Kerry flying under radar as they prepare to swoop again
Éamonn Fitzmaurice is hungry for more silverware after unconvincing league run
Éamonn Fitzmaurice made the move into management with what appeared to be seamless ease. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
In the litany of minor miracles concocted by Kerry last summer, their Munster final win against Cork has been almost forgotten. It takes a singular kind of genius to guide the most successful county in the history of Gaelic football into the All-Ireland championship under a cloak of invisibility but that is what Éamonn Fitzmaurice achieved last year.
With Colm Cooper injured and a carful of senior figures bowing out, the Kingdom were discounted. They were given a pass for one year. People forgot and paid no notice. And then September came and went and Kerry were All-Ireland champions for the 37th time. It was a coup.
Are they at it again? Consider Kerry in the league this year. True to form under Fitzmaurice, they have been flamboyantly ordinary. They gave the impression that they offer nothing for other serious teams to be worried about, even conceding an eye-watering 3-17 Cork. Their leaky defence was something Fitzmaurice was happy to reference at a recent press event.
“It’s something we’ve been looking at all year, to be honest, because we definitely conceded the biggest score in Division One. It is an area that we’re always working on and that we’ve had to work on. The Cork forwards are going to be a step-up again. If they line out similar to the way they lined out the last day, they’ve a lot of different scoring threats even coming from deep at half-back and so on. It’ll be a big test of us and hopefully the work we’ve done in the meantime will have helped.”
Last summer Kerry proved that they could mix it anyway they chose. Their Munster final win in Páirc Uí Chaoimh was so emphatic – 0-24 to 0-12 – that the examination focused on what might be ailing Cork rather than what Kerry might do afterwards.
Their quarter-final match against Galway was an exhibition of totally open football: the way that Thomas Flynn sauntered through the centre of the Kingdom’s defence made them look like a soft touch. But that was the day David Moran became a starter. They were outclassed by 14-man Mayo in the second half of the semi-final in Croke Park but were stubborn enough hang around and filch another chance.
That was the day they rediscovered Kieran Donaghy. In the replay in the Gaelic Grounds, there were flinty and unflinching in what became an extraordinarily tough game. The future All-Ireland champions were born that night. In the All-Ireland final, against Donegal, they were out-and-out pragmatic: blanket defence, man-marking Michael Murphy all over the field. They did what they needed to do to win. The recent comments of Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney that Kerry – and Dublin – are the most physical teams in the game seemed to add substance to the theory that Kerry have become a different kind of football team in recent years.
“I think that was him just being honest. I think that was him trying to pull Donegal’s tail more than saying anything about Kerry or Dublin,” Fitzmaurice says.
“Look, there is a perception out there maybe that we were pushing boundaries. I don’t think we are. We wouldn’t have conceded the biggest score in the league if that was the case. Last year, we were under the radar, there was very little focus on us.
“There are some very good referees out there, they know the story. I’m sure if we are pushing the boundaries too far we’ll be found out. We had no red card in the league, like.”
It is a fair point – as is Fitzmaurice’s recent contention that Cork are “the most maligned bunch in the country full stop, football or hurling”. He wasn’t trying to butter Cork up so much as stating a fact. While the Cork side that won the All-Ireland in 2010 has largely broken up, they were criticised for not winning more rather than being lauded for that achievement.
This season they’ve spent the league rebuilding and have looked impressive, even if Dublin’s ominously comfortable win in the final still leaves them entering the summer with question marks hanging over them. Still, Cork do frustrate people. The talent has been there in abundance for almost a decade now but they blow hot and cold.
Fitzmaurice’s former team-mate and player Tomás Ó Sé addressed the riddle of Cork recently. The minor waves caused by his remark that ‘Cork can’t be trusted’ distracted from the solidity of the points he made – that the defensive and attacking talent is there but that their issues lie in leadership. Chances are the observations weren’t lost on the Cork squad. If Fitzmaurice was bothered by the candour, he has managed to hide it well.
“Look, with Tomás, that’s his opinion,” Fitzmaurice says.
“I think that’s the attraction of him as a pundit. Outside of the dressing room, because he would have kept a very low profile in general, many people wouldn’t have known that he’s sharp on the game and very insightful and he’s honest and he’ll say what he’s thinking. That’s Tomás’s opinion and he’s entitled to his opinion but it definitely wouldn’t be my opinion and it wouldn’t be anyone’s opinion in the camp. I imagine Brian Cuthbert was rubbing his hands together in glee when Tomás said it because Cork are very motivated anyway. They’re more motivated considering the amount of bad press they got after the league final, even though they had a very good league up to that point, beating all of the famous ‘big four’ that are there, beating Monaghan above in their own backyard. Not too many teams do it.”
The response was typical Fitzmaurice. It didn’t shirk the issue but it was understated. And it contained an interesting observation of its own.
Tomás Ó Sé was such a steadfastly elusive presence during his decade-long Kerry career that it is still surprising to see him as he now appears on The Sunday Game: opinionated and good-humoured and direct. While he was playing with Kerry, all of that stayed buttoned up. It is the Kerry way. Keeping things in-house has been an obsession which set in during the late Páidí Ó Sé’s time in charge, and hasn’t left.
Fitzmaurice has made the move from the smart, reliable defender to smart, understated All-Ireland-winning manager with what appeared to be seamless ease. He has never publicly come close to losing his cool or saying the wrong thing or making a false move. The pressures of managing the Kerry football team must be considerable – as RTÉ’s tribute to Páidí Ó Sé, Legacy, documented. But if Fitzmaurice feels it, he keeps it buried.
Every day out has hidden landmines. If winning in Páirc Uí Chaoimh a year ago was such an unexpected coup, then winning on Sunday is no more than the Kerry faithful will expect. Or demand. The Kingdom have been unbeaten in Fitzgerald stadium since 1995. That carries its own pressure. That whisper: they have to lose there some day.
“There probably is a bit about that but that’s not something you can really think about. It might be something you think about afterwards when you’ve won and you can say, ‘Jeez, it was good to preserve that record’. But it’s not something we can use for motivational purposes. Over those 20 years, certainly when I was playing, there was a couple of days when we were very lucky to maintain that record.
“Bryan Sheehan kicked big frees a couple of times in ’09. There were days when Cork had us beaten and we barely got out of Dodge, so of course it’s a record you want to preserve but this is an independent fixture and we’re just focusing on the game and afterwards, if we have preserved it, brilliant.”
The nature of this year’s draw means that winner of Sunday’s final almost certainly cannot meet Dublin until the All-Ireland final, should both counties get that far. It is a measure of the threat that Dublin now present that Fitzmaurice is asked if avoiding Dublin is an incentive for both teams. It could be construed as a kind of insult: Kerry are, after all, the reigning All-Ireland champions. They have Colm Cooper back. But Fitzmaurice absorbs the question and its implications and offers an answer that defuses everything.
“No, we’re not thinking down that road. We’re focused on Sunday and we want to win the game, win a Munster Championship, which is a big thing in its own right. Get a bit of silverware and we’ll start looking at roads and routes and everything else after that. All I know from experience is the qualifier route is full of potholes, so if you can win a Munster Championship and go straight to Croke Park, you’re happier. But we’re not thinking about that. It’s Cork; it’s Cork in Killarney. It’s a Munster final, it’s a big game and it’s a means to an end and after that we’ll start.”
Start to think about it, just like they did last year.
Almost invisible this year too – except they are the All-Ireland champions.