Friday 18 October 2019

Quiet man with common touch draws strength from adversity

Fitzmaurice recalls the day that pierced his calm managerial authority

Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
'I won them as a player. I won one as a selector with Jack in 2009. They say nothing compares to being a player but this does.' Picture credit: Pat Murphy / SPORTSFILE
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

The tactical and analytical element to Eamonn Fitzmaurice's tenure has already been ventilated through written and spoken word and on-field deed.

But the architect of Kerry's most unexpected and most welcomed All-Ireland title in modern times has a caring side too that has endeared players to him and mad Quiet man with common touch draws strength from adversitye them want to go that extra inch for him as much as the jersey.

It manifests in many ways but his movements in the days around Colm Cooper's cruciate ligament injury and diagnosis opened eyes to Fitzmaurice the man-manager.

Cooper jarred his knee on a Saturday and went to Dublin for a scan in Santry Sports Clinic on the Monday morning. Darran O'Sullivan brought his colleague up from Killarney but there to meet him was Fitzmaurice.

He had been at Dr Crokes' All-Ireland club semi-final defeat to Castlebar Mitchels in Portlaoise and had an engagement in Dublin afterwards.

But a phone call to fellow selector Mikey Sheehy soon after to determine the gravity of what his captain was potentially facing convinced him to stay on in the capital an extra day.

"I wanted to be there," he recalled. "I was on a mid-term break from school that week and I wanted to be there with him when he was going in for the scan.

"I was at the game the day before on the Saturday. I had to go to Dublin and was due to go home but when I knew he was going to Santry, I said I'd stay up there.

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"Now I didn't expect a cruciate at all, but Mikey (Sheehy) did. Mikey was watching the game at home in Kerry and I rang him after. He said, 'No I think it looks bad, I feel from looking at it on TV that it's bad'. I didn't feel at the time that it was that bad."

The news briefly shook the normally implacable Kerry manager, he admitted, and he briefly allowed himself to wallow in a little self-pity.

"Driving home afterwards, my wife was with me and we stopped in the Avoca (shop) on the way down on the M7," he recalled.

CLARITY

"I was saying like, 'What have I done to whom here?'. But by the time I got to Kerry that evening, I was in the frame of mind that Colm was gone for the year and Ray Moran (his surgeon) was very clear that even if we got to an All-Ireland final, it was going to be beyond him.

"He was just written out of the season so there was no chance of him being back, meaning there was clarity and we had to accept it."

From there to here has been quite a journey. Friends have been dropped and recalled, careers have been re-born, young men have filled big shirts a 10-point beating was inflicted by the neighbours somewhere in between.

But all the time Fitzmaurice felt they were getting somewhere.

"I felt that there was small changes we could make. A massive part of it was Cian O'Neill," he admitted. "As well as his coaching and his selectorial abilities, his scientific approach to the strength and conditioning of the lads has been a massive change in us.

"It was not that the lads were not in good shape and that their conditioning was not good. It was good because they worked hard at it. But Cian took it to a different level in terms of the science. That has been a big factor in our success," he revealed.

O'Neill's work, allied to Fitzmaurice's own analytical eye cast over opponents in the video editing room that he is renowned for spending so much time in, have added different layers to Kerry's preparation over the last two years.

Fitzmaurice makes no secret of his slavish devotion to the remote control and analysis software.

"Some managers have an analyst that they trust and will do it for them. I have a fella working with us, Paudie McCarthy, he's brilliant at his job.

"But at the same time, I'd see it as one of my own strengths. I'd like to have the final call at what we're looking at our final edit," he said.

"But Paudie, in fairness to him, he does an awful lot of work to make it easier for me.

"I just feel it's like doing your homework. I enjoy that, watching the opposition and trying to learn a bit. It is time consuming though,

"The other thing I felt I had to do was that I was going to have to bring through young players and just give them the chance and the time to prove themselves, to have faith in them, have belief in them and get them to believe in themselves. That was probably my biggest challenge. But they grew and they grew.

"You take a fellow like Paul Murphy who had never played Kerry minor. I brought him into the U-21 squad the year I was there. You could see he was a special player, even if he was not a giant of a man, and he has had an incredible season."

Ultimately, it was the resurgence of Kieran Donaghy that changed the course of the season so spectacularly.

Fitzmaurice is conscious of those who feel he should have seen more action much earlier.

He didn't play at all against Galway at the beginning of August but the manager felt that as the season progressed he would always have to try something different.

"I always felt he would give us something and I told him as much the Tuesday after the Galway game.

"He only got back from a shoulder dislocation the week before the Clare game so he's only really back since the middle of June. His fitness levels were excellent because he worked very hard over the winter but in terms of sharpness and the intensity of the football, he wasn't quite there. But you could see he was coming and coming.

"I'd knew he'd have a big part to play for us because if you get to a final or a semi-final against a better team, sometimes you have to throw something different. Sometimes you have to have something slightly different that you didn't bring earlier in the season and he was going to be that for us this year."

'Buy in' from senior players was a key element to what he was trying to do. He spoke of hard conversations with friends and former team-mates, of having to break bad news to them and how they reacted.

"There wasn't one moan or bitch the whole year long, which is very unusual. Fellas are so competitive, fellas put so much into it, they want to be on the team and if they're not, generally they're not happy.

"Aidan O'Mahony was left out for the Clare game, came on after 20 minutes for David Moran and stayed there afterwards. Declan (O'Sullivan), because of his knees, wasn't starting games, Bryan Sheehan wasn't starting games, Marc (O Se) didn't start a game, Kieran wasn't starting games. But there was huge buy-in."

Around the Kerry team hotel yesterday morning, there was a palpable sense of satisfaction that they had at last won a tight All-Ireland final that needed digging out. It wasn't spoken of loudly but the fact that it was Ulster opponents increased the warmth for title No 37 that bit more.

"Funny, it wasn't a thing I thought about," said Fitzmaurice. "When you look at those Tyrone and Armagh teams they beat us on the day fair and square.

"One of the most satisfying aspects of yesterday was that All-Irelands have been won and we have played very well and on our terms, whereas this, we had to play a slightly different game than we normally play. To win that way was very satisfying."

Kerry are champions again. They won playing a game that Fitzmaurice's predecessor Jack O'Connor once said wouldn't be acceptable in the county.

The man with the common touch ensured it was.

The making of a season

FEBRUARY 1 – NFL

Dublin 2-8 Kerry 1-10

KERRY go down narrowly to Dublin in Croke Park in the opening round of the NFL but Eamonn Fitzmaurice delivers the news that Paul Galvin has decided to bring his playing days to an end. He joins Tomas O Se and Eoin Brosnan who retired over the winter, leaving Kerry looking decidedly inexperienced.

FEBRUARY 15 – ALL-IRELAND CLUB SFC SEMI-FINAL

Castlebar 3-13 Dr Crokes 1-11

WITH the county still reeling from Galvin’s retirement, Fitzmaurice is hit with the worst possible news. Just 18 minutes into Dr Crokes’ All-Ireland club semi-final clash, Kerry captain Colm ‘Gooch’ Cooper collapses in a heap. A ruptured cruciate ligament among other injuries confirms Gooch won’t play again in 2014.

MARCH 9 – NFL

Kerry 3-15 Tyrone 0-9

FINALLY a chink of light for beleaguered supporters. Three successive league defeats mean Kerry need to beat old rivals Tyrone to avoid beating the drop. The Ulster men had made an unbeaten start to the year but James O’Donoghue hinted at what was to come from him with a memorable hat-trick to kick-start Kerry’s season.

APRIL 6 – NFL

Cork 2-18 Kerry 1-11

THREE wins on the bounce mean Kerry go into the final league game against their biggest rivals without the spectre of relegation looming over them.

A ten-point hammering at the hands of the Rebels in Tralee would have a profound effect on the Kingdom’s season. In his post All-Ireland final briefing on Sunday, Fitzmaurice conceded that Cork game, where they conceded 2-17 from play, sparked the genesis of Kerry’s more conservative approach.

APRIL – JUNE

AN 11-week break between their final league game and their championship opener gives Kerry a chance to regroup. Players are sent back to clubs while a training camp abroad yields rich rewards.

“We built a massive spirit after that Cork game. We were over in Portugal for the Easter weekend and our season changed there” – Eamonn Fitzmaurice

JUNE 22 – MUNSTER SFC SEMI-FINAL

Kerry 1-17 Clare 1-13

EAMONN Fitzmaurice referenced ‘dirty petrol’ after seeing his side toil to a win over minnows Clare in Ennis. The Kingdom trailed by a point at the break but did just enough to get by while Declan O’Sullivan tweaked an already troublesome knee injury and Kieran Donaghy makes an appearance off the bench.

JULY 6 – MUNSTER SFC FINAL

Kerry 0-24 Cork 0-12

DESPITE all the setbacks, Kerry explode into life in the last Munster football final to be played at the old Pairc Ui Chaoimh before redevelopment. James O’Donoghue lands ten points as they completely overturn the result from the league and Kerry deliver a serious statement of intent.

“There had been a good vibe in training but we were hot and cold. But after Pairc Ui Chaoimh, I knew we were on to something special”

– Eamonn Fitzmaurice

AUGUST 3 – ALL-IRELAND SFC QUARTER-FINAL

Kerry 1-20 Galway 2-10

KERRY do enough to get by but question marks remain over their defence after Tom Flynn gallops through the heart of the Kingdom rearguard to grab one of the goals of the championship.

AUGUST 24 – ALL-IRELAND SFC SEMI-FINAL

Kerry 1-16 Mayo 1-16

KERRY come back from the dead thanks to a crucial contribution from Kieran Donaghy. ‘Star’ didn’t feature at all in the quarter-final but he helps drag Kerry back into the game against 14-man Mayo.

AUGUST 30 – ALL-IRELAND SFC SEMI-FINAL REPLAY

Kerry 3-16 Mayo 3-13 (AET)

KERRY use 23 players in an epic Limerick evening. Donaghy’s rehabilitation is complete as he scores a goal and completes the whole game and his exciting partnership with James O’Donoghue continues to develop. Kerry are back in an All-Ireland final, despite being as long as 12/1 for Sam Maguire before the Munster decider.

SEPTEMBER 21 – ALL-IRELAND FINAL

Kerry 2-9 Donegal 0-12

A MEASURED, professional display and a bit of luck sees Kerry win All-Ireland title number 37 after a rollercoaster season. For Fitzmaurice, who has tasted ultimate success in a variety of forms, it is as sweet as it comes after a season that saw them go without several mainstays of the side over the last few years.

“I won them as a player. I won one as a selector with Jack in 2009. They say nothing compares to being a player but this does.”

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