Thursday 12 December 2019

You have to be at top of your game to get in this team - Fitzmaurice

Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice says his side have yet to surpass the expectations he has set for them. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice says his side have yet to surpass the expectations he has set for them. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Donnchadh Boyle

Donnchadh Boyle

It's been high-wire stuff at times for Eamonn Fitzmaurice.

Whether it was striking the balance between exposing new players to top class action while also resting some of his more established stars.

Or even dropping some of those same players for the most important game of the year, Fitzmaurice has been making big calls this campaign - and getting them right.

He can say it now but when many were expecting Kerry to go away for a couple of years, Fitzmaurice knew there was more in his side.

"Look, I know that they're a very good bunch. Technically, skillset-wise, they're very competent. Then when you put into the mix how hard they work, everything we throw at them, everything that we ask them to do, the whole group are doing it.

"So look, I knew that once we kept our head down and once we ploughed away and built a bit of consistency in our performances. That was what was lacking during the League. We lacked a bit of consistency.

"We'd play well in the first half but not the second half. Or the second half but not the first. Won a game, lost a game. We won three games (in the league), got hosed in Tralee against Cork.

Consistency

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"So there was just a lack of consistency there but I knew that once we got a bit of it in our performances, that we would be formidable opposition."

Mixed into that has been the forging of a bond between the older players and the new guard. For the replay against Mayo in the All-Ireland semi-final, Fitzmaurice started without Marc O Se and Declan O'Sullivan but he used 23 players that day as Kerry got over the line.

Form, Fitzmaurice insists, has to inform team selection before reputation.

"The week before the Cork game, Johnny Buckley was on the 'B' team. But he was absolutely outstanding out here in training and was on the team below in Cork. As a management and as a group in general, we've been rewarded for picking on form.

"So the lads know it doesn't matter what status you have or how many All-Ireland medals you have, you have to be playing at the top of your game to get into the team.

"None of them have bitched, none of them have cribbed, every fella has put his head down and ploughed away."

It's been a long time since Kerry have fielded a side with so little experience of football's biggest day. Fitzmaurice will have them briefed on the subtle differences such as being out on the pitch for longer than is usual.

After that, it'll be out of their hands even if the game is being billed as the clash of two of the brightest managers around.

"At the end of the day, I'm not going to be kicking any ball," he points out. "It comes down to the players following the game plan and making the correct decisions on the field.

"I think too much can be made of it sometimes. Too much can be made of managers. Of course they're important but at the end of the day, it comes down to the players.

"Like I said, I'm not going to be kicking any ball or winning any breaking ball.

"Jim McGuinness isn't going to get a vital blockdown in the last minute - at least I don't think he is.

"Much and all both of us would love to stuck outside in the middle of it, we won't be. So you have to give credit to the players."

And despite all the obstacles, they find themselves within 70 minutes of another All-Ireland title. If Fionn Fitzgerald - Kerry's acting captain in the absence of Colm Cooper - climbs the steps on Sunday, he'll be the first Dr Crokes player to do so since Dick Fitzgerald a century ago. It could well go down as one of Kerry's must unexpected All-Ireland successes - but not within the group.

"Privately - even publicly - within Kerry people would see that we have exceeded expectations but not my expectations," Fitzmaurice insists.

"We're there now. We're down to the last two. We have to finish the job. The outside expectation isn't something that we can control or we talk of or we pay any attention to. The only thing that we're talking about is what's going on inside the bubble at training and inside the group.

"It's the only thing we can control. We didn't worry about it when people were writing us off so we're not going to worry about it now there's a bit of expectation."

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