Eamonn Fitzmaurice proves a pragmatic keeper of the flame
Kerry manager fearless in reshaping team into winners by any means necessary
Eamonn Fitzmaurice has not felt beholden to the notion Kerry teams have a moral obligation to play the game in a certain way. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
The most fascinating thing about Kerry under Fitzmaurice is that nobody can quite figure out how he has turned things around. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
At the end of November 2011, Mick O’Dwyer and his protege, the late Páidí Ó Sé, sat down together for a radio interview in the RTÉ studio with Miriam O’Callaghan.
There is a national tendency to regard Kerry football as monolithic and inevitable. Listening to O’Dwyer and Ó Sé fencing their way through an hour of badinage and anecdotes and respect makes it obvious their contribution to the cause was anything but pre-ordained. Only for an accident his father suffered in London which led to the family returning to Ventry, Ó Sé may well have belonged to the vast army of second generation Irish in London, for whom the GAA would revolve around Ruislip and delayed recordings of All-Ireland finals.
O’Dwyer was an only child and, as he joked himself, he just about made it into the world: his mother was 41 when he was born in 1936. It is highly probable Kerry would have won several All-Ireland titles during the 1970s and 1980s even if the fates of both men spun differently.
But would the era ever have materialised without the atomic life-force generated by both men and their quenchless ambition for Kerry football? Erase O’Dwyer and Ó Sé from the equation and a more ordinary story is imaginable. When O’Dwyer left in 1988, he had managed Kerry to eight All-Ireland titles in 10 appearances. Ó Sé was among the select group who won eight Celtic crosses.
Eleven years passed without any Kerry All-Ireland before Ó Sé strode the sideline with the same brisk energy which had characterised him as a player and brought Kerry back to the pinnacle with titles in 1997 and 2000. They have been there or thereabouts ever since, failing to reach the semi-finals or further on just two summers.
It wasn’t made clear whether the “one” referred to the 2002 All-Ireland final in which Kerry were stunned by Armagh or by what happened against Tyrone in the following summer. In the years since, the Tyrone defeat has been mentioned much more frequently than the Armagh loss. But O’Dwyer’s observation echoed through the current team and its manager, Eamonn Fitzmaurice.
The Finuge man played centre back that afternoon and he found himself discussing the significance of that match at his recent press briefing ahead of Sunday’s semi-final. Referring to the famous clip in which several Kerry men are buffeted around in a sea of Tyrone jerseys, Fitzmaurice dissected the moment and recalled watching on, just waiting for someone to channel the ball back out to him so he could swing it to the other side of the field, which lay gloriously open for exploitation.
In all, he played 50 championship games for Kerry between 1998 and 2007, electing to quit the panel during that last summer when it became clear to him he wasn’t going to be in the reckoning for a starting slot. Two years later he was back in the Kerry dressingroom as a selector for Jack O’Connor, quickly establishing a facility for video analysis.
When O’Connor stepped down following Kerry’s exit to Donegal in the All-Ireland quarter-final of 2012, Fitzmaurice was appointed manager. It was a swift ascension. But just as swift has been the quiet metamorphosis of Kerry football achieved under his watch.
As he prepared for his first championship season, Fitzmaurice took the unprecedented step of closing the gates of Fitzgerald Stadium to the public on training nights. He was sufficiently aware the move would ruffle feathers to pen an open letter in the Kerryman outlining his reasons.
“I want to explain the thinking behind this difficult decision. I understand that, for many, a trip to Fitzgerald Stadium on a summer evening to watch the senior team is a long-standing ritual and nothing more than a social gathering to watch the players being put through their paces. In recent years, as the championship has become more and more competitive, the monitoring of training sessions has become very intense. It has, on occasion become more that harmless curiosity.”
In retrospect, training in privacy seems like an obvious thing to do. But it is important to recall the atmosphere in which Fitzmaurice took that decision. His first league game against Mayo was recalled for Kerry’s failure to score throughout the entire second half. Their next outing was a 1-11 to 0-4 defeat to Dublin, a loss which led Pat Spillane to declare Kerry football was in “crisis with a capital C”.
Fitzmaurice remained what can only be described as spectacularly calm during those days, but he must have been aware of the general perception: that he was a young, inexperienced manager in charge of a team shorn of too many heavyweight names to be a real contender. In the spring of 2013, there was fear in Kerry about the future of the team and maybe for Fitzmaurice as well.
His appointment of Cian O’Neill, the Kildare trainer who came to prominence as a member of the Tipperary hurling backroom team was another small but important change in the old order implemented by Fitzmaurice. He had invited Mikey Sheehy, one of the mortal gods from the Golden Years and his former team-mate Diarmuid Murphy in as selectors. But O’Neill was a left-field choice – and he was not from Kerry. Fitzmaurice went outside the Kingdom because he felt it was the best thing to do.
Fitzmaurice’s time as a selector on the sideline was instructive. He had a ringside seat as Dublin revitalised the largely notional Dublin-Kerry rivalry with a stunning closing act in the 2011 final.
A year later, he stood with Jack O’Connor as the Kerrymen became entangled in the web of confusion and high-octane defence which Donegal spun around all-comers. He could sense the landscape shifting about his feet.
At Christmas 2012, Jack O’Connor contributed to an RTÉ television programme about Donegal’s sonic boom under Jim McGuinness. He spoke about the game and then observed if he sent a Kerry team to go out and play like that he would get “bata agus bóthar”. This was a manager who had guided Kerry to four All-Ireland finals, winning two and coming up short in two out-and-out classics, and a man who had demonstrated a spiky independence of the golden circle of Kerry football. Yet he felt beholden to the notion Kerry teams had a moral obligation to play the game in a certain way.
Great escapeKieran Donaghy
By the time it dawned on the public Fitzmaurice had designs on winning an All-Ireland not next season or the season after that but right here, right now, the team were already in the final. Better, they were going in as underdogs.
Before the ball was thrown in, Kerry had surpassed all expectations. And Fitzmaurice knew what was coming against Donegal. So he did what would have been unthinkable and unpalatable to the Kerry cognoscenti just a couple of seasons earlier. He played a system: he blocked the attacking channels, he detailed a player to shadow Donegal’s star player. That All-Ireland final was an inhibited, fretful thing. Neither team played particularly well but Kerry made fewer mistakes and took their chances and won their 37th title.
If style was forsaken, then so be it. In a rare, in-depth interview with Weeshie Fogarty on Kerry Radio that November, Fitzmaurice was asked whether it had been a difficult decision to send a Kerry team out to play like that.
“I had no problem making the decision. If we were playing that way the whole time you definitely would have people asking questions of you because there are the traditions of Kerry that you have to uphold. But I think we showed in other games, particularly the Mayo games and the Cork game below in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, that we can play the Rolls Royce football as well but sometimes you have to cut your cloth to measure and we weren’t going to be naive going up against Donegal. We knew what we had to do.
“So it was an easy decision really and probably one of the biggest advantages I have with the current group is that the players are so flexible and in a short space of time we were able to work on this game plan and get it into place. Every night at training we were getting it a small bit better and we were confident we could do the job. So, no. I had no problem making the decision because if we had lost the All-Ireland I wouldn’t have forgiven myself afterwards.”
Clear and absolute
He has absorbed the suggestions that Kerry play cynically by holding the argument up for inspection prior to the Munster championship meeting with Tipperary this year. He has demonstrated that nobody – not Colm Cooper, not Marc Ó Sé – is considered as an automatic selection.
Fionn Fitzgerald’s dubious reward for kicking the point that saved Kerry’s Munster championship has been to watch every subsequent game from the stands. Kieran Donaghy, injured for the quarter-final, cheer-led with enthusiasm as Kerry rattled seven goals past Kildare but he must have felt a chill in his bones too. He knows how hard it can be to play your back way into the reckoning.
And as for the enduring suspicion that the Kerry defence has its weaknesses, not one team has been able to fully exploit those when it matters. Forget about the 9-90 Kerry coughed up in the league: in the summer, they play a systematic, highly-organised defensive game which only Cork have come close to exposing this season – and not close enough.
On Sunday, Kerry are favourites to advance to a second All-Ireland final in a row under Fitzmaurice. Given his starting point, that would be a phenomenal achievement. This match against Tyrone arguably represents his toughest assignment. Winning it would do much to remove the thorn which Tyrone have been to Kerry since that 2003 insurrection.
The Red Hand do not have the same depth of class – no Canavan, no McGuigan, no Gormley – as they had in their elite years. But they still have Mickey Harte, the man who seems to be able to conjure up endless ways to thwart Kerry. However, now Harte is facing a Kerry team as flexible and adaptable to shape-shifting as any team out there. Nobody is quite sure what Kerry will materialise on any given Sunday now.
Fitzmaurice’s influence has been subtle and total.