Wednesday 21 March 2018

Master of hard calls gets Kerry balance right

Fitzmaurice's willingness to adapt selections is paying off

Marc O Sé, Kerry
Marc O Sé, Kerry
Making big calls, like dropping or substituting Kieran Donaghy (left), has never been a problem for Eamonn Fitzmaurice
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

England's only ever World Cup-winning manager Alf Ramsey adopted a simple mantra that framed their 1966 campaign and has stood the test of time across many codes through the ages.

"Never change a winning team," he regularly declared as he kept his team selections tight and changes to the minimum during their six-match odyssey, starting just 15 of the 22-man squad with eight involved in every game.

It's a principle that the Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice has seldom adhered to during his three years in charge, a reign that has now encompassed 16 championship games.

Fitzmaurice's only defeat came at the end of his first campaign when they lost to Dublin in an epic All-Ireland semi-final.


They have since put together unbeaten championship sequences of six last year and five matches this summer, and with that you would expect some consistency in selection.

Yet, only once have Kerry started the same team in back-to-back championship games in that period for their opening Munster Championship matches against Waterford and Tipperary, just six days apart, in 2013.

Since then the changes have flowed, regularly dictated by injury, sometimes form but often too a shift in emphasis that demands different personnel.

The propensity for making changes according to what he and his management team see in front of them has gathered serious momentum over the last 12 months.

This year alone, between the five games they have played, there have been 13 changes in personnel, by comparison to nine between games in 2013 and 12 last year.

There isn't, arguably, a county right now where the squad theory has been put more robustly to the test.

Few, if any, players have found themselves indispensable in the three years since Fitzmaurice took over from Jack O'Connor as manager.

Kieran Donaghy found that to his cost at half-time on Sunday - the struggling full-forward benched despite having caught a difficult ball and swinging it over for a point on the brink of half-time that had the potential to lift a Kerry team which had been noticeably edgy up to that point.

There are countless club and even county managers across the country who would recoil from substituting a totemic figure like Donaghy in those circumstances. The temptation to 'leave things be' is often too strong.

But Fitzmaurice didn't stand on ceremony, whipping off his captain and replacing him with Paul Geaney instead. It was the effectively the change that won the match for Kerry, Geaney offering a more mobile target to take the aerial cordon that Tyrone had planted in front of their full-back line out of play.

Maybe they will question in Kerry why Geaney didn't start in the first place, given how he had picked off 1-2 in the Munster final replay win against Cork in Killarney .

But these are the marginal calls that Fitzmaurice is continually having to make.

Managing the best players and striking the right balance with them is, more often than not, more challenging than working with players at the other end of the scale. First-world problems in a sporting context but problems nonetheless.


Take the case of Tommy Walsh who made such an impact against Kildare, winning three kick-outs and earning a free from a fourth. But on Sunday he was surplus to requirements.

Barry John Keane got special mention in Sunday's post-match press conference with Fitzmaurice describing him as the "unluckiest" player on the squad, having started the first two games this season.

Only three players have been involved, either from the start or as a substitute, in all 16 games that the current management has been in charge for. Not one has started every game.

Marc ó Sé's record was blemished by his demotion for the All-Ireland semi-final replay against Mayo in the Gaelic Grounds last year. Otherwise, the ever-reliable ó Sé (left) has started every one of the other 15 SFC games.

Donnchadh Walsh is another of the current management's most treasured assets - starting 14 of the 16 games and coming off the bench in two, the opening games against Clare in 2014 and Tipperary earlier this year. Peter Crowley has started in 12 and come off the bench in four.

Below them Anthony Maher missed the Cavan All-Ireland quarter-final through injury but was omitted for the Munster final with Cork earlier this year. Killian Young broke his ankle in 2013, excluding him from the Dublin game and he also lost his place for the drawn Mayo game last year but otherwise he has a strong roll call too.

Johnny Buckley has had quite a run of consistency. The Dr Crokes clubman missed the Clare game in 2014 but his only demotion from the starting 15 came for the Kildare game in this year's All-Ireland quarter-final.

Perhaps James O'Donoghue has been the least dispensable player. He missed that 2013 Cavan game with a hamstring injury, sat out the Clare game last year as he recovered from shoulder trouble and only came off the bench against Tipperary in June after shoulder surgery in November. But otherwise he has been automatic when fully fit.

Paul Murphy fits that category too, a collarbone injury ruling him out of the Tipperary game before he returned as a substitute against Cork in early July.

In all, Fitzmaurice has started 33 players in three championship campaigns and few can claim to have had peace of mind on nights when teams were being announced.

Nothing personal, just business.

Irish Independent

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