On a Saturday night in Tralee a few years back, we arrived to the press box to find two seats were being kept for a couple of late arrivals. Just as the anthem finished, in shuffled a tall thin man with a tan and a shorter, greyer gent with a limp, both in official Kerry tracksuits.
Ordinarily, this would bring 40 shades of umbrage from the grouches in the press box but on this occasion, we all but threw down rose petals for them. Backroom staff they may have been but they were still Maurice Fitzgerald and Mikey Sheehy.
Sheehy departed when Eamonn Fitzmaurice left but Maurice Fitz is still there alongside Peter Keane. One Kerry player contacted this week said he was under instructions to keep the head down – a sure sign that inter-county is back! – but that Fitzgerald had been a huge help to him and if he was allowed to, he'd love to lay out his admiration for him.
The ex-county player being in the backroom is nothing new, obviously. But Maurice Fitz is more than just an ex-player. In Kerry, he’s one of the gods. A god in the backroom, that much more rare. And yet, as the counties ready themselves for some manner of restart of the football and hurling season, they are to be found in dressing rooms up and down the country.
There's Maurice Fitz in Kerry. There's DJ Carey in Kilkenny. There's Ciarán McDonald in Mayo. Karl Lacey in Donegal. Diarmuid O'Sullivan in Cork. Paul Barden in Longford. Tommy Dunne in Tipperary. Dermot McCabe in Cavan.
These are more than ex-players. Some of them are former footballers and hurlers of the year. Some of them are icons, some of them are cult heroes. Some of them are all those things rolled into one.
“At the end of the day,” says DJ Carey, audibly shrugging down the phoneline, “I’m involved now with guys who have three, four five, All-Irelands. More maybe, in some cases. They’ve won more in their own right probably than I ever won. Anything I did as a player wouldn’t have a whole lot of relevance really.”
Which of course is all he can say, really. But is it true? When Derek McGrath was putting together his Waterford backroom team in 2014, he turned to Dan Shanahan. Back when they were young lads, the two of them played on the same Waterford minor and under-21 teams. Though McGrath's senior career never really went anywhere, Shanahan's went to the moon and back. Munster titles, All Stars, Hurler of the Year. Big Dan.
“In my case,” says McGrath, “to be perfectly honest, a little bit of it came from my own insecurity because I didn’t have the profile of that iconic player myself. I played with Dan at minor and under-21 level but I would have only been in and out of those panels. So there would have been a part of me that was slightly selfishly manipulative going, ‘Here’s this iconic figure, he’ll definitely bolster how it looks’. But that was only a small part of it starting off.
“That standing that an iconic figure has, I think it does have a significance, definitely. That’s the word I would put on it – it’s significant. If you take someone like DJ, he was a genius as a hurler and that has to play some part in how he holds himself.
“Imagine the respect that a dressing room has for someone like DJ or Maurice Fitzgerald or a Dan Shanahan. Players want information and immediately that information comes from someone who can carry themselves with the sort of authority that a DJ or a Maurice Fitz has, players eat it up. They have a standing because of what they’ve done in the game, 100 per cent.”
In Kilkenny, Carey has come on board for 2020 having previously been over the under-20s and having worked with Carlow IT. His playing career ended in 2005 so he's not being overly modest when he says it has little relevance to the players of today. For plenty of the Kilkenny panel, their parents will be more impressed that DJ is coaching them than they are.
“I don’t think players care about the past or think about it,” Carey says.
“No more than I did when I was playing. Players get on with their careers. I won’t say they’re selfish but they have their own things that they prioritise. They want to make the team or they want to make the 26 and they want to impress whoever is in front of them, whether it’s a high-profile selector or not. They’re trying to do their best to get themselves in line.”
The name only goes so far, ultimately. In an elite inter-county squad, the balance of who needs to impress whom can shift very quickly. McDonald’s near-mythical status in Mayo football can only butter so many parsnips before players who’ve been to twice as many All-Ireland finals as him start demanding something deeper. McGrath saw it happen with Shanahan in Waterford and saw his old friend blossom as the hill got steeper.
“If Dan wasn’t as diligent and as innovative as he was, that iconic status wears off in no time. But that never happened. Throughout my time, it was more that he developed and stepped forward each year. He had a mix of passion and exuberance but also a passion to learn the whole time.
“And players responded to that. They wouldn’t have gone with it if they were just hero-worshipping him. Dan is such a positive, hurling-obsessed guy. He still has his hurley with him in the oil lorry every day. He’d still go to the gym. He never asked the boys to do things he wouldn’t do himself. Players fired off that and got better because of it.”
In the end, these are figures whose availability makes them attractive. If you have a Maurice Fitz or a DJ or a Karl Lacey on offer to players who dream of emulating them, aren’t they better in the camp than working on their golf game? The games change but the stuff that makes the players doesn’t.
“Things like work-rate and effort and preparation never change,” says Carey. “I would never ever say that hurling was better in my day, definitely not. All I can talk about when it comes to in my day is what it was like on the field and the pressure involved, which was every bit as great then as it is now.
“There was no social media but there was plenty of spotlight and pressure. So you’re able to bring some of that to it. You tend to say ‘in-my-day’ sometimes, but not an awful lot. You might refer to matches or oppositions that you came up against. But in most respects it’s irrelevant now.”
Unlike the icons themselves.