Tuesday 20 March 2018

Sinead Kissane: Kerry's Eamonn Fitzmaurice is the GAA's answer to Joe Schmidt

Eamonn Fitzmaurice is trusted by the Kerry players because he trusts them in return
Eamonn Fitzmaurice is trusted by the Kerry players because he trusts them in return
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

Articles that start with a pretentious historical quote from someone like Churchill or Confucius tend to make me nauseous.

Who really cares what Churchill or Confucius muttered back in the day? And why reach for a quote which generally sounds loftier and more ambitious than anything which may follow in the article itself.

All the same, I allowed myself to think this piece about trusting a manager needed a pretentious historical quote to start with. So after spending all of 20 seconds googling quotes about "trust", up popped a line from one of the most observed artists in American culture.

Lady Gaga: "Trust is like a mirror, you can fix it if it's broken. But you can still see the crack in that mother f*****'s reflection".

Sassy. But not quite the tone I was after. Here's Peter Pan: "All the world is made of faith and trust and pixie dust." Sweet but rather lacking in a certain depth.

Then there was this quote from Lao Tzu (me neither): "He who does not trust enough, will not be trusted".


It's the opposite sentiment of that Tzu quote which brings me to Joe Schmidt and Eamonn Fitzmaurice. Their coaching careers have run along similar tracks in different spheres (there's my metaphor count cha-ching-ing). They share the same kind of starting point: Schmidt lost three of his first four games as Leinster head coach; Fitzmaurice went one better and lost his first four league games as Kerry manager.

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt in conversation with Ian Madigan during squad training. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt in conversation with Ian Madigan during squad training. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

You know how the rest plays out. Last year Schmidt and Fitzmaurice maxed out with Ireland winning the Six Nations and Kerry winning the All-Ireland. Their covers were blown for 2015. While Ireland retained the Six Nations, it was always about the autumn and the Rugby World Cup for Schmidt this year. It's always about the autumn and September for Fitzmaurice.

Fitzmaurice is the Schmidt of the GAA because of how he has put his trust in young and inexperienced players. While some folk were having conniptions over Schmidt picking the double debutants of Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne last November, Fitzmaurice had spent the year selecting players that few outside of the county (and even in Kerry) had heard of.

With the likes of Paul Murphy, Jonathan Lyne, Jack Sherwood et al in the squad, Fitzmaurice has a knack of nurturing talent and getting the best out of them. Sound familiar?

Fitzmaurice is trusted by the players because he trusts the players. He and Schmidt see potential where others see a glass ceiling. Ireland lock Devin Toner and Kerry midfielder Anthony Maher, for example, have become far better players under Schmidt and Fitzmaurice respectively.

When Maher didn't start the drawn Munster final, Fitzmaurice didn't make that same mistake again. Trust in Fitzmaurice also extends to the way he didn't start Colm 'Gooch' Cooper for the drawn game. Gooch looked off the pace when he came on. Again, Fitzmaurice showed he made the right decision in easing him back into the championship.

Just like Schmidt, Fitzmaurice has serious smarts when it comes to game-plans. No doubt Fitzmaurice was happy for the spotlight to be centred on the "aura" of Jim McGuinness leading up to last year's All-Ireland final. But no-one, least of all the man up the tree in Killarney not to mind Joe Brolly, foresaw the plan that Fitzmaurice was engineering to beat Donegal or, more importantly, that the players had the clarity to execute it.

"I'm not sure what he is thinking. It is almost double jeopardy to start to think about what he might think we are going to do, and then think that we might think about doing something else."

That Confucius, sorry, confusing quote wasn't Fitzmaurice before last September's final but rather Schmidt talking about Wales head coach Warren Gatland before their Six Nations game earlier this year.

It's that kind of "double jeopardy" havoc that smart coaches create in the minds of the opposition coaches in the lead-up to a game. Managers could start to second-guess themselves.

The sight of Gooch warming up with the rest of the squad before the All-Ireland football semi-final replay last summer was enough for Kerry fans to pull their hair out in wonder not to mind the effect it probably had on Mayo and, later, Donegal. Fitzmaurice (unwittingly or otherwise) created the sort of side-story that even Jose Mourinho would applaud.

Schmidt has created an environment where we repeatedly hear players talk about the competition for places. Fitzmaurice has fashioned that same habitat in Kerry.

We haven't seen Fionn Fitzgerald play since the Munster final despite him kicking the equalising point. Fitzmaurice isn't afraid to drop players, irrespective of their CVs - just ask Marc ó Sé. When Paul Galvin rejoined the panel earlier this year, Fitzmaurice said: "The players know it's just increasing the competition. I know these players well, it will only harden their resolve that they are not going to be the player to lose out." You betcha.

Schmidt is renowned for his attention to detail - same goes for Fitzmaurice which goes back to when he used to do the video analysis as part of Jack O'Connor's management team. Schmidt is known for his complete lack of ego. I'll reach for a quote from former Kerry player Dara ó Cinnéide here about Fitzmaurice: "He's totally egoless. He puts huge faith in the players and whoever plays for him loves him because they can see that he doesn't have an ego himself."

There must be something in having the background of being a teacher too. Schmidt was a teacher in New Zealand - Fitzmaurice works in a secondary school in Dingle where he teaches history. And when he gives his players his team-talk ahead of Sunday's All-Ireland semi-final against Tyrone, Fitzmaurice is unlikely to reach for a pretentious historical quote. Just like Schmidt, it's making history he's thinking about.

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