Tuesday 21 January 2020

Kerry reaping the rewards of their patient approach

6 July 2014; Declan O'Sullivan, Kerry. Munster GAA Football Senior Championship Final, Cork v Kerry, Páirc Ui Chaoimh, Cork. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
6 July 2014; Declan O'Sullivan, Kerry. Munster GAA Football Senior Championship Final, Cork v Kerry, Páirc Ui Chaoimh, Cork. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

As a measure of the calm authority that Eamonn Fitzmaurice radiates as Kerry football manager, his reaction to successive league campaigns which appeared to be spiralling towards relegation has best reflected such a quality.

There have been times when Fitzmaurice has been nerveless enough to watch the water trickle down the ceiling and has still refrained from calling the plumber.

At any stage last spring he could, and possibly should, have pressed Declan O'Sullivan back into action ahead of schedule to bolster a campaign plunged into uncertainty by three opening defeats.

But with O'Sullivan, Fitzmaurice was always prepared to take the macro view. He needed time away. He needed an entire campaign away.

Fitzmaurice had witnessed the benefits of Colm Cooper easing his way back to action after Dr Crokes' All-Ireland club campaign had ended the previous year with 'Gooch' illuminating the last league match against Tyrone in Omagh before enjoying one of his best ever summers.

Now O'Sullivan was being given the same treatment.

Even as the prospect of relegation quickly shifted to a sliver of play-off hope with wins over Tyrone, Kildare and Westmeath, Fitzmaurice remained unmoved. There would be no return.

It has been a masterclass in patient man management, consideration for the future of the player placed above the the current plight of the team.

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Fitzmaurice never saw the benefit of asking O'Sullivan, a player who has been to the well so often with club, district and county, to do more when he needed to do less.

"He has a lot of mileage on the clock because when he has finished with Kerry he has always gone back to South Kerry.

"And then he is playing with Dromid up until St Stephen's Day some years," said Fitzmaurice.

"It's not like playing in a senior club where you have got five or six fellas around you who will bail you out," he added.

"Often times you are playing with a junior club you are carrying them on your back basically and Declan has done that for a lot of years with Dromid.

"It's just a case of minding him. His body is very good. He is as fit as he has ever been this year.

"He has trained ferociously hard with us, particularly in the spell from league to championship.

"So he is in great shape. It's just case that his knees can act up and it's a case of minding him."

Fitzmaurice says that tailoring O'Sullivan's preparations as they have done has been an easy decision because of his circumstances.

"He has such high mileage, he is living in South Kerry, working in Killarney, he has a long enough commute on a bad road. He has a young family.

"There are a lot of things that come into the equation from the point of view of what are you going to get out of bringing him up to Killarney or Tralee twice a week in the depths of winter. Not a whole lot, I think."

The profits from sparing him were obvious on his return to training, says Fitzmaurice.

"It's worked well for him this year just in terms of managing him. He came back with a massive appetite," he said.

"When he came back he injected that appetite into the group so it has worked well this year.

"But there are other times then when something like that might blow up in your face. I was confident it would work with Declan, though."

In the 12 years since the "piece of gold" once heralded by Páidí Ó Sé linked up with a Kerry senior panel, the back end of the year has often been his busiest stretch with his involvement with South Kerry and Dromid Pearses.

With South Kerry he contested five county finals between 2004 and 2009, losing just once, in years when the Kerry team had played in All-Ireland finals.

Thus, South Kerry campaigns went on right into November. When that ended there was Dromid's involvement in South Kerry championships.

The patient approach reaped dividends for Fitzmaurice against Cork when O'Sullivan ran the show with one of the most intelligent individual displays of the summer.

A plan cooked up behind the closed doors of Fitzgerald Stadium, with Cork in a Munster final clearly in mind, saw O'Sullivan drop deep behind his midfield and pull all the strings that day.

On the ball 13 times in each half, Cork simply couldn't lay a glove on him as he controlled the play.

Few saw it coming. Why would you ask a player with such mileage to perform such a role?

In one memorable passage of play to yield Kerry's 24th and last point in the 61st minute, courtesy of James O'Donoghue's 10th of the game, 11 different Kerry players put the ball through their hands 19 times over the course of just over a minute.

O'Sullivan was the fulcrum throughout, involved three times before providing the final pass to put O'Donoghue in for his last point of a memorable day.

Against Galway in the All-Ireland quarter-final, his involvement was less pronounced but as the pace of Kerry's campaign quickens, his steady hand will again be one of their most important weapons.

It wasn't always that way and there was a spell when the Kerry public didn't take kindly to his willingness to try and negotiate so much traffic.

The 2005 All-Ireland final against Tyrone saw him on the ball 28 times but he hit too much trouble that day as Kerry lost to their northern nemesis for the second time in three years. When O'Sullivan was jeered by a small section of the Kerry support as he was taken off in the 2006 Munster final replay that they lost to Cork, his stellar career had reached a nadir.

Finished

For Kerry football generally, the treatment of their captain represented a considerable low.

The young man who had blazed such a trail at colleges level that Páidí was prepared to tout him so loudly in advance of his senior career and who made such an impact in the 2003 All-Ireland quarter-final against Roscommon, knew he had reached a fork on the road in his career that could make or break him.

The speed of his recovery over the following months reflected a strength of character that has been evident for so much of his time in a Kerry shirt.

His then Kerry manager and Dromid Pearses clubmate Jack O'Connor knows O'Sullivan the footballer better than almost anyone and took him out of the "firing line" because he was a "broken wheel" that needed repairing.

O'Connor sensed the jeers for O'Sullivan that day were being aimed at him but over the next three games the player's recovery in training and off the bench was spectacular.

So determined was O'Sullivan to get himself right that summer that he quit his job as a representative with Coca-Cola in early August to concentrate on football.

In the weeks leading up to the All-Ireland final, he made a case for recall that management couldn't ignore, his performance against Cork in the closing stages of the All-Ireland semi-final effectively clinching it.

It didn't sit well that Eoin Brosnan had to make way but when O'Sullivan struck for an early goal against Mayo, the decision had been justified somewhat.

That he went on to claim two more All-Ireland titles and win successive All Stars in 2007, 2008 and 2009 is testament to his inner strength.

His versatility as a footballer has given more than just Fitzmaurice options to deploy with him.

In 2009, O'Connor used him at full-forward from the start against Dublin in the All-Ireland quarter-final and he gave his marker Denis Bastick a run-around on that occasion.

His status in Kerry is enshrined and there have been times during his career when he has been considered the most valuable footballer in the game.

"He's been an incredible servant. He has always been a selfless player and he's a huge leader in our group. He would be seriously regarded within Kerry anyway," acknowledged Fitzmaurice.

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