Sunday 22 July 2018

Comment - Eamonn Fitzmaurice fights on but battleground gets tougher

Kerry manager faces a daunting rebuilding job despite Kingdom's successes at underage level

Eamonn Fitzmaurice faces a tough task after Kerry’s disappointing elimination at the hands of Mayo. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Eamonn Fitzmaurice faces a tough task after Kerry’s disappointing elimination at the hands of Mayo. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

It was never given hurricane status, it wasn't even close to being classed as a storm, but some stiff gales appeared to be heading in the direction of the south-west in recent weeks as Kerry football, or more precisely its clubs, considered the merits of handing Eamonn Fitzmaurice a two-year extension as senior team manager on top of the year-in-hand he already had going into 2018.

As it happened, those gales subsided somewhat and moved off course with approval for Fitzmaurice not even requiring a vote.

Kerry has two back-to-back All-Ireland-winning minor managers - Jack O'Connor and Peter Keane - in stock and as a county it currently reaches into four other counties to provide management.

But when it boiled down to it any scrap over clearance for Fitzmaurice until 2020 wasn't worth the potential blood spill.

Prevent that extension and Kerry would surely have been commencing the search for a new manager yesterday morning.

So what was effectively a vote of confidence in his management was passed without the fuss that looked like it was brewing in the build-up.

But the Kerry chairman Tim Murphy did concede, in his address to the delegates on Wednesday night, that concerns had been expressed to him and to other executive members by clubs.

"I would have to say that a lot of the sentiment and suggestions that were passed on were shared by the executive and me," he said.

Meaningful

"What it did do was, and I am very appreciative of it, is that it enabled me to articulate those views in a meaningful way in my discussions with Eamonn Fitzmaurice. I had six meetings with Eamonn since our defeat against Mayo and those meetings ranged from two hours to four hours," he pointed out.

That's quite an extensive and exhaustive debrief by any standards with a range of 12 to 24 hours. A lot of talking, a lot of thrashing things around. A crossroads of sorts.

What it does underline is that the credit line that extends back to an All-Ireland title in 2014 taken against the head hasn't run dry. But it's nowhere near as plentiful as it was, even after last year's All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Dublin when it was widely accepted that progress was being made with the Dublin conundrum and there wasn't a whisper of discontent when his term was extended by two years to take him to 2018.

The concern of Kerry clubs now places Fitzmaurice in a different pressure zone as the great blue wave to the east continues to erode their coastline. Dublin's dominance will sit more uneasily in Kerry than anywhere else and more uneasily with Fitzmaurice who has lost to them in each of his three championship meetings.

Ultimately, a league title plundered in April offered little respite from the onslaught of those blue waves and a team that the current manager felt was well equipped to meet that challenge did not even get to put it to the test in a championship setting as Mayo intervened.

Now it looks like that team will be dismantled. In pitching for two more years Fitzmaurice clearly looking further down the line than he felt he might have had to. It's not an exaggeration to say that close to half of the team that started against Mayo in the drawn All-Ireland semi-final could potentially be displaced by the same stage next year.

The chief concern around his tenure is that younger players who have been part of the earlier All-Ireland minor title successes in the current four-in-a-row have not been coming through quickly enough.

Only Brian ó Beaglaoich and Tom O'Sullivan, who made his debut against Mayo in the All-Ireland semi-final replay defeat, have seen any championship action. The use of U-21 players throughout his five-year reign has been sparing.

The 'Kerry's Eye' newspaper did an analysis last month of the eight minor squads that have represented the county in this decade. From 170 players, the paper established, just seven had featured on Kerry senior championship teams - Pa Kilkenny, Jack Barry, Jack Savage, Kevin McCarthy, Brian ó Beaglaoich, Tom O'Sullivan and Tadhg Morley. Only Morley could be considered an established player at this stage.

But the manager has consistently presented the case for defence against such thinking that those good enough will be selected.

The loss of Mark O'Connor to AFL club Geelong probably removed a certain starter this year but, where Jim Gavin could call on Ciarán Kilkenny, Jack McCaffrey and Paul Mannion, all in the 19 to 20 age bracket at the time, in his first year, 2013, Kerry arguably didn't have that level of talent, O'Connor apart, from their first two minor teams.

Significantly, Dublin have only won one All-Ireland minor title in the current decade but have won four All-Ireland U-21 titles, a grade in which Kerry remain empty-handed since 2008 despite their wealth of talent.

Nothing works in straight lines but it points to a potential development deficit in the county that, judging from their statement last month why Fitzmaurice was being proposed for a further two years, the board is keen to address.

Obviously, none of this year's team have been in the frame but Fitzmaurice was quick on David Clifford's case, in the wake of the most recent minor success, sitting down with him and offering him a vision of his future plans with Kerry and how he could play a big part.

Fitzmaurice may have been pushing an open door anyway as the AFL overtures to Clifford have not been as strong as suggested - Tadhg Kennelly yesterday denied making contact with him - and he may always have planned to spend next year at home anyway.

But the call to the Clifford household last month is a fair indication of where Fitzmaurice's thoughts have moved to.

He may have to take a step back to go forward again but that's never an easy balancing act in a county that demands like Kerry.

With a golden age of underage talent - four successive Hogan Cup successes for second-level schools to complement their four Tom Markham Cups - those demands will only rise higher.

Irish Independent

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