Saturday 7 December 2019

Eoin Liston: Fitzmaurice guile delivers Sam Maguire against all odds

Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice lifts the Sam Maguire cup. GAA Football All Ireland Senior Championship Final, Kerry v Donegal. Croke Park, Dublin
Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice lifts the Sam Maguire cup. GAA Football All Ireland Senior Championship Final, Kerry v Donegal. Croke Park, Dublin
Kerry joint captains Fionn Fitzgerald, left, and Kieran O'Leary lift the Sam Maguire cup. GAA Football All Ireland Senior Championship Final, Kerry v Donegal
Kerry players celebrate with the Sam Maguire cup. GAA Football All Ireland Senior Championship Final, Kerry v Donegal. Croke Park, Dublin

Eoin Liston

I can say it now. Before the Munster final this year, I went to the bookmakers and had a little punt on Kerry to win the All-Ireland. I still don't know why I did it. Maybe it was a hunch. Or maybe it was nothing more than blind hope.

The winnings won't take me too far but the sweetest thing about yesterday was securing an All-Ireland title in some very unlikely circumstances.

From where this team have been with the raft of retirements, injuries and some demoralising defeats they recovered, somehow, to emerge top of the pile. Being a Kerryman, you can only feel immense pride.

It was all overseen by Eamonn Fitzmaurice. All those nights of planning and scheming paid off in spades and once again yesterday he got the major calls right.

The match-ups were good from a Kerry point of view. Michael Murphy and Ryan McHugh, two of the stars of the All-Ireland semi-final win over Dublin, didn't get to influence the game in the way Jim McGuinness would have liked.

If Fitzmaurice could plan for them, he showed he was good on his feet too, sending Shane Enright in on Paddy McBrearty when he had landed two points.

Fitzmaurice got his set-up right also. Kerry played a more defensive game and they had no other choice.

People might talk about playing defensive football but it's been clear from down through the years that Kerry struggled against northern teams when we play our normal style so something had to change.

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Yesterday they gave a lesson in patience. Armagh had shown us how Donegal can be hurt in the All-Ireland quarter-final. Those in the half-back line had to stymie their natural inclination to gallop forward and support their attack in favour of filling space in front of our full-back line.

It wouldn't have been easy for them but the likes of Killian Young and Peter Crowley carried out the mission given to them by management superbly.

They weren't the only ones. Aidan O'Mahony was excellent on Murphy while Marc O Se, well, I take my hat off to him. Fr Time has been shadowing both of them but they didn't show it yesterday.

After being dropped for the replay against Mayo, Marc has responded superbly. He goes down as one of Kerry's greatest ever defenders in my book.

Around midfield too Johnny Buckley, David Moran and Anthony Maher were superb. They will have slept well last night.

Up front, Kieran Donaghy led the line. Hitting 1-2 from play underlines his contribution and he's another who worked so hard to get back in the frame and played a crucial role.

Beside him James O'Donoghue gave everything for the team. He was double-teamed most of the time but he worked tirelessly in what was a very mature performance.

It's a measure of Donegal that despite so many things going right for Kerry there was only a score in it at the end.

It's unfortunate that a mistake from Paul Durcan had such a huge influence on the game but there were several other crucial moments.

Colm McFadden's effort at the end might have slipped into the net to force a replay. Johnny Buckley's late point to slow building Donegal momentum, Paul Murphy's superb score or Crowley's block just shy of the hour mark were all crucial moments in their own right.

Donegal's performance might have been enough to beat most other teams yesterday because, in the end, it came down to fine margins.

Unfortunate

It was 11 scores against 12 on a day when defences were on top. It was a case of who would blink first in a war of attrition and it just happened to be Kerry's day.

Donegal are a great team who brought about a style of play that is very hard to live with and in defender Neil McGee they have a genuine star.

Bar the Kerry goal, Donegal's system came out on top in the first half but looking back they might feel Paddy McBrearty should have started. Christy Toye might have got the nod too but hindsight is 20/20 as they say.

Kerry's subs gave them an edge. Declan O'Sullivan and Barry John Keane added something different when it was needed. Enright quelled McBrearty's influence while Bryan Sheehan kicked a crucial late free when only off the bench.

And when it came to it, Kerry had the maturity to close the game out, keep the ball and ensure they did the simple things.

For a team with so many new faces, they showed remarkable composure on the biggest day of all and for that you have to laud the efforts of Fitzmaurice, the management team and a great squad of players.

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