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Seán Moran: Public vitriol towards managers and players is unacceptable

Fitzmaurice’s parting comments show a dark side to the passions in Gaelic games

It was the worst of both worlds: the intimacy of an NFL fixture in November combined with the sensibilities of a Premier League soccer match. Dublin had been outplayed by Leinster champions Offaly in Parnell Park and the home support wasn't happy. Chants of "Out, out, out" rang through the gloom of the winter evening 22 years ago.

Wing back Eamonn Heery, a club mate of manager Mickey Whelan, gestured angrily at the crowd.

There was a sense of despondency and even embarrassment around the place after the boorish barracking of the manager. Whelan walked away – two matches into a league season! – accepting that the situation had become impossible for everyone.

“The pressure that’s on me isn’t affecting me in any way,” he told the press afterwards, “but it may be affecting the players. Fellas, listen, this is not a funeral or an execution either – so, the best of luck.”

An All-Ireland medallist and friend of Kevin Heffernan, Whelan was a highly qualified and innovative coach but the timing hadn't been great.

He had been chosen to take over from an All-Ireland-winning management team, which has to be about the worst circumstances for anyone stepping into such a position. The ageing team’s fortunes had gone into decline, hardly Whelan’s doing as Dublin wouldn’t win even another Leinster for five years after his departure.

The following day, the county board released a statement, which included the lines: “The committee accepts that the management of the county team is a high-profile position but do not accept that any individual should be subject to this level of criticism and abuse in an amateur game.”

The fact that this isn't a new phenomenon doesn't make it any better

As someone who had enjoyed a successful academic and sporting career in the US, Whelan would have been familiar with the F Scott Fitzgerald observation, "there are no second acts in American lives," but happily it didn't apply to him.

After 1996, he coached two All-Ireland winning teams, St Vincent’s in 2008 and three years later, Dublin, as part of Pat Gilroy’s management – a partnership they are currently renewing with the Dublin hurlers.

Eamonn Fitzmaurice stepped down as manager of the Kerry footballers last weekend, referring as he left to himself as having been a "lightning rod" for criticism and his concerns, like Whelan's two decades ago, that players were being exposed to a "negative atmosphere" with hate mail even being sent to them.

The fact that this isn’t a new phenomenon doesn’t make it any better. Gaelic games and the GAA frequently earn deserved plaudits for their generating of social capital and unparalleled ability to bring communities together. At what point do some people feel entitled to treat those involved in the games so appallingly?

Football credentials

It’s true that social media has contributed to a coarsening of public comment with its instant access and anonymity but the old-style misanthropy of sitting down and writing down abusive thoughts to send to amateur sportsmen, whether young players or not-so-young coaches, remains shocking.

In the case of Kerry, Fitzmaurice’s parting comments brought to mind the late Páidí Ó Sé’s interview during which he described the county’s GAA public as “the roughest type of f***ing animals you could ever deal with. You can print that”.

Nor is it a peculiarly Kerry – or Dublin – problem. John Maughan walked away from Roscommon 10 years ago, voicing similar concerns and eliciting another county board statement condemnation of “the personal abuse that John and his selectors have been subjected to in the recent past. The instigators of this abuse do not represent the genuine Roscommon supporter and are not welcome as Roscommon supporters at our games.”

Fitzmaurice’s concern for younger players and the fact that he was drawing criticism onto the whole team was genuine but he could have been forgiven were it also a deflection from his own disappointment.

When he took over in 2013, his football credentials had been well established as a Kerry selector and also as an insightful football analyst with the Irish Examiner. Jack O'Connor had stepped down in 2012 and the news didn't provoke a crush of bodies around Stack Park looking for the position.

The cliche is that counties such as Kerry “don’t do” transition. Whether that is true or not, like everyone else they occasionally have to lose a very successful generation of players and find replacements. The presence of teams like the county had in the 15 years between 1997 and when Fitzmaurice took over, during which time six All-Irelands were won, can contribute to a boom-bust cycle.

After Mick O’Dwyer’s team won its eight All-Irelands in 12 years, Kerry went nearly as long again before winning another.

Fitzmaurice managed to keep it to five, picking up a Sam Maguire in 2014 by strategising the defeat of a Donegal team that outwitted Dublin in the semi-final. That he didn't manage to beat Dublin in three attempts over six championships might connote for some in the county a kind of football Dark Ages but Kerry simply weren't as good as Dublin in those years and yet Fitzmaurice brought elements of tactical surprise to those matches that made them memorable encounters.

At his disposal he had the fast-disappearing remains of one great generation with another potentially on the horizon after the domination at All-Ireland minor level. His successor will get to mine that seam but if posterity is fair-minded, it will regard Fitzmaurice as having done Kerry great service in difficult circumstances.

email: smoran@irishtimes.com

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