The here and now: Fitzmaurice relishing 2014

IN fairness to the man, he warned us.

He sat in that chair, behind that table draped with a Kerry flag emblazoned with the new Kerry crest and told us that the next few weeks were going to be difficult. It's not so much that we didn't believe him or that we doubted his sincerity, it's just that what he was saying didn't quite register.

There's difficult and then there's difficult. Even with the squad Kerry had at their disposal at the time few of us expected that start... Eamonn Fitzmaurice, forewarned as he was, included. Four games in, four defeats later, Kerry failing to get on the scoreboard in a half of football, (almost) unprecedented stuff.

Fitzmaurice's warning turned out to be all too prescient. Some of the performances he deemed unacceptable. The Dublin game in Fitzgerald Stadium surely falls into that category. Four scores in all, two in each half. Kerry looked like novices, which in a sense they were.

Players being blooded. Sink or swim. A steep learning curve. Not an excuse as far as Fitzmaurice is concerned, an extenuating circumstance for sure, but no excuse. No question, he expects more from these guys in 2014.

"The standard we had last year was that whoever is training with us, whoever is showing up best will be on the team," he says.

"When the more senior players started to come back into us [last year] they were playing better than the lads, who had been there earlier in the year. So they were straight back into the team.

"I would expect some of our younger players this year to stand up a bit better earlier in the year. I think they learned an awful lot in that tough period last year and I'd be hopeful that a lot more of them would have a positive experience this time around."

It's still not going to be easy. This is Division 1 football we're talking about here. Every team should be capable of beating every other team on their day. A trip to Croke Park to face the All Ireland champions on the opening day could do either one of two things: set them up for the season ahead or provide an early set-back.

"If we can get a few early wins definitely we'd be aiming to make the league semi-finals," the Kerry boss says.

"The thing about the league semi-finals last year was that Mayo got in and we didn't even though they were on the same amount of points as us. We could have gone down only that Paul Mannion kicked a point above in Donegal and we could have actually got into a semi-final; it was only scoring difference that kept us out.

"So if you can get to eight points you've a good chance of getting to a league semi-final. Sitting here right now that'd be our ambition, to at least get to the semi-final."

This time last year the players – both experienced and inexperienced – were getting to grips with the new training regime. By all accounts more intense that what had gone before. The bar was being raised under Fitzmaurice's leadership and the training of Cian O'Neill. S&C – strength and conditioning – the buzzword.

"We've very happy with them," he says.

"Conditioning-wise they're excellent, of course they're going to keep improving and keep improving, but the gains are going to be smaller and smaller. They made up a good bit of ground last year, but the more conditioned you get the percentage improvements are always going to be that bit smaller.

"The bar is raised a bit every year, but you wonder every year how can it be raised another bit. In terms of amateur players they're as good as you can be."

All of which leaves one to wonder has the whole thing gone too far. Is it too professional? Are these, as Fitzmaurice is well aware, amateur players being pushed too far? Has it become too much like hard work?

"The thing is it's a holistic approach," Fitzmaurice explains.

"You want fellas to enjoy it for as long as they possibly can in terms of the amount of years they're playing in and then when they move away from it they can do so relatively free. Any sportsperson when they're playing ten or twelve years of course they're going to have niggles or whatever afterwards, but it is definitely a concern.

"I think that the lads do enjoy it. When we're together definitely as a group the training is very enjoyable. The type of sessions that are there and they're at such a level that it's very enjoyable, I'd love to be doing them myself. That's the way I put it.

"What I imagine from the lads' point of view is the demanding part of it is when you're in your smaller groups doing your S&C work, having to watch your diet, having no social life, having to be in bed early because you need to get your rest.

"I imagine that's the hard part of it, the minding your body away from the training, but the training itself is very enjoyable and the lads do enjoy it, but it's about trying to get the balance right."

If there's one thing an inter-county manager must do it's that: get the balance right. The balance between S&C and ball work. The balance between youth and experience. The balance between defence and attack.

One area where many observers feel Fitzmaurice might not have achieved that balance is with Under 21 players and players just out of minor level. Where's Kerry's answer to Jack McCaffrey? Where's Kerry's Ciarán Kilkenny?

Where other counties – and yes Dublin is the exemplar here – bring their young guns into the set-up immediately, Kerry seem to bide their time a little bit more.

Johnny Buckley and Shane Enright both won an All Ireland Under 21 title in 2008, yet it wasn't until 2012/13 that they really began to make their mark at inter-county level.

To be fair to the Fitzmaurice and his management team they did have a couple of Under 21 players on their books last year – James Walsh, David Culhane, Pa Kilkenny and Conor Cox – but it none really made a lasting impression.

"It didn't work last year, it didn't work for Darragh [Ó Sé, Under 21 manager], it didn't work for the players," he says.

"They were being pulled around. At the moment they have Sigerson, they have Under 21s coming up and then they were trying to combine it with us and it was just too much.

"So what we decided to do this year is that the Under 21s are going to stay with Darragh and if they're beaten in the first round we'll assess it, if they're in an All Ireland final we'll assess it, bar a major injury crisis in our camp the lads are going to stay with Darragh.

"The way I'm viewing it then is that if three or four Under 21s put up their hands over the course of the Under 21 championship they've earned a spot on our panel."

The message Fitzmaurice sends out loud and clear is that nothing, absolutely nothing, comes easy. Not to players, not to managers. Success, status, game time has to be earned. A year on since his appointment his philosophy is is becoming increasingly apparent.

A template for success? We'd wager yes... time, of course, will tell its own story.


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