AFTER four wins on the bounce and a pot of silver at the end of January, Eamonn Fitzmaurice was hit with a fairly sobering reality check as February blew in with a bang.
Mayo GAA people - keenly aware of their county's own failings - are a welcoming crowd, but McHale Park in Castlebar can be an unwelcoming and unforgiving place for visiting footballers. As Kerry found out to their cost last Sunday.
A six-point defeat by a young, somewhat inexperienced Kerry side away to last year's All-Ireland finalists hardly constitutes a hammering. Mayo fielded a stronger team than Kerry, in terms of the number of 'first choice' players they sent out on Sunday. Kerry were down six, maybe seven, players who have been regular Championship starters in recent seasons. Youth was handed its opportunity on Sunday and it got a hot baptism of fire in the step up from McGrath Cup to national league football.
Perhaps the most damning aspect of Sunday's defeat was the fact Kerry didn't register a score in the second half. Indeed, after Conor Cox's point in the 30th minute, Kerry endured 43 more minutes of action without raising another flag. That, for Kerry football, is a very rare occurence and not one Fitzmaurice will like being associated with. Nonetheless, the Kerry manager will appreciate that while a section of the Kerry GAA public will, this week, rage about the result, the performance and that barren half of football, nothing is won in early February, and not much is really lost then either.
"It was a disappointing day out. We didn't play well. We didn't perform. Simple as that. We're not going to be hiding or looking for excuses. A poor performance, the lads are disappointed," Fitzmaurice offered as his first thoughts on his first 'proper' game in charge of the county team. "We didn't look sharp, which surprised me, because we have had a good few games in the last few weeks and we were happy with them but Mayo were very sharp in the inside line. They put in great ball, they kicked great scores, we were struggling for all our scores. James O'Donoghue got a great goal and it kept us in it, really. There was no fluidity in our play and we just didn't play well. It was as simple as that."
Fitzmaurice agreed that his team needed a greater lead at half time, given that they had played with a stiff wind advantage for the first 35 minutes. "I think so, the breeze was strong. In fairness to Mayo they came out of the blocks. They looked like a team that had a lot of the football over the last few weeks," he said, but he disagreed with the suggestion that Mayo might have been the fitter team, with more pre-season work done.
"I wouldn't think so. The [Kerry] lads have a good bit of work done. This season above all others when we were able to get back on December 8. We would have a lot more work done than we would in other years. I don't think it was a fitness issue. We looked a bit leggy. Mayo looked sharp and fit. It's a work in progress," he said, while also admitting that the second half sending off of Anthony Maher didn't really have a bearing on the final result.
An undeniable fact from last Sunday was that Kerry were without a significant core of experienced, senior players, and that National League debuts were handed to Michael O'Donoghue and Conor Cox. Second half substitutes Andrew Garnett and Shane O'Carroll also made their League debuts on Sunday. It was a chastening experience for several of those younger players, on whose shoulder the future of this team is being placed. Fitzmaurice understands that they need to undergo a learning process and that Sunday's defeat should, eventually, stand to them.
"Some of the younger players coming through we have a lot of time for them. Part of developing as a player is having experiences like today and realising what it takes at this level. It's going to be a wake-up call for some of the lads but in terms of their long-term development it's part of the thing, this can happen. We have plenty of time for the lads in the panel and we think that they bring a lot to the table and you can have days like that," the manager said.
Fitzmaurice has a seven-day turnaround to focus minds and steel his players for the visit of Dublin to Killarney. The 2011 All-Ireland champions cut an impressive team in their six-point win over Cork, and despite not being great travellers Jim Gavin's team will come to Kerry with quiet confidence. Fitzmaurice is well aware of that.
"We have to regroup and look forward to next weekend. It was always going to be a tough fixture with Dublin coming down having played so well [against Cork], us having played so poorly today. Looking for points next weekend it makes it tougher but we have no excuses."