Wednesday 13 December 2017

Need for speed forces Kerry to lift veil of secrecy

Eamonn Fitzmaurice is shaping his team for the battles that may come later this summer, writes John O'Brien

John O'Brien

IT was Wednesday morning when Bomber pulled the detonator and the tremors were felt throughout the entire county. "Hearing major shock on way re Kerry team," the Kerry legend informed his Twitter followers and what had been a noticeably quiet build-up to today's Munster final against Cork suddenly became laced with intrigue. The Bomber teased and dropped subtle hints. Whatever he knew, they realised, it was something big.

And so the speculation started. Everything from the posting of Eoin Brosnan to the problem full-back position to the nuclear dropping of Colm Cooper was mooted. That afternoon, 48 hours ahead of schedule, the county board decided to put supporters out of their misery. The team was announced and the news that Kieran Donaghy had been omitted became official. Eoin Liston had been on the ball all along.

This instantly raised a few burning questions. How had Liston come by his little nugget of information? Did he have an informant among the Kerry backroom team? Or was it Donaghy, peeved at his demotion to the replacements' bench, who gave him the tip-off? Was it a fundamental act of disloyalty on Liston's part, as some suggested, to start dropping subtle hints on a social network? Ah, so much intrigue. And so unlike Kerry.

In the greater scheme of things, of course, none of this matters very much beyond illustrating the fine line Eamonn Fitzmaurice treads when he tampers with his county's long-cherished traditions. In his first year as Kerry manager, Fitzmaurice has run a tight ship, making a concerted effort to stem the flow of information leaving the camp. The privilege of watching Kerry players train in Fitzgerald Stadium has been removed. The team now trains behind locked gates.

And yet, as events last week will have reminded Fitzmaurice, believing you can maintain total secrecy in an age of mass communication is a fool's errand. No matter how secure the locks, information always seeps out in the end. "It's a bit ironic, isn't it?" mused one Kerry supporter surveying the week's events. "All the secrecy and training behind closed doors and they still couldn't keep the team to themselves."

For now, though, the avowed Kerry traditionalists are behind Fitzmaurice and what he is trying to do. It might irritate them to see an age-old privilege taken away, but if it helps push Kerry even a step closer towards an All-Ireland title, then few would object profusely. And it tells them too that Fitzmaurice won't be afraid to make the necessary hard decisions. That he is resolutely his own man, as any manager needs to be.

The Donaghy omission should be seen in the same vein. In 2006, Jack O'Connor made a signature statement by reconstituting the then 23-year-old as a target man at full-forward and Donaghy ended the year with his first All-Ireland medal and the footballer of the year gong. Seven years on, he is at the apex of another major tactical change for Kerry. Only this time he is more likely to be victim than beneficiary.

There are those who suggest that Donaghy may yet start today, that the Kerry team unveiled on Wednesday is nothing short of a "dummy" team so popular with this generation of managers. But that seems hugely unlikely. For Fitzmaurice would risk the wrath of his public by treading that divisive route and he is surely too smart for that. He has already pushed the traditionalists far enough as it is.

More likely, he watched Dublin's dismantling of Kildare in last week's Leinster semi-final and noted how greedily Jim Gavin's side gobbled up all the high, aimless ball punted into their full-back line. Donaghy, of course, is a much more rounded footballer than the huge pair of basketball hands that can pluck ball from the sky at will, but Fitzmaurice has quicker, more nimble cards in his pack and that, evidently, is the game he wants to play.

The problem with the Munster championship, of course, is the early rounds tell us precious little. Kerry marched past Tipperary and Waterford without mustering a gallop. Cork brushed aside Limerick and Clare without having to show anything remotely approaching a hand. The stakes are higher today, of course. Losing a Munster final isn't catastrophic, but it banishes the loser to a much tougher All-Ireland run-in, a fate both teams would rather avoid.

It is also very likely, though, that for some time now, Kerry's sights have been set beyond their little squabbles in Munster. Fitzmaurice is astute enough to understand that Kerry's season will ultimately be defined by how successfully they can combat the blanket defences they will encounter later on. Behind closed doors, they have been seeking those answers and, basically, come up with the same answer as Gavin. Speed. And if that fails then more speed.

It would actually suit Fitzmaurice if Cork employ the same massed defence tactic they used when the sides met in the league in March. Because that is what Kerry are set up to deal with. He needs his team to be solid in defence, of course, and to hold midfield, but it is the pace they have in attack that will define them. More than anything it is speed that stretches defences and fashions the space needed to create goal chances and to win games.

It could be that Fitzmaurice's ambition is not merely to deliver glory for his county but to do so in the old-fashioned Kerry way, blitzing their rivals, playing them off the park with bright, attacking football. For all the implied arrogance of that notion, it remains a gloriously tantalising prospect.

Irish Independent

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