Hard choices ahead for Eamonn Fitzmaurice as youth comes calling
Published 10/06/2016 | 02:30
More than once during his three Championship seasons as Kerry football manager, Eamonn Fitzmaurice has been described as ruthless.
His fearless selection policy has been shaped predominantly by what's before his eyes on the training ground and how match-ups with opponents might develop.
Never has that ruthlessness been more apparent than last year's Championship when he made 16 game-to-game changes from the team that started their Munster semi-final against Clare to the All-Ireland final 15 against Dublin.
Some changes have been forced by injury but most have been precipitated by form and instinct.
When it comes to age profile, however, Fitzmaurice has been a whole lot more conservative. In the same three Championship campaigns in which he has rolled the dice so often, and more often than not successfully, he has never once given game-time to an U-21 player. Not for a second.
The approach to League games is only slightly more relaxed. Prior to this year only four U-21 players had featured in any of the 21 league games since 2013.
James Walsh started at midfield in 2013, Conor Cox started up front the following year against Mayo, while Shane O'Callaghan (Mayo 2013) and Conor Keane (Mayo 2015) made appearances as substitutes. Cox was also used as a substitute against Dublin in that 2013 game.
Thus, only three players who have played minor championship for Kerry since 2009 have gone on to play senior Championship - Mark Griffin, Pa Kilkenny and Jack Sherwood. Kilkenny and Sherwood have only two substitute appearances each, and have been released from the squad since the League; Griffin has started games and has had a more consistent presence.
Fitzmaurice can point to the development of future All-Star Paul Murphy and Stephen O'Brien, neither of whom made a Kingdom minor team, as evidence that the U-18 grade isn't always the most reliable springboard for future seniors.
And Kerry minors, prior to Jack O'Connor's back-to-back winners over the last couple of years, hadn't exactly been burning it up beyond Munster.
Fitzmaurice's instinct about Murphy was justified in his first full year with the senior squad when he walked away with man of the match" in the All-Ireland final.
But the absence of players from the 21 to 24 age bracket on the Kerry team is quite striking.
Is it that the youngsters just haven't been good enough?
At his latest press briefing on Monday, Fitzmaurice stressed how age is an irrelevance when it comes to team selection.
That said, the age profile on the Kerry team is high. If the team that started the League final against Dublin in April were to be put back in, en bloc, again against Clare on Sunday the average age would be just over 29, with eight players over 30. By comparison Dublin's average age today, using their recent League winning team, is 27.
The return of Anthony Maher, James O'Donoghue and Paul Geaney should level things a little.
The temptation may be to dip into some of O'Connor's minor legacy to shore up the gaps that were evident in defence, especially in the league final.
Fitzmaurice has extensive knowledge of these two players, having coached some of them to Hogan Cup glory.
Briain Ó Beaglaoích and Tom and Barry O'Sullivan all saw some League action this year before the U-21s got exclusive access to them.
If Fitzmaurice is to break with record of not playing any current U-21 in a Championship match, it is most likely to happen with Ó Beaglaoích's selection.
He started the first two games and while he struggled against Dublin's Paul Mannion on the opening night of the League, he still did enough to warrant re-selection and against Roscommon he was, with Johnny Buckley, arguably Kerry's best player in defeat.
Since the League the athletic full-back on last year's minor team, Jason Foley has joined Killian Spillane, Michael O'Connor, Michael Burns and Gavin White in graduating to the senior squad.
A little older, Spillane's Templenoe colleagues Gavin Crowley and Tadhg Morley have also joined.
With a clear deficit in athleticism against Dublin in the League final, Fitzmaurice may be forced to make some tough choices as the summer evolves.
He may even have them already made.