much and it’s only the best players who are in such demand.

“The lads themselves are mad for road but it’s hard to get the best out of them when they’re playing three games in three days. There’s so much football in Kerry that it’s all matches they’re playing and they’re not getting a chance to develop themselves physically. They’re maybe missing out on chances to work on certain skills as well and to develop them because they’re playing matches the whole time.”

Worries for another day. Had this job not come along, Fitzmaurice could have buried himself in doing something about it. But all those slices of Kerry football add up to an enormous pie and he can only look after the biggest one for now.

“In time, it’s something that I would hope to look at and get involved in but definitely not this year. aybe if after a couple of years if we were successful, I could maybe start to look at something like that but right now I can’t. I suppose I mainly have the interest in it because I know so many of the young lads through the schools. And it is a thing that would be close to my heart. But I have one focus, that’s it.”

The one he’ll be remembered for. However it turns out.