Will the real Éamonn Fitzmaurice please stand up
Kerry’s manager keeps defeats in perspective and victories remain at the forefront in his mind
Kerry senior football manager Éamonn Fitzmaurice. Photograph: Inpho/James Crombie
“With Kerry everything is multiplied. When you win it is better and when you lose it is worse,” says Éamonn Fitzmaurice of the passionate mood swings which govern his county when it comes to the obsession with their football team.
School’s out on an apocalyptic teatime in the Kingdom: you’d say it got dark by four o’clock had it bothered brightening up at all. The rain is lashing down on Tralee. The sky is swooping low over Austin Stacks Park which, padlocked and lightless on this evening, looks about as welcoming as a haunted house – and if its ghosts you’re after, Kerry and Dublin will meet there on March 18th.
Sitting in front of a fire, though, Fitzmaurice is in fine form as he prepares for a fifth season in charge of Kerry. By rights, the man should have greyed like Barack Obama by now but in his 40th year he looks much the same as he did when he operated as a notoriously efficient centre back among a flamboyant cast of Kerry defenders.
As manager, Fitzmaurice’s county team has been where the public expects – no, demands – it to be, but in Kerry nothing ever has or will be enough. The stunning coup of the 2014 All-Ireland title which his young squad delivered against all expectation has been balanced by those three terse, absorbing championship encounters against Dublin: the 2013 All-Ireland semi-final (3-11 to 3-18), the 2015 All-Ireland final ( 0-9-to 0-12) and the 2016 All-Ireland semi-final (2-14 to 0-22). All championship defeats quietly gnaw at the soul of Kerry football people. But defeats to Dublin are placed in a separate sacristy.
“When you lose an All-Ireland final, yeah, no question, it takes a few weeks to recover,” he says of the feeling. “But I would process it all fairly fast. There is anger at the start and you are disappointed and you go from there. I do it on my own. It is just the way I am. I was that way as a player and in general in life.
“I am lucky – it is probably suited to management. My siblings laugh at me. They are more highly strung and get more anxious about football than I do. My sister Clíodhna, in particular. My brother Ciarán would be a bit more highly strung too. And I know when I was playing some of the lads when we lost an All-Ireland they’d be . . . well, I’m sure if they were analysed they would be categorised as being depressed. For a couple of months afterwards. That was never me.”
Genius for winning
Who, then, is Éamonn Fitzmaurice? As a footballer, he exhibited a kind of genius for winning All-Irelands at all grades without drawing much attention to himself. But being Kerry manager makes that impossible. In a way, the role demands a kind of showmanship, contained within the musical torrent of words with which Mick O’Dwyer accompanied that magical haul of eight All-Irelands in 12 years or in the great face of Páidí Ó Sé, whose expressions mirrored perfectly the light and dark of Kerry football.
Fitzmaurice teaches history in Dingle’s Pobalscoil and is fluent in all aspects of local history, including Kerry’s football past. He knows the rich lineage of the men who managed before him and as a player he was well versed on the unreasonable weight of emotion the county throws into its All-Ireland days.
A team loses together, however. A manager loses alone.
“There is comfort in numbers, yeah. When you are playing, you have your peers and teammates,” he begins, before checking himself. “You get a lot of support from your family. But I am thinking I am making it sound more dramatic than it is . . .”
But what is the All-Ireland championship if not never-ending theatre on a national scale?
“Well . . . I suppose it is. But I’m not a dramatic person. It is a process. You lose a game. This year we lost to Dublin. I came home on the Sunday night. I came straight home. I watched the match. I wanted to see it. And I was angry and disappointed and trying to think of things I could have done differently. There wouldn’t have been much sleep.
“I went to work on the Monday. We went out on the Monday night, the management group, and had a few pints. We have a bolt-hole where we are left to our own devices. Then I went to work on Tuesday. The school was just back. I think I watched the game again the following weekend. And you go through it and you . . . make your peace with it. As competitive as we are, there can only be one winner. And that Dublin team is an exceptional team.”
The tagline for the 2017 season could not be more vivid: Dublin are going for three All-Ireland football titles in a row. It is a prospect that any serious Kerry person will find blood-curdling. It was as though Kerry unleashed the genie in losing that All-Ireland final to Dublin six years ago. Now, Fitzmaurice is the man in the position of trying to get to grips with what might just be the best Dublin football team in the history of the GAA. He smiles when asked which of the three defeats was the toughest to take.
“All three. The margins have been tiny. But in terms of performance, the 2015 final because we were just . . . flat. And we didn’t have a great day on the line. Even though things didn’t go well for us, we stuck with it. The spirit was there.”
He thinks back to the weeks before that final. “I would do it differently if I was doing it now,” he says quietly, before detailing the schedule as if he had just drafted it yesterday. They had four weeks to prepare for the final. They decided to train the Tuesday and Friday for the first week and then give the team a weekend off. “We trained hard the Friday night. Too hard, I think.”
Then Dublin and Mayo drew so they still didn’t know their opposition. “We trained the following Saturday, which was a mistake. We should have trained the Sunday when we would have known who our opposition was.”
They had an A versus B game on the weekend before the final. “Beautiful sunny day and the forwards were humming. Humming. Couldn’t have been better. And our whole thinking was: just get our defence right.”
As it turned out, James O’Donoghue popped his shoulder that weekend: he was able to play but it was a disruption. And the deluge of rainfall on Croke Park on the Sunday of the final made life a lottery for their attackers.
“If you told me Dublin would score 0-12, well, you would take it. But Dublin just wanted it more and there were more aggressive than us. And they were better than us on the day.”
That has to be a painful admission for any Kerry man to make but Fitzmaurice states it evenly. “It is. But they did. That’s the fact of the matter. You could see it in the way they tackled. I think you could see it in their body language as the game went on. We didn’t. Simple as that. And sometimes you have to be honest enough with yourself to say that.”
In a way, Kerry’s surge to the 2014 All-Ireland title was worth about five seasons of experience to Fitzmaurice because it was a year in which everything happened.
When he thinks about his favourite moment as a manager, he returns not to winning that September’s final but to the strange and magnificent All-Ireland semi-final replay against Mayo in Limerick. It was an evening that defied logic. A pipe burst in the dressing-room shortly after the Kerry boys arrived in the Gaelic Grounds. Everyone had to pile all their bags and belongings on benches before going out for their warm-up.
When they returned, plumbers had sorted the issue out but by half time, they trooped towards their dressing room to discover another issue. A steward had suffered a heart attack and was being treated in the corridor. It was probably best not to have 30 amped-up Kerry footballers steaming past the medics.
Fitzmaurice agreed and asked his nutritionist to go along to the dressing-room and discreetly gather the gels and recovery stuffs he needed. Officials began to lead the team to the old dressing-rooms when they were suddenly told that it was fine to go to their own changing room after all. “I saw the steward being treated in one of the rooms nearby but the players just shot in the door without noticing a thing.”
The team had just settled down and all faces were fixed on Fitzmaurice when Mike Finnerty, the team doctor, burst in the door, looking delighted. “Lads, yer man is fine!” he declared. “He’s alive! He’s going to be grand.” The players looked at the doctor and then Fitzmaurice and then at the doctor again as if the world had gone mad.
In a way, it had. The loss of Colm Cooper for the year had been received as a portent of doom throughout the county. Somewhere between that year’s league and the eye-opening 10-point over Cork in the Munster final, Fitzmaurice shaped the team we know now. The players have changed but the attitude is constant: obstinate, dauntless and stubborn until the death.
He references a training camp in Portugal from early that summer. “It was very significant. It was physical and there was a bit of . . . how would you say? We got a bit of stuff off our chest. The matches were very physical, the football. It was fairly primitive out there now, to be honest. But we came back very united from there.”
Scenes and secrets
You can guess at the scenes and secrets those words contain. Still, they were all kind of grappling around in the dark. Fitzmaurice and his selectors looked on aghast as the B team beat the A team a week out from the Munster final. “That never happened when I was playing and I thought it was a bad thing. But we learned later that it wasn’t. And five lads starting on the B team that day lined out against Cork.”
He felt by then that the stuff he knew was within them was beginning to surface. By the evening in the Gaelic Grounds against Mayo, it was coursing through the team, thrilling its audience. Mayo were, in 2014, about as bloody-minded as any team could be. Kerry matched them. So the game, enhanced by permissive officiating, was elevated into something wild and unique.
“There was something . . . dusty about the whole thing. The fact that it was an evening game: the light and everything and so many other things happened in the background. The Kerry crowd were so passionate afterwards. And Kerry crowds don’t do that. Not for All-Ireland semi-finals.”
No, Kerry crowds do not do that. But something special was unfolding. If that night was about unleashing fury, then Fitzmaurice decided that the All-Ireland final, against a rejuvenated Donegal, would be about discipline.
The Ulster champions had been big-game poachers all summer. Fitzmaurice anticipated the traps and refused to allow his team to walk into them. In a way, they mirrored the Donegal set-up. As a consequence the final was stuck in neutral as a spectacle and the atmosphere was of low-grade menace.
Kerry won a final that was instantly forgettable as a spectacle but finished with an All-Ireland title that will always be regarded as precious because nobody had dared to hope for it. It was forgotten afterwards just how boldly Fitzmaurice gambled. Had his team lost playing that style of football, it would have left him open to the charge of betraying the Kerry tradition. He says now that the consequences didn’t ever occur to him.
“No, it didn’t cross my mind. I think in Kerry you are going to get hammered when you lose whatever the style. And I don’t think the mind works that way. I’d be . . . stubborn is the wrong word . . . maybe pragmatic enough. I would have the confidence in myself and the backroom team to know that if we are going to go at something we are doing it for the right reasons and we are going to go for it 100 per cent. And if we are wrong, we are wrong.
“I make hundreds of mistakes. I’ve no problem saying that. And one of the big things when I took over in Kerry is that there are so many opinions around because so many people are invested in it. And if you start listening to everyone’s opinion and acting on those, you lose what you are about yourself. And then you end up making everyone else’s mistakes.
“I was adamant that I would make my own mistakes and learn from them. And I felt this is what we needed to do to beat Donegal. So I felt this would work and if it didn’t I would put up my hand. As has happened with Dublin. We tried different things against them and didn’t get over the line. So that is my baby. I would never worry about getting a caning for something. It wouldn’t bother me.”
He says all of this so quietly and without ceremony that you know it’s the absolute truth. It’s almost a contradiction because he throws himself into this . . . craziness. Football shapes his days as it has done all Kerry managers. All he really remembers of the Olympics is setting a reminder on his phone to watch the O’Donovan brothers row in their final. He was upstairs at home editing video tape. He shudders to think what has become of his golf game.
In late October, he and his wife Tina had their first baby, Fay. He was on the couch feeding her through those insane wee hours Donald Trump was elected president. Tina had been riveted by the election but he decided not to wake her to tell her that the impossible had happened. Then, in early December, he was in New York with the team for the annual holiday, an extended weekend break. He walked past Trump Tower and saw nothing different.
“And people we were talking with . . . most were anti-Trump but there wasn’t any foreboding. It was more like: let’s get on with it. Funny, what struck me most was how crazy busy it was. One afternoon we went up Fifth Avenue and the NYPD were actually out directing people on the footpaths. It was that crowded.”
It confirmed what he has never lost sight of in the tumult of the Kerry fascination. It’s a big world. And it keeps moving.
So Saturday now and the Kerry boys are on a bus bound for the endless road to Letterkenny, lost in i-technology. Fitzmaurice will sit at the top of the bus. Make no mistake: he is burning with hope and ambition for the Kingdom this year even if he keeps it within himself.
It feels like something special is brewing in 2017, with Dublin closing in on GAA history. Nerves will be frayed in the Kingdom unless they can be stopped. But their three-in-a-row bid is not an added spur for the manager.
“No,” Fitzmaurice says clearly. “It’s not, being honest. They’ve have inflicted so much hurt on us going back to 2011 that we don’t need any extra motivation. It’s not. Look, the history books and all that stuff . . . it is something you think about after you finish up. The immediacy is just about trying to get a win over them. We don’t need any additional motivation. We couldn’t need it.”
The last four words are quiet and, yes, undramatic and they contain a molten conviction. Expect a forest fire before they are done.