The middle ground in Kerry has become a sparsely populated plain. On either side, the badlands of hard-ass opinion on football and Eamonn Fitzmaurice festers.
At morning mass yesterday in Ballymacelligott, near Tralee – where David Clifford’s grandfather was among the congregation - the local priest confirmed a parish event for September 2nd with no All-Ireland to be planning for.
Delivering the final blessing after, the PP corrected himself to reference the possibility of Kerry minor involvement in the final, but even as he did, the real post-mortem had already kicked off outside the church gates.
Killarney was hardly a sober chamber Saturday night to be passing considered judgement on the end of the Fitzmaurice era, but the conversation yesterday morning was no less animated for the passing of darkness. If you didn’t belong to a camp at opposite ends of the spectrum – good riddance to him on the one hand, a catastrophic disaster that he’s gone on the other – you just weren’t at the pitch of the Fitzmaurice frenzy.
The fact that the now ex-Kerry manager remains, by quite some distance, the most qualified and capable person for the position is lost on a sizeable constituency in the county who may not all be keyboard clowns, but are evidently influenced by them nonetheless.
The look of shell-shock on county board chairman Tim Murphy when he walked in behind Fitzmaurice for a final media briefing as manager indicated that he fully understood the implications of Fitzmaurice’s decision and the pin-less grenade the board's boss has now been handed.
Not only has Kerry’s best hope of derailing Dublin’s dominance in 2019 left the building, but he did so by shining an awkward light on an increasingly distorted and dysfunctional relationship the Kerry public has with its Gaelic football team.
Tim Murphy and his executive will be working long into the night to sort that one. Social media wasn’t driving the debate Páidi Ó Se stirred about Kerry supporters 15 years ago, but the veracity of his waspish sentiments harden with each passing autumn.
That Fitzmaurice felt it necessary to walk away from the dream he lived, irrespective of annexing another All-Ireland, is a Kingdom klaxon too loud to ignore. Fitzmaurice is a history teacher and his awareness of the honour of managing Kerry means it’s hardly something he would relinquish on a whim.
He wasn’t a slave to tradition, though. Correctly, he shut the gates at Fitzgerald Stadium to the public when Kerry trained. Ultimately, though, the noise from outside still seeped into the ground and into the changing rooms.
Don’t weep too much for him though. The departure was entirely his own decision, and judging by his comments Saturday, there was no sense that he had lost the dressing room or that senior players were tired of his ways. I lived the dream, I’ve no regrets, he said - and nor should he.
The debate over his nous on the sideline and the mistakes he made there is a different issue, and one we will return to presently.
From this morning, Kerry will look to do what Kerry used always do. Shake it off, identify the issues and work to fix them. However, seldom has there been a more fractured and divided drawing board to restart from.
The names of Peter Keane, John Sugrue, Donie Buckley, Liam Kearns and Mike Quirke have merit to them in one role or another, and there’s always the possibility, if not the likelihood, of going back to other All-Ireland winning coaches. However, the left-field play for a new Kerry number one might just be an old number one – former keeper Diarmuid Murphy has been a selector under Fitzmaurice and Jack O’Connor and is possessed of serious sideline nous.
Perhaps the fact he was a goalkeeper means he doesn’t possess the same cachet as a Seamus Moynihan, Declan O’Sullivan or Dara Ó Cinnéide, but within that sphere, he is as qualified as anyone in the county to take the reins in 2019.
He has also been keeping his hand in with the group of extended players on the panel.
Whoever emerges from a process that begins at Board executive level this Wednesday night won’t have the head-start of a turnkey profile in the squad.
The thing the new manager need most is the shoulders of his veteran players. It is only now the 2014 retirement of Declan O’Sullivan is being properly understood and felt in a Kerry dressing room that has
seldom been more devoid of proper generals. O’Sullivan (who would be a serious lieutenant to Murphy) shared that crucible with some players whom Fitzmaurice turned to this season, and again Saturday night against Kildare, and who failed to reward that faith with performance and leadership when it mattered.
Fitzmaurice spent 20 minutes in a room with the county chairman before attending to the duties of informing the squad, some of whom were ‘distraught’ at the news, according to Murphy.
The signs were not good for year two of Fitzmaurice’s three-year extension when he brought his wife and baby daughter in with him for the announcement to the players. The Finuge man has always been one to compartmentalise his life, and Kerry took the lion’s share of it over the past six years.
At times, one wondered, did he isolate himself too much, giving rise to accusations he was not listening to counsel from his selectors on the sideline. By all reliable accounts he was, hence the management team must share the blame for some inexplicable decisions in key games since 2015, be they selections, substitutions or tactics.
Some were decisions that felt plain wrong in the moment, never mind the morning after.
Ultimately, Fitzmaurice’s was the name on the ballot paper and while anyone who has prepared a team can empathise with his inability to explain Kerry’s no-show against Galway last month, the raft of subsequent changes for the trip to Monaghan indicated that he was either listening to the clamour from outside or was unsure of his best formation and personnel.
Mark Griffin and Ronan Shanahan were tasked with marking Conor McManus in Clones, and whatever about their respective merits for that job, neither was even involved Saturday against Kildare.
Defensively, Kerry has played it too fast and loose this summer and while the absence of some players is relevant, there’s been a singular failure to address fundamental flaws at the back. On that charge, Fitzmaurice’s management team is guilty on all counts.
The sense is that Dublin would have torn them limb from limb anyway in Saturday’s semi-final.
After last year’s semi loss to Mayo, and the manner of it, one heard the clock ticking and only that Tim Murphy pushed through Fitzmaurice’s ratification without a club vote at county board, the fissures beginning to appear in the county would have been evident long before last month.
Of course, the first two casualties in these debates are context and perspective – Kerry would have won the drawn semi against Mayo only for botching a free in the final minute when they were a point in front. Similarly, they had two chances to pilfer an unlikely win in Clones a fortnight ago after Clifford’s miracle equaliser. Is the manager responsible for those mistakes too?
The third casualty, by the by, is forgotten traits like dignity and respect, qualities one should always find in bluebloods. Fitzmaurice has risen above the bile and bitterness and carried himself with a class, humility and respect for all for longer than was reasonable.
The articulate way he defended Brendan O’Sullivan’s innocence in that complex case involving a contaminated supplement underlined his leadership and authority.
Sometime down the road, the Kerry support base might do well to reflect on same.
Somewhere, at some point too, someone is going to have to grab the occupants of this Kerry dressing room and straighten their collar for them.
The irony should be lost on no-one in Kerry that Fitzmaurice has fallen on his sword to take the heat off lads in that dressing room – some of which he trusted for too long.
In one respect, though, his instincts served him well. He felt that by remaining in charge for 2019, the Kerry players would be operating under a cloud of toxicity once they were, as he said, “out in their own communities and hearing stuff.” If there were dozens of garbled emotions coursing through him on Saturday night after killing his own dream, it wasn’t evident in his linear communication of the core issue behind his resignation.
Very little about this has been very nice.
And that’s before we get to the football.