Friday 20 October 2017

Dick Clerkin: Eamonn Fitzmaurice must depart before coup is staged in the Kingdom

Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice
Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice
Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice. Photo: Sportsfile

Dick Clerkin

To stick or twist... When the time comes for a manager to have that internal debate on whether to stay or hand in his badge, it must be a torturous decision. As a player contemplating retirement, it can be a relatively straightforward, if somewhat emotional, call, as the body starts to show signs of wear and tear.

Managers can obviously go on significantly longer; that is until the decision is taken out of your hands.

Deep in the heartlands of Kerry, conversations regarding the future of Eamonn Fitzmaurice will be fervent. Similar debates, as they have done for much longer, will rage in mid-Ulster as Mickey Harte once again attempts to fend of the Tyrone mob who want a change of their sideline guard.

Leaving my northern neighbours aside for the time being, what then is the right course of action in Kerry? For me, it is quite straightforward.

Eamonn should depart the scene, of his own accord, with his head held high. Observing both of the Kerry-Mayo games, I saw enough to suggest this is a Kingdom team in temporary decline - with little Fitzmaurice can do to stop the slide.

Ahead of any bounce on the back of underage transitions over the next few years, he simply won't have the players capable of meeting the high expectations in Kerry. To stay and fight against the tide would only serve to lesson his noteworthy achievements.

Five Munster titles in a row, a feat last accomplished back in the halcyon days of the 1970s; an All-Ireland win in 2014 and defeated finalists the following year; a league title this year.

Then there is their contribution to two of the most memorable games of our generation: Against Dublin in the 2013 semi-final classic in Croke Park, and against Mayo in the 2014 semi-final replay epic in Limerick.

Not that all of that will count for much in some minds, as the anger and frustration following the manner of this year's exit courses heavily through the Kingdom's veins.

One must also consider that all of the above was achieved during a tenure that saw the gradual departure of the all-conquering class of the Noughties. It's a trend likely to continue this winter.

As the greats of a previous generation depart, the harsh reality is that those who have followed have struggled to fill their shoes. Kerry simply don't have the depth of talent at senior level they once did.

With fewer real contenders than ever for Sam Maguire glory, they have seldom looked further away from the summit. Looking back on their 2014 All-Ireland victory, the charge of overachieving looks much more credible than what was once tolerated.

From a dawn that has since proved false, heavy wore the crown for many of the 2014 team. Moran, O'Donoghue, Fitzgerald et al have struggled to maintain a consistently high standard of performance since.

That Fitzmaurice would consider dropping O'Donoghue in place of extra defensive cover for the Mayo replay says as much about the 2014 Footballer of the Year's inconsistency as it does the Kerry chief's managerial acumen.

Much has been made of Kerry's recent underage success, with a historic fourth All-Ireland minor title in a row beckoning. In this regard, expectation must be balanced with patience when assuming a straightforward transfer of power at senior level will follow such unprecedented success. Never has the gap between minor and senior grades been greater, with a physical competency a prerequisite accompaniment to any burgeoning talent.

The Con O'Callaghans of this world are the exception to the norm, as the physicality and cynicism of the senior grade will generally quash the inherent skill of any undercooked youngster.

Kerry's young Tom O'Sullivan found this out in Kerry's eventual defeat to Mayo, after Fitzmaurice handed him an unexpected championship debut.

Arriving to the ground early to prepare for another day in front of the Sky Sports cameras, I came across the Kerry team strolling around an empty Croke Park, taking in what for many were now familiar surroundings.

I was immediately drawn to an intense conversation between Kieran Donaghy and a fresh-faced youngster who was significantly less accustomed to the intimidating ground. Scrambling to the programme player pics, I quickly found his mugshot: Tom O'Sullivan, of the recent minor winning teams, was getting some pre-match pointers from one of the venue's most revered sons.

While not named in the starting 15, it was clear Fitzmaurice was intent on throwing the talented wing-back on in an attempt to shore up their defensive frailties from the drawn game.

Tom has a bright future, but it was clear from early on in the game he was still a few years away from being a Sam Maguire calibre player. Eamonn's decision in playing Tom spoke volumes about the weak hand he had to play.

Fitzmaurice will be under intense scrutiny in his home county following his side's tame exit. When the dust settles, there should be a realisation that Eamonn achieved more than most would have managed with the players at his disposal.

That being said, with five years under his belt, another few repeats of this year's disappointment would likely take the decision out of his hands.

Like plenty of other successful managers, a return to the fold in a few years, after a well-earned sabbatical, should be the basis for an amicable departure.

He has proven himself to be an astute manager on many occasions. In an era when good men are hard to find, any acrimonious split wouldn't serve Kerry well in the long term.

Irish Independent

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