Tuesday 23 July 2019

Ewan MacKenna: Poor tactics, bad subs and one All-Ireland - Eamonn Fitzmaurice's biggest achievement is lasting six years

22 July 2018; Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Quarter-Final Group 1 Phase 2 match between Monaghan and Kerry at St Tiernach's Park in Clones, Monaghan. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
22 July 2018; Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Quarter-Final Group 1 Phase 2 match between Monaghan and Kerry at St Tiernach's Park in Clones, Monaghan. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Ewan MacKenna

Ewan MacKenna

A few years back and the scene was set in a jaunting car just outside of Killarney.

Straight away the driver was into character, telling those behind him what they were hoping to hear and also to see.

"There are some forts en route," he enthused, "and if you're lucky you might see the fairies." On and on he went, briefly asking those customers on holidays where they were from, getting answers as varied as Boston to Brazil.

"And you?" he shouted back.

"Kildare," you replied, expecting awkwardness, if not outright embarrassment via his prior pitch.

"Sure you know all about the fairies already so," he instantly retorted, not missing a breath.

Nowhere does stories like Kerry.

If that was around as inconsequential a matter as the day job though, and as relatively small an industry as tourism, then you can imagine when it comes to football. But that's the problem as with so many opinions and so many tall tales, it's hard to know what's real and what's not, what's a buy and what's a sell, what's a sword and what's the shield.

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What should you believe?

That level of noise though is now doing Eamonn Fitzmaurice a favour, as it's clouding what ought to be clear.

Back in earlier summer for instance, look at the reaction from some of the county's players-turned-pundits to Cian O'Neill, who among other obstacles stands in their way on Saturday evening. These same people knew him and his methods from O'Neill's time in the Kingdom and maybe they were right to both stick in the knife and to twist. What's striking today though is how reluctant they are to have a go at Fitzmaurice to a similar degree. It's been softly, softly to the point you cannot help but feel there's a protection racket.

Part of the problem may be that it's so incestuous. Nowhere has there been a better example of this golden circle than with Fitzmaurice, for how much bad have you heard about him when, while it can be overstated, it hasn't been good?

It's quite an achievement that he's been in the job six seasons. Indeed only Mickey Harte has been in his current role longer and, while consistency is clearly something to strive for with all four managers that have been there since at least 2013 currently in the Super 8s, one All-Ireland in Kerry isn't a lot to live off for that long. Especially when you consider how they have been living.

It isn't just the results, it isn't even the performances, rather what's behind all of that. Sure enough there's no tougher job than his in football, but peering in you see a manager that has regressed by being more and more conservative, that struggles tactically as he doesn't know what he or his team are, that is in a constant conundrum between new methods and old motivation, that is railing against the future given his reliance on the past in terms of personnel.

From game to game we don't know what Kerry will bring and, worse, what they're supposed to be. Presuming they won't reach a decider this year given both the best and worst-case scenarios they've created, that'll be three times on the trot without making it, in an era where it's been a three-team competition at best. To put it bluntly, has anyone recently achieved less with more?

Yet more than most counties, and despite their recent record at underage, so much there is geared towards that senior success. When their under-20s exited this season at the semi-final stage their players weren't so much as permitted to swap jerseys. Contrast that as both the senior squads – we use plural as they have what's known as the K2 panel – spent the night in Carton House after the Galway defeat, with at least one player wondering about the waste when he'd no chance of playing. That focus and cost of trying to copy Dublin demands much better than they've been serving, but the differences between best practice and their practices are clear. As a microcosm look at the disconnect between Fitzmaurice and the development coaches bringing through so much youth.

When he came in, it's true to say that the hand dealt to him was a disaster. No one else even wanted the job as, while underage was starting to come right, it was too soon to benefit him, and this was at a time when perhaps the third greatest team Kerry ever produced was breaking up. Thus it didn't matter that the referee helped in the 2014 semi-final replay or that Donegal were relatively poor and Michael Murphy still came close in the final. It still made it quite an achievement.

But this is Kerry, where the query always arises as to what have you done for me lately?

22 July 2018; Stephen OBrien of Kerry during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Quarter-Final Group 1 Phase 2 match between Monaghan and Kerry at St Tiernach's Park in Clones, Monaghan. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

In the 2015 showpiece they never showed, with Cian O'Neill the scapegoat due to over-training.

In 2016 when two points clear of a superior Dublin late on, Fitzmaurice went against all logic when taking off a bemused Paul Geaney to a glance of disbelief, with Marc Ó Sé  entering to try and shut up shop against the one team in the sport you have to keep going for it against. It didn't make sense even if the rationale was Eoghan O'Gara's entrance made it seven opposition forwards.

Then there was the sweeper introduced for the Mayo replay last year to the point their own players were banging into each other in confined spaces.

And those same back-and-forth tactics have taken place in their last two games, when to play in such a position and to work within such a set-up takes much practice. It reached the point where, in training in the days after the Galway game, words were had as some felt Peter Crowley was thrown in the deep end.

Sure enough, some will say playing safe like that as a manager in Kerry is revolutionary in itself, but is it revolutionary if it doesn't actually work or is it then unintentional sabotage through systems? What we do know is that it hasn't worked of late and while Kerry might bumble their way through to a semi-final, they are in no way contenders. Instead they're merely the fly heading for the web.

Fitzmaurice's choice of those around him and his relationship with those around him certainly hasn't helped. Sitting behind him during the 2014 final, one of the minor victors that year recounted a row he had with Diarmuid Murphy on the sideline. The former goalkeeper who was a vital cog soon departed and look at what's there now? Too much of the same? Not enough coaching?

There's a case to be made for all.

There are so many yarns doing the rounds as to Fitzmaurice's methodology. For instance there's the story from one league game that he told the dressing room at the interval that Barry John Keane was flying so get it into him and within minutes of the restart he'd taken him off. Another goes that when he called Jonathan Lyne to drop him in the off-season he was asked why, brought up age as a factor, had Killian Young being three years older thrown back at him and awkwardness ensued.

One player on the extended panel in 2017 had little chance of game-time, rather was there for future experience, and with money tight was working cúl camps as a source of income. But Fitzmaurice felt standing around all day was bad for his training regime and pulled him from his work. On another occasion he called up a club manager, insisting a player be placed into a position of his choosing only to be rebuked. In fact one intercounty manager at present who knows Fitzmaurice said that he rates him to set up a team the week of a match but that 'he isn’t very good during the 70 minutes to see a change'. On that last element, the evidence is before our eyes.

With six minutes to go against Galway in July, in a game where Fitzmaurice broke up all he had built based on no more than being opened up a few times by the same opposition in the league, his trio of substitutions to try and rescue it involved bringing on Mark Griffin, Donnchadh Walsh and Keane. That was an average age of over 29 entering, in a county with the best conveyor belt of young talent about in recent years. A gutsy call is a bad call if it doesn't work and this one didn't.

Others too have highlighted this mindset. After losing to Mayo in 2017, some delegates were worried about giving him another go, about why new players were given limited openings, and why there was such loyalty to those deemed past it. In a lengthy meeting with Fitzmaurice before he was reappointed, this was told to him, but while the opinions were valid you suddenly had the lunatics running the asylum. His authority was being undermined from within and that rarely ends well

If that's the what though, only Fitzmaurice knows the reason behind the why. However at the start of 2014 he did a telling interview with the Irish Examiner. In it he looked back at their exit the previous year after an all-time classic where they went toe-to-toe with Dublin and the clear feeling was that it haunted him.

"I just wanted the final to be played and done with," he said.

"I didn’t go to the [Dublin-Mayo] game, and the lead into it was tough. A lot of the Kerry set-up found it tough. There was massive disappointment there, and it hung around. It’s bad for management. I always go back to the day we were hammered by Meath in 2001, probably the lowest day in the history of Kerry football. And the week after, I played a North Kerry League final in Listowel. As a player you move on, even if you’re reminded of it now and then. But from a manager’s point of view - it was the first year I wasn’t playing club football - so there is a space there. You do a lot of thinking, and evaluating."

It's a sentiment you feel echoes right into the present. But if Kerry need to look to the future, you wonder if Fitzmaurice doesn't change himself and them, will it make him part of their past?

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