Éamonn Fitzmaurice: Managing more than players and expectations

Éamonn Fitzmaurice: Managing more than players and expectations
Former Kerry boss Eamonn Fitzmaurice, selector Diarmuid Murphy and trainer Cian O’Neill look on from the sideline during a Kerry game. Fitzmaurice says he was left deeply frustrated by some refereeing performances during his time in charge.

The most common question being put in my direction since last August is “are you missing it?”

Truthfully I’m not. Yet.

Inter-county football management is a crazy, manic, fulfilling, beautiful existence that I thoroughly enjoyed but it has a shelf life, certainly for me. Being asked and entrusted to manage your county at the highest level is humbling and challenging. 

It is a role that demands and cultivates obsession. I had a little smile to myself when the demands that are being placed on inter-county players were analysed in the ESRI report last year with the ‘32 hours per week’ gaining plenty of headlines and commentary.

Trying to quantify the time that goes into inter-county management would make for scary reading in what still is a voluntary position, in Kerry at least. 

However, one is aware of all that before accepting the position and when you love doing something it never feels like excessive time is being put into it. 

I am looking forward to observing the championship from near yet afar as we face into a summer where Dublin chase history and everyone else chases Dublin.

Depending on the county you are managing there are different challenges and expectations. 

I will attempt to scratch the surface and give a little insight and flavour of the challenges and enjoyment that managers up and down the country will be experiencing for the next few months.

Two enjoyable aspects of being Bainisteoir

Preparing for and winning big Championship matches

The most enjoyable aspect of managing Kerry, for me, was preparing for an upcoming opposition in big championship games, figuring them out and then tailoring training sessions to get ready for them. 

As a group — management and players — we loved getting ready to try and exploit weaknesses and minimise their strengths while all the time remaining loyal to our own game.

I relished trying to get this tricky mix right. I lived for our training sessions and matches. I loved innovating and trying to ensure the sessions were productive and enjoyable. I enjoyed scouting the opposition both in person by attending matches and using video analysis in an attempt to work them out. 

Éamonn Fitzmaurice: Managing more than players and expectations

There were countless hours spent on the road and in a dark room watching and rewatching tapes. I was aware how obsessive I could become about this part of my role but it rarely deterred me. 

I loved doing it. I loved that moment when you figured out something the opposition were doing, an area that we could exploit or perhaps a player we could target. 

The challenge then was to transmit this newfound knowledge to the players in a concise and coherent fashion without overloading them and to build it into our sessions to get ready for the big day. 

It is probably the most fulfilling aspect of coaching when you work something out, rehearse it in training and then see it play out on the big day. It becomes addictive.

Obviously, the high point of my time in charge was the All-Ireland final victory over Donegal in 2014. 

We had one of those days where the game played out precisely as we expected it would and exactly as we had trained for. 

From our set-up to our substitutions, everything worked. Post-match analysis can tend to simplify everything and a couple of soundbites are used to explain away a game. A deep analysis rarely occurs as I imagine most high-profile analysts rarely revisit games. 

This betrays the minutiae and detail of gameplans and key moments. For example in that 2014 final we approached Paul Durcan’s kickout in an extremely structured way. 

We knew from our analysis that at times they would place a player — usually Leo McLoone — behind Kieran Donaghy’s back as we faced the kick-outs to create a four v three situation. 

We knew that Durcan would chip little kicks out to McLoone particularly when Donegal were under pressure. We had rehearsed that Kieran would guess a side each time as the keeper was just about to kick the ball out based on how he was positioning himself. 

Éamonn Fitzmaurice: Managing more than players and expectations

Kieran’s mentality was to be like a goalkeeper in a penalty shootout in soccer. All he needed was one chance and it could be the difference. 

From minute one of that game Kieran attempted to disrupt their kickouts. He got in Durcan’s head early who was complaining to the umpires about how he felt Kieran was encroaching on his re-starts. 

Nonetheless, Durcan was kicking well but Kieran deserves massive credit for having the mentality, concentration, and patience to stick at it and eventually in the 52nd minute the moment arrived when he guessed right and then showed the composure to crash home the crucial goal. 

While clearly the intervention on the pitch is 100% down to the player when something plays out like this, it is very satisfying as a coach. I enjoy that detail.

Liverpool’s incredible Champions League win on Tuesday night came down to one of these small details. 

They had noticed from their video analysis that in the Nou Camp, Barcelona had been slow to get organised on setpieces as they dawdled and argued with each other.

Klopp had got word via his coaches to the ball-boys in Anfield to get the ball back in play as quickly as possible. Hence Trent Alexander-Arnold being presented with the circumstances that allowed him to do his thing to set up the chance for Origi to win it.

Supporting and Developing Players

Managing Kerry is a mammoth responsibility in so many ways with obligations ranging from the upholding of the traditions of the jersey to the winning of trophies to ambassadorial functions and everything else in between. 

However, on reflection, when I moved on, the biggest responsibility I always felt was to the players.

Éamonn Fitzmaurice: Managing more than players and expectations

My primary role was to get the best out of the players for Kerry but in order to do that the players had to be happy off the pitch in their private lives, happy in their jobs or in college.

As the manager you become a trusted confidant for some players. In my time in charge I would have advised and supported players on a huge variety of things from serious issues such as grief, illness, serious injury, relationships to more practical matters such as helping players to secure suitable jobs and career advice to more minor situations such as how to get a baby to sleep through the night!

Obviously I am far from an expert in many of these areas but often if you offer a non-judgemental ear it can be of assistance and on occasion I was able to put players in touch with someone more qualified than I when required.

I was humbled that players came to me and trusted me in these scenarios and I was careful to never breach that trust.

As an extension of this role, I really enjoyed developing and nurturing young players. In the six seasons I was in charge we gave championship debuts to 27 players by my reckoning.

I still remember my own championship debut and there is always a special link with the manager that gives you your first start, in my case that being Páidí Ó Sé. 

Emerging players are like sponges as they soak up everything and are open to learning and instruction. It is a dream for any coach to work with players of a high standard at this stage of their development and something I thoroughly enjoyed. 

It is exciting witnessing progress and imagining their potential.

Mentality and personality are huge when it comes to converting potential into performance on the big days and I look forward to patiently watching all of these players continue on that journey and hopefully winning multiple All-Irelands with Kerry.

Two situations I won’t miss

Tough Conversations

The thing I enjoyed least as a manager and definitely will not miss is informing players that they were not starting or worse still not involved in the matchday squad on a championship weekend. 

I am sure I will get the odd pinch when championship fever is at its height but if I think of those hard conversations the pinch won’t be long disappearing.

Everyone has to want to start as panel passengers are of no use to you so disappointment follows when this doesn’t play out for any individual.

My mantra was always simply ‘Kerry First’.

Éamonn Fitzmaurice: Managing more than players and expectations

Sentimentality, personal relationships, and friendships never came into it. That separation and purported apathy is challenging and becomes draining. It was for me at least.

In 2013 in my first Munster final as manager, we took the decision to drop Kieran Donaghy.

I arranged to meet Kieran in Tralee on Tuesday to give him the news face to face prior to giving everyone else the team that evening.

I can still see him bouncing into the hotel in typically energetic fashion, ordering a pint of water and sitting down expecting a discussion about his role the following Sunday. 

He was completely blindsided by the news and was obviously gutted missing out on starting a huge game against Cork in Killarney.

He quickly dealt with it in a typically positive fashion, we moved on and we won the match the following weekend. Those scenarios were repeated again and again over the years and became less and less enjoyable.

Most players deal with it well and move on.

They redouble their efforts and set out to prove the management wrong in a determined fashion. Others take it personally, sulk and feel the world is against them and are of little value to you or the group.

Some came out fighting, usually on the phone a day or two later or after the match at the weekend.

These discussions were often lively and from a manager’s perspective there can always only be one winner in these debates.

A challenge I won’t miss.

Inconsistent Refereeing

By the end of my stint there were days I was left deeply frustrated by refereeing performances. This isn’t about taking aim at anyone and trying to have a cheap shot now that I am finished. 

Instead it is about highlighting how distraught and cheated a team can feel when a referee gets numerous calls wrong on the big day. It is not good enough anymore to say ‘there will always be mistakes and sure aren’t we doing fine’.

Éamonn Fitzmaurice: Managing more than players and expectations

To answer the question — we aren’t. We need to be led by other codes and get to the point where mistakes are the exception rather than the norm. 

I would love for us to get through this summer without a mistake from a referee costing a team a result. 

Our referees need help.

Our game at the top level needs a second referee or at the very least the assistance of technology.

HawkEye is working, the TMO has been a successful feature of rugby for years and as VAR has bedded in it has proven its worth in soccer, the recent Champions League quarter-final between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur being a case in point.

The officials in that game got the offside decision on Raheem Sterling’s late goal right with the aid of technology.

Imagine a version of VAR being employed at the end of our semi-final against Dublin in 2016. 

With Dublin one ahead and time almost up Peter Crowley is fouled on Dublin’s 45m line but the referee, who was having a bad day, misses it. In the ensuing play Dublin break up the field and Diarmuid Connolly kicks a point to seal it. 

Envisage VAR intervening, the score being chalked off and Kerry getting an opportunity to equalise from the free kick. 

Want a non-Kerry incident to guard against the accusations of bias and resentment? The Austin Gleeson ‘ghost goal’ in the Munster Hurling Championship last summer. 

Most importantly costly refereeing mistakes would be hugely reduced and there would be the added bonus of plenty of extra drama.

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