| 11.3°C Dublin

Kingdom's transition period will have to be put on hold


Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice

Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice


Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice

ABOUT 30 minutes after his side had beaten Mayo in the All-Ireland semi-final replay, Eamonn Fitzmaurice headed for the media room in the Gaelic Grounds.

Inside, the air lagged with raw tension, pierced only by the noise outside as the drama of a frenetic 90 minutes still hummed. Back on the pitch some Kerry players were crying, seeking out that euphoric rush from the crowd. Others were gobbled up in a pitch invasion, while more again were pulled from the ground before they were trod upon by over-zealous supporters.

When Fitzmaurice came into the room his heart must have been beating a thousand pumps a minute but you couldn't tell - his eyes were dancing but otherwise there was breathtaking certainty in his words.

A microphone was pressed to his lips and he was asked to tell us all about this fine new team he has built. After all, only Killian Young had survived from the starting team that played Tyrone in 2009.

Fitzmaurice paused for a second. He could have effortlessly eulogised this group of young Kerry men who are now set to inherit the grand traditions of their elders, but instead he chose a different route.

"The men of 2009 were class acts and they still are," he said with authority. "They still have a huge part to play in this team. Take Kieran Donaghy; I knew he was champing at the bit and he played a great role. We will need everyone the next day now, that mix of youth and experience."

They will too, but it's thanks to Fitzmaurice Kerry have that blend. In that dogged replay win over Mayo, they used 23 players and nearly all of them put in a good shift. Two others, Darran O'Sullivan and Stephen O'Brien, weren't considered because of injury, but are available again.

Given that their underage production lines have been on a go-slow for some years, Fitzmaurice decided the best way to have a future for Kerry football was simply to create one. From a rocky beginning he now has 25 players vying for 15 places.

"He's after building a team in front of our eyes without anyone hardly realising it," surmises GAA statistician and Kerry's Eye writer Sylvester Hennessy.

Sensing that reputations could be made, rather than the fear of dreams being destroyed, Fitzmaurice has more or less let the new breed at it. Of the Kerry side that lost by two points to Donegal in 2012, Fitzmaurice has switched Brendan Kealy for Mark Kelly in goal. From the defensive sextet, Marc Ó Sé, Killian Young and Aidan O'Mahony survive. Meanwhile, championship debuts have been handed to Paul Murphy, Fionn Fitzgerald, Mark Griffin, Pa Kilkenny and Jack Sherwood. Murphy, Fitzgerald and Peter Crowley are now ever-presents. They don't tower physically over opponents or anything like that, but they have two traits in common - they are tenacious, tough-tackling markers who can foot pass. These are characteristics the manager appears to seek out more than any other.

It's perhaps at midfield that the rebuilding work has been most impressive. Anthony Maher and Bryan Sheehan were in situ against Donegal in 2012, but David Moran has come in and established himself as possibly the best midfielder of the 2014 Championship, alongside Odhran MacNiallais. Moran's renaissance from two cruciates and a serious eye injury is down to himself, but he has always held the unwavering faith of his manager.

Their attack has changed too. Paul Galvin and Eoin Brosnan have retired. With a lot of miles on the clock, Declan O'Sullivan is being used sparingly, while Colm Cooper's knee injury would have cut most other team's championship aspirations at source. Devoid of so many icons, Fitzmaurice could have been forgiven for talking of transitional periods and looking for time to thrive. Instead, he came out with his sword raised.

Among the eight championship debuts he has dished out in the space of 20 months are Brian Kelly, Paul Murphy, Stephen O'Brien and Pa Kilkenny. Last season it was Michael Geaney, the undersung Paul Geaney, Mark Griffin and Fionn Fitzgerald.

"When we saw the likes of Tomás and Darragh (Ó Sé) retiring, and Colm getting injured, I think everyone here saw this project to be a three-year thing," says four-time All-Ireland winner and Kerry under 17 co-manager Sean O'Sullivan. "This is Kerry, expectation always lives here, but when you saw the sheer turnover in the squad, the amount of guys who were retired or injured, it was hard to foresee anything happening for a couple of years anyway. The general feeling was we would have the quality in the future but Eamonn would have to blood lads first.

"Surely no one could take the brunt of the absentees that he had to face. When Cork hammered us in the league this spring, I walked out the gate wondering what lay ahead for us. I thought going to Cork to play them in the Munster Championship if we could hold them to a few points it would be a good thing. Except Eamonn never saw it like the rest of us."

He didn't. In tandem with the Geaneys' development under his stewardship, James O'Donoghue started to prosper too. When Cooper fell to injury, O'Donoghue would have seen the trail blazed by the team's talisman and realised it was one very few were capable of taking. So he decided to map out his own route, knowing that to lead the orchestra he had to first turn his back on the crowd who were continuously comparing him to Cooper. He ignored those references, paddled his own canoe and he's been on a wave since. So, too, have unsung players like Johnathan Lyne and Barry John Keane who are coming off the bench to great effect.

It's hardly coincidental that the youngsters Fitzmaurice has trusted are repaying him so well. Out of the 26 players listed in the squad against Mayo, 13 had never been to a senior All-Ireland final, while more have never played an All-Ireland final at any level. It's so easy to forget they have built this team without the seed of a fertile breeding ground, but it's astonishing Kerry have not been in an under 21 final since 2008, nor a minor final since 2006 - indeed, the last one they won was in 1994.

Yet, they know they will perform today. And that their manager will guide them well against a wily Donegal side with an equally-proficient boss. Fitzmaurice will have studied Donegal's strengths and weaknesses, and unlike Dublin, he is sure to stand off the Ulstermen and not run into the spider's web. Patience will be the keyword and if things are not going well, he has displayed that he can change tactics in a flash.

This was evidenced by the introduction of new tactics in the wake of their league hammering to Cork and the springing of Donaghy in the drawn game against Mayo.

"He's on the verge of it now," Sean O'Sullivan adds. "The odd time Donnchadh Walsh might drop in to me for a cup of coffee. Now, Donnchadh certainly doesn't speak of what is going on inside at training or within the camp, or anything like that, but he does mention how meticulous and organised Eamonn is. Absolutely nothing is left to chance. There are no sideshows either."

Locking the gates to Fitzgerald Stadium in Killarney may not have gone down well locally, but it has allowed the younger players to thrive and prosper. In years gone by, there would be leaks from the camp, but local hacks and observers have had nothing to gossip about this year. In the goldfish bowl that surrounds Kerry football, there has been little else drawing on the team's oxygen supplies which has allowed them to breathe better. It was only five minutes before the throw-in against Mayo, for instance, when they revealed their starting 15.

It will be interesting to see what the approach is this afternoon. Will they keep O'Donoghue and Donaghy in the full-forward line and pull the others back, operating a diamond-shaped formation behind the inside attackers? Or will they start the attack from deeper positions and use the foot-pass that they love to exploit space for runners to dash into and create attacks from there?

Either way, the Kingdom boss has had 22 days to refine his plan for today, while his players take to the field knowing that even if they go behind, or endure troubled waters, their sideline is calm and shrewd enough to change tack on the go. Don't forget they used the blanket defence against Cork, then went man to man against Mayo. This team is also strong in crucial areas. They have two hungry ball-winners in midfield and they like to protect their full-back line. Plus anyone who doubts their physicality need only look back to the Mayo game.

"There was a ferocity about them in the semi-final," O'Sullivan says. "People would have referenced the condition that Mayo are in following their four years under James Horan but, by God, anyone in Limerick that night will have seen that Kerry are well able to mix it, despite the young lads they have."

Last week, former manager Jack O'Connor spoke of how that tight affair would really stand to Kerry. "I'd say every available outfield player in the panel was used. That's huge because it lifts everyone on the panel. They all feel they're a serious part of the squad for the final and that's big because it raises the morale of everybody."

Both management and players have ignored talk of a team in transition, realising that there is the luxury of no such thing in Kerry. They have options, they have experience and stamina. As another summer of football hurtles excitedly towards an end, we await what this Kerry team can produce. "Youth has got its chance but Eamonn has also tailored the preparation of the experienced lads to almost perfection," O'Sullivan adds.

The established faces continue to nudge them in the right direction but this is a new Kerry team now. Their future has arrived - well ahead of time.

Sunday Indo Sport