Wednesday 18 July 2018

Eamonn Fitzmaurice: 'Tiernan McCann fallout will only galvanise Tyrone'

New-look Red Hands ‘as tough a nut to crack’ as any side we’ve faced in my tenure – Fitzmaurice

Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice is wary of Tyrone’s 'athleticism and natural talent'
Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice is wary of Tyrone’s 'athleticism and natural talent'
Eamonn Fitzmaurice tussling with Gerard Cavlan in the 2003 semi-final
Donnchadh Boyle

Donnchadh Boyle

For more than half an hour at his press briefing, Eamonn Fitzmaurice has been exercising his own brand of gentle diplomacy.

Tyrone are in the eye of the storm just now. The brickbats still rattle off their camp as the fallout from the All-Ireland quarter-final win and 'Rufflegate' rumbles on. All the while they are readying themselves for another installment in football's edgiest rivalry.

Tyrone-Kerry games have taken on different dimension over the last decade and more.

That different dimension has carried on through different seasons and teams and even spilled down into club games.

It has all helped whip up even more energy around their semi-final clash on Sunday, energy Tyrone could summon and harness.

They feel slighted, and the pre-match build-up is starting to feel like a tinderbox. Fitzmaurice, though is making sure he keeps his matches in his pocket,

"I don't think it will have a negative effect," said the Kerry manager of the fallout from Tyrone's last-eight clash with Monaghan. "I think they will harness it and use it, that 'the whole world is against us' kind of thing.


"They have an experienced manager and they have been around the block, a lot of them, a good few times.

"They have seen how it works so it's not going to be about anything that is going on outside the camp, it's about what is happening on the pitch on Sunday. Anything else is irrelevant really."

The bookmakers expect a routine day. Kerry's seven goals against Kildare suggest they are already shovelling plenty of coal onto the furnace.

Tyrone's revival through the back door comes on the back on a relegation from Division 1, another defeat to Donegal in Ulster and with Monaghan as their biggest scalp.

In that light, a date with the rampant All-Ireland champions looks like it might be too big an ask.

But Fitzmaurice is cautious. His experience against Tyrone as both a player and manager means he's worried. When the sides met in the League in Omagh in the spring, it was high-stakes stuff.

Both sides went into the game with the spectre of relegation looming over them - and they played out a draw.

"It was a tough game, they hit the post towards the end and it was one of those games where another point meant we could have been in a league semi-final and a point less we could have been relegated, so it was a close-run thing. It was a draw in the end and I am expecting something similar on Sunday."

They'll pose a different tactical threat too. Fitzmaurice was lauded for his pragmatism when devising a plan to see off Donegal in last year's All-Ireland final. Tyrone are similar and, he suggests, perhaps even better than the 2012 champions.

"I think they are more defensive, more athletic," he mused. "When they defend they defend well and in numbers, and when they turn over the ball they are excellent in transition and get forward in numbers.

"They have a couple of big leaders that are important to them and they play the game on their terms. They will be as tough a nut to crack (as any side we've faced) since I have taken over anyway."

"They are good players and they are comfortable on the ball. They have a good goalkeeper, Colm Cavanagh is doing massive work for them.

"They are a good team well coached - sometimes I think teams that play defensively are doing it to hide inadequacies and they don't have the skill-set, but all these Tyrone lads are natural footballers who play to a very strong system.

"It will be a great test of us. We'll really know where we are at on Sunday."

Fitzmaurice's memories of Tyrone as a player weren't pleasant. He played in the famous 2003 game when a swarm of Tyrone players eventually turned Kerry over in a clip that came to define that side. Fitzmaurice had a front-row seat to watch the fire Tyrone brought that day.

"I said to the lads (the turnover) should never have happened. I remember it was gone over there and I was standing here at centre-back like an out-half in rugby waiting for someone to throw the ball back.

"And I can still remember to this day Liam Hassett was absolutely all on his own, over near the Cusack Stand side and I was saying 'If someone would please give me the ball I'll kick it straight to Liam Hassett and he'll go and at least get a point.'

"But two or three of the lads decided they'd go and try break down those eight or nine Tyrone fellas and the rest is history and the famous pictures. It almost became a symbol of that team and maybe a symbol of where we were at, at the time.

"I think at that time they surprised us with their intensity and the way they set up but I think we are a lot better prepared for it nowadays because we come up against it a lot more often.

"And in the club scene in Kerry there are teams that play similarly so lads are accustomed to it, but in 2003, it was pretty new at that time."

That was a young, lesser-known Tyrone team at the time, much in the same way this one is. And again, Kerry are the team packed with All-Ireland medals waiting to be taken out.

"If you look back to 2003 we had won a couple of All-Irelands and probably had more household names at that stage then they had.

"They had the likes of Peter Canavan and Brian Dooher and fellas that had been around for some time but they were coming with a young vibrant teams at that time - Brian McGuigan, Stephen O'Neill and Cormac McAnallen, all that gang, they came together.

"By beating us and going on to win the All-Ireland, the created their own legacy and history and they became a great team afterwards.

"This team is similar in ways. We won the All-Ireland last year and maybe some of the Tyrone fellas might not be that well known yet but they are a serious, coming team and we know they will be a big challenge and we will have to be really on top of our game to beat them."

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