From Killarney to Croke Park via Auckland and Texas
If Kerry are to triumph on Sunday, they'll need their captain Fionn Fitzgerald performing at his best, writes Damian Stack
ONCE the ball is thrown in that's it.
All the days, weeks, months of preparation. It's either enough or it isn't. You live and you die within those white lines.
You win or you lose. Succeed or fail. Win together. Lose together. Seventy minutes, that's all you get. Seventy minutes to define a season. To define a career, to define many careers.
There's no footballer at this level who isn't keenly aware of that. That's what makes the early season training bearable. That's what gets you to buy into the drills, the video analysis, the diet, the gym work, the tactics.
Tactics don't just happen. They're worked on for weeks and weeks and weeks. Session after session. If they weren't worked on meticulously like that they wouldn't work. Whatever the tactic for a particular game is, it must be as second nature to the players by the time the referee gets matters underway.
When a player, like the Kerry captain Fionn Fitzgerald, takes to the pitch he doesn't want to be overtly thinking about the tactics, about the system. Not too much anyway. Without thought, without the ability to react to the ebb and flow of a game you're in trouble.
Besides, when you've got a footballer of Fitzgerald's calibre the last thing you want to do is curb that side of his game. His instincts and intelligence marked him out from a young age as a future Kerry footballer and we mean footballer in the strictest sense of the word. The boy can play.
Amongst the chattering classes there's been plenty of discussion about Eamonn Fitzmaurice's tactical approach to the game and rightly so. The Finuge man has instituted a clever system, one which caught Brian Cuthbert and Cork flat-footed in a memorable Munster final.
Still, Fitzmaurice is no dogmatist. An integral part of the system is that essential genius of Kerry football. The last thing a manager would want to do is coach out those little moments of magic, that ability of players to think on their feet.
"One of the big things with Eamonn is that he would empower us to play our own game," Fitzgerald explains.
"Obviously there's structures, but the reason that allows the likes of Jamesy [O'Donoghue] to play the way he plays is because we're encouraged a bit to cut loose and have that little bit of freedom too and that's important as well I think.
"That was always part of Kerry football and I think the day that that's taken away, something is going to change."
Football has long since lost its innocence. The time of gladiatorial contests, of fifteen on fifteen, mano a mano, are long gone, if they ever existed at all in the snow-white manner of our imaginings. The game is as much a mental game as a physical one in 2014.
To smart guys, to guys with degrees in sports science and masters in sports performance, that appeals. Trying to figure out where the opposition are strong, trying to figure out how to address your own weaknesses. Deciding whether to hit the opposition where they're weak or where they're strong and sometimes doing it on the hoof. The ability to read the game, to see lines and patterns, that's what separates the wheat from the chaff.
"Free flowing football ... is there any such thing as free flowing football anymore?" Fitzgerald asks.
"I'm not really sure, but we'd like to think we play it in as best a way we can anyway. We tactically go about things and we've a good system going at the moment we feel. Mayo have their own system and they've been very successful with it up to now.
"It might be a different game for the onlooker and I understand about the purists, but I think it's a tactical type of game, at this level it is really."
There will be an interesting contrast in styles between the two half-back lines on Sunday. The Kingdom's is arguably the more traditional of the two. Less gung-ho, more concerned with minding the house than Mayo's powerhouse half-back line.
Fitzgerald and co will be well used to seeing their opposite numbers – Lee Keegan, Donal Vaughan – on their turf. It's just another one of those things. A tactic. A gambit. Who's right? Who's wrong? We'll know around 5.30 on Sunday evening.
Mayo's is a system it's easy to imagine Fitzgerald excelling in. The football brain he has, his ease on the ball, his ability to pick a pass or a point. You can easily imagine him taking off on one of those mazy runs on Sunday, the space opening out in front of him, the heat and sound from the crowd urging him forward.
"I'd enjoy an aul sally up the field every so often too," he admits, his eyes lighting up at the prospect.
"It's not about me or about individuals kicking a point, it's very much about having a system or a structure so that not every time it's a score, you have to be in a position to defend or to have some sort of structure if it breaks down. But if the situation presents itself absolutely there's backs there that are well able to go up and contribute to the attack."
It takes discipline to excel at this level and in that answer, not to mention the way he plays, it's clear that the Dr Crokes' man is painfully aware of the fact. His time studying for his degree and his masters at UL, where he first encountered Kerry trainer Dr Cian O'Neill, would have taught him that.
Time spent in Whangarei, a town just north of Auckland in New Zealand's north island, would merely have reinforced the point. For four months at the New Zealand sports academy, he worked day in day out with professional athletes – "they would be the equivalent of minors in the GAA, just about make the breakthrough" – and professional coaches in top notch facilities.
That kind of experience has to be invaluable to a player such as Fitzgerald. The knowledge gained and brought back to the Dr Crokes and Kerry set-ups equally so.
That was in 2011, at the time he was struggling a little bit with injuries. He used the experience as an opportunity to rehab too.
When he returned he was in tip-top shape. When he returned Jack O'Connor quickly called him back into the Kerry squad. It's been onwards and upwards ever since then.
Knowledge really is power it seems and Fitzgerald hasn't stopped trying to learn. When presented with the opportunity to soak up some more knowledge, he'll take it. For example, he spent last December in Texas working with one of the famed Friday night lights schools.
"It was after my masters as a professional development trip," he explains.
"I went for a month. I went over to Micheál Cahill, he was a coach with Clare footballers the year before last, and he was working over there so I linked up with him for a month and he gave me a fantastic opportunity.
"I was working at this facility worth a couple of million and it was just a high school and they've access to fourteen or fifteen sports. Obviously the American football was the big one I was looking at over there, but track and field, basketball, you name it, it's unbelievable stuff."
If that kind of ravenous desire for knowledge of other sports and coaching methods reminds us of anybody, it's Donie Buckley with his trips to the States to keep up to date with the latest trends.
Buckley, of course, will have a big say on the outcome of this semi-final. A Kerry man, a former Kerry coach, and now James Horan's right hand man. It's an intriguing subplot to a game already well stocked in that department.
Fitzgerald's knowledge of Buckley comes more from his time as a behind-the-scenes coach with Dr Crokes than with Kerry.
"We worked on a lot of things," he says.
"He's a very rounded coach. He gave us a vast amount with Crokes and a massive insight into the game. He'll cover a lot of angles and we'll cover a lot of angles and we'll see how it goes."
Back where we started. Tactics. Thinking. A battle of wits. Just the way Donie likes it. Just the way Fionn likes it.
Let the battle commence.