Fitzmaurice: 'I'm delighted we are still there with a fighting chance'
It's been the painstaking puzzle of Kerry's summer, and for Eamonn Fitzmaurice it's a riddle that simply has to be solved today.
Just how their Munster Championship form did such a vanishing act in the 'Super 8s' has given their manager all kinds of headaches these past few weeks, and the incessant bleating in his ears will only grow louder if they fail to flourish in Killarney today.
"It's the million-dollar question," says Fitzmaurice. "We haven't quite clicked, but we're not far away. I think we came on a good bit above in Clones but still didn't play as well as we can play. It's hard to explain, to be honest."
In the Munster final on June 23, Kerry knocked 3-18 past Cork en route to a 17-point win, but ever since they've been like an amnesiac artist beating their heads against the wall, trying to recreate that splendour.
They slumped to a three-point defeat in their Super 8s opener against Galway before David Clifford threw them a lifebelt via his get-out-of-jail goal to snatch a draw against Monaghan.
In Killarney this evening, they'll need to not only beat Kildare but also turn around a five-point score difference with Monaghan, who must lose to Galway in Salthill for Kerry to reach the semi-final.
"If we played as well as we played in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, I think we would beat a lot of teams," says Fitzmaurice. "We knew the Super 8s were going to be a big step up. I don't have the answer why we didn't show up against Galway, but I think we reacted well for Monaghan and bearing in mind we came off such a poor performance, it can be hard to go from that to playing the way we played in the Munster final.
"Everyone is doing everything that is being asked of them, everyone is working very hard and I do think we are very close. I would hope that we'd play better again in Killarney."
Just as well Fitzmaurice is a patron of the process, the only real way to bring about a change in outcome for the Kingdom this weekend.
"We are not a million miles away. In sport you are going to get these situations and you just have to be resilient, you have to dig in, trust your ability and you have to keep trying to do the simple things well.
"In the management we trust the lads. We got a big reaction in terms of the spirit and fight shown at the end [of the Monaghan game] when it didn't look like it was going to be our day. You just have to keep going and eventually you turn the corner. We've seen it hundreds of times and I just hope it happens against Kildare."
The Lilywhites arrive in Killarney playing only for pride after defeats to Monaghan and Galway last month, but if anything Fitzmaurice sees that as a disadvantage for Kerry.
"I'm expecting a huge challenge from them. They're probably going to be playing with a bit of freedom and abandon as they've nothing to lose. So far in the Super 8s they've been quite unlucky, both games have been very tight."
In rival manager Cian O'Neill, Fitzmaurice will face a puppet-master with an intimate knowledge of his set-up given that he spent three years with Kerry as trainer and selector.
"I know Cian well and he is a competitive man - he is not going to be coming down to make it easy for us, he's going to want to win the game. Cian knows me and a few of the older lads quite well but there has been a lot of change.
"He's gone three years at this stage and a lot of the younger players would have still been minors when Cian was here so I don't think it changes anything."
With several of Kerry's more established senior stars misfiring, it's been the injection of youth that has kept their hopes alive and Fitzmaurice will be expecting - and hoping - for more of the same from precocious youngsters like David Clifford this evening.
"He's a unique talent and a unique personality in that he is able to have such an impact at this level already. We are delighted with him and as he has been all year, his feet are on the ground, he is working hard, he is contributing."
Fitzmaurice drew criticism for some of his tactical choices in recent weeks, none more so than for his decision to take off Paul Geaney after 50 minutes against Monaghan before re-introducing him in injury-time, though there was method in his perceived madness.
"You have to be flexible and if you are a chasing a game like we were certain players will suit that scenario. That was what the Paul Geaney thing was: a shot from left field.
"He was occupying a few of the Monaghan backs for the goal and it might have opened up that bit of space for David. You have plans but you have to be flexible to what is happening."
With both games taking place at 6pm, Kerry fans will be keeping one eye on events in Salthill, and the fear for many is that Kevin Walsh could rest some key Galway players in preparation for the semi-final.
"You can look at it two ways: you can rest players but if you do and you lose, does it rob you of the momentum you had all season?" says Fitzmaurice. "But I have enough conundrums to be solving - Kevin is doing fine at the moment so I will leave him at it."
Fitzmaurice admits he's seen very little of Group 2 of the Super 8s, that bridge to be crossed if and when they come to it, but he knows how fine the margins are that look set to separate those in Group 1.
"Kildare have played a lot of very good football, not just in the Super 8s but against Mayo and Fermanagh. They have been a team transformed over the summer. Galway have been impressive with two wins and Monaghan were within an ace of being in the semi-finals so the standard is very even.
"There is very little between the teams and I am delighted, considering the way the first weekend worked out, that we are there with a fighting chance."