Tuesday 24 October 2017

Fitzmaurice makes a telling raid on football's dark side

The Couch

Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice
Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice

Tommy Conlon

No harm to Ryan McMenamin, but it's probably fair to say that few people would consider him a hopeless romantic when it comes to Gaelic football.

So when the bould Ricey described last Sunday's All-Ireland as a "dog of a game", one could only defer to the Tyrone stalwart given that he brought a bit of mongrel to his own play too.

And presumably the irony of it all wasn't lost on him either, for this was the day in which Kerry football went over to the dark side. Historians in the Kingdom are already describing it as one of their greatest titles; the manner in which they won the final also makes it one of their ugliest.

They took the cynical chapters out of the Ulster playbook and made them their own. For the first time in living memory, a Kerry team prioritised stopping their opponents rather than playing their own game. They loaded their defence, parked the bus, shut up shop. It was more about what they did when they hadn't the ball than when they had it.

This collective strategy was exemplified in the attention paid to one individual. They did a number on Michael Murphy, Donegal's on-field icon and leader. As early as the fifth minute the referee chastised Aidan O'Mahony for blocking a Murphy run off the ball. In the ninth Murphy made a pass and ran on for the return only to be knocked down by another defender. By the 20th, Murphy and O'Mahony were grappling with each other; another two Kerry players arrived on the scene to jostle him some more.

It was reminiscent of what Tyrone would do to Colm Cooper, or any other Kerry forward they wanted to undermine: harass him at length and as soon as he reacts, send over another few wolves to harass him some more. The guy with the legitimate grievance ends up getting further aggravation.

"There's a certain softening up process going on where Michael Murphy's concerned," said Ger Canning on commentary as this particular vignette unfolded.

By half-time the referee had given ten frees against Kerry, one against Donegal. Even allowing for a few decisions that could've gone their way, it was definitive proof that Kerry had come to spoil, as much as to play.

Now, Eamonn Fitzmaurice obviously had every right to choose the optimum strategy for his team. Pretty much everyone expected the Kerry manager to deploy his formation as he did, with spare bodies in defence at all times, augmented by further personnel streaming back from the forward line. Donegal were going to do it, why shouldn't they? The Munster champions had no more moral responsibility to the game in general, or the All-Ireland final in particular, than their opponents did.

And over the last 12 years they've had to swallow some bitter lessons in contemporary cynicism from the Ulster school of hard knocks. Fitzmaurice and his players weren't going to wander naively into those propellers again.

But still, there's no denying it jarred a bit more to see a Kerry team doing it. That's all.

This was a manager's All-Ireland title, just as Jim McGuinness's was in 2012 and Mickey Harte's in '08. Which is to say that the teams in question relied to an unusual degree on the manager's influence to get them over the line. The players themselves wouldn't have got it done with merely a solid manager to guide them. All three managers brought exceptional intelligence to the business of designing a team, drafting a plan which the players trusted completely, filling them with confidence and inspiring them to dream big.

It was notable how many of the Kerry players afterwards singled out Fitzmaurice for special mention. Their predecessors weren't quite as gushing about Jack O'Connor when he was steering them to not one but three All-Ireland titles. No harm to Jack either; just saying.

Anyway Fitzmaurice evidently had his players, even the hard-bitten veterans, eating out of the palm of his hand. His is a genuinely formidable achievement in modern GAA management.

In the third quarter an already dire match disintegrated further. A senior All-Ireland final was starting to resemble a junior championship match as a succession of highly-trained footballers lined up to take ham-fisted pot shots at the posts. The descent into mediocrity culminated with the Donegal kick-out that handed the decisive score to their opponents. Kieran Donaghy's smoothly-taken goal launched Kerry for home. It also finally shook the match out of its own stupor. Donegal, shocked into urgency, kicked three good points and at last a game of football broke out.

Kerry's composure after this barrage was particularly impressive. They replied with three of their own. And then, as if to prove that he was almost literally pulling the strings, Fitzmaurice sent in Bryan Sheehan on 68 and his very first act was to stroke over a sumptuous free from long range. With it, Kerry had their three-point cushion.

But before we could revise our earlier impressions, Barry John Keane confirmed them by knocking the ball off Paul Durcan's kick-out tee. In other words he showed as much class as Peter Canavan did when he took Cooper down off the ball in the dying seconds of the '05 final.

Not that Donegal can have many complaints. Kerry did unto them as they have done to others. And the better team won anyway. But, all told, a dismal end to a poor season.

thecouch@independent.ie

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