Thursday 14 December 2017

New boss will hold true to Kingdom traditions

Cliona Foley

Cliona Foley

TWO Munster men will find few hiding places when the Allianz Football League finally kicks back into gear this weekend.

With Division 1 more competitive than for many years, Conor Counihan's defending three-in-a-row champions Cork open against the Dubs tomorrow, under the searching glare of Croke Park's floodlights.

There may be a lot less razzle-dazzle and half-time distractions in McHale Park on Sunday but most people will still keep half an eye on Castlebar.

With an unusually young new manager, and facing beaten All-Ireland finalists Mayo first day out, there will be extra interest in Kerry's league campaign.

Eamonn Fitzmaurice has already caused a stir and not just because his short tenure has already led to a bit of silverware (McGrath Cup).

The 35-year-old history teacher is surely the only senior inter-county manager with his own Twitter account and is also still playing competitive football.

The former centre-back star, playing at full-forward, helped his club Finuge to reach the All-Ireland intermediate club final only last weekend.


A one-time team-mate of some of his new charges, a former senior selector during Jack O'Connor's time and the outgoing county U-21 manager, he is not a complete managerial novice.

But he now takes over one of the most pressurised jobs in football and has swept in with a completely new broom.

He retained Diarmuid Murphy among his selectors, stressing that he was particularly impressed by his "sharpness on the line" last summer.

For historical greatness and attacking nous he has turned to one of the Kingdom's great football princes, Mikey Sheehy. And, for cutting-edge expertise, his selectors include Cian O'Neill, – a major coup as the Kildare man and sports science lecturer in Limerick helped Mayo reach the All-Ireland final last year.

O'Neill may have initially made his reputation with the Tipperary hurlers but football is his first love and he brings the sort of fitness and coaching innovation that will allow Fitzmaurice plenty of room to delegate.

Kerry's early-season form, admittedly with an experimental team, already indicates that Fitzmaurice will be innovative, as well as using the running game that made the Kingdom kings.

"We'll be keeping an eye on Kerry traditions and doing it our own way," he has stressed. "When it comes to the end of a game you might look to shut up shop, but we'll still look to use the Kerry tradition as well, maybe playing a couple of different styles in the course of a game."

The burning question is whether he can get the best out of some of their ageing talents while marrying it with what's coming through and whether he will trust some of their youngsters on the big day.

O'Connor was desperately unlucky to lose the likes of David Moran to injury but, despite giving players like Shane Enright lots of league experience, it took a long time for him to trust fringe players in the heat of battle.

Jonathan Lyne, Jack Sherwood and the Geaney brothers have all seen plenty of game-time so far but it remains to be seen just how experimental Fitzmaurice will be once he has full access to Kieran Donaghy (on honeymoon) and the Dr Crokes and Finuge players.

Doing well in Division 1 is expected to be a priority because three of Kerry's last four All-Ireland titles (2004, 2006 and 2009) coincided with winning the league. League success was also the launch pad for Cork's All-Ireland success in 2010.

Conor Counihan turns into his sixth season in charge but has made major changes to his back-room team, which indicates the sort of freshness he is seeking.

Only Peadar Healy of last year's back-room is still involved and his new selectors are former Cork minor manager Brian Cuthbert (Bishopstown), former senior selector Haulie O'Neill (who coached Clonakilty to the county title in 2009) and Ronan McCarthy, a member of Cork's 1999 All-Ireland final team, who managed Douglas to a county final in 2008.

Despite winning three league titles in a row, and beating Kerry en route to a Munster title last summer, Cork are still regarded as underachievers and anything less than a second All-Ireland this year would be regarded as failure. Counihan starts the year without Nicholas Murphy (retired), Alan Quirke and Ray Carey (both abroad), while Daniel Goulding and Paddy Kelly are both recovering post-surgery, but the bulk of his side remains.

The Rebels didn't concede a goal in last summer's championship but there is a feeling that their defence is ageing and it is there, and in midfield, that Cork most need to unearth some new talent.

The fact that dual players Eoin Cadogan and Damien Cahalane, both defenders, are going exclusively with the football this year is regarded as a bonus.

A lack of leadership and abrasiveness has often been regarded as Cork's Achilles Heel and Cadogan is certainly the sort of feisty Rebel they need in their engine-room.

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