It is all on the line for Eamonn Fitzmaurice

“We’re fighting for our lives and we’ll have to bring everything.”

It is all on the line for Eamonn Fitzmaurice

You trust Éamonn Fitzmaurice knows the “we” relates to him and his management.

You trust he knows the responsibility to improve rests with him and his assistants as much as the players.

A pointed finger towards his players this week, as the Native American Navajo tribe’s proverb goes, shoots three straight back at him.

For all the accomplishments of Fitzmaurice — six unbeaten seasons in Munster, an All-Ireland title against the head, a Division 1 title against the kingpins Dublin — his position is on the line facing Monaghan. For all the trust that was put in him last October when he was reappointed for a three-year term, defeat would seriously test the will of the county executive to allow him remain on as much as this is a work in progress.

Last year’s winter of discontent, as Mikey Sheehy succinctly documented in an interview in January, would be followed by one of contempt were Fitzmaurice to stay on in the wake of another Championship exit.

A lot of the vitriol directed at the Finuge man after losing to Mayo lacked context but sparing him after another pre-final departure might be a step too far.

On Sunday, Galway became only the third team that Kerry have lost to in Championship under Fitzmaurice, the others being Dublin and Mayo, but the addition of Monaghan on the back of Galway beating Kildare in Newbridge and the game is up.

Fitzmaurice is intelligent enough to know that as much as the margins between existence and termination are ever so fine.

Beat Monaghan and if Galway have claimed a fifth consecutive SFC win this summer, a broken Kildare will arrive in Fitzgerald Stadium on the August Bank Holiday weekend and there’s a chance Kerry could even top Group 1.

David Clifford in possession against Galway
David Clifford in possession against Galway

But to live up to their side of the bargain, Fitzmaurice as much as his players must prove he can improve. There will be plenty writing him off as it is: a man more comfortable in the video analysis room, rewinding and replaying than on the whitewash where there is only the now.

That might be harsh but his detractors can back up their claims, the latest being the decision not to introduce Kieran Donaghy on Sunday.

Fitzmaurice explained that enforced substitutes such as Jason Foley’s injury compelled him to use different personnel but one slot could surely have been afforded to the 2006 Footballer of the Year.

That call could be filed along some other iffy calls by Fitzmaurice in recent times such as being double bluffed by Mayo into using a sweeper in last year’s All-Ireland replay, replacing Paul Geaney with Marc Ó Sé against Dublin in 2016 (in fairness, Kerry were two points up when he initially wanted to make the substitute) and benching his best marksmen, Geaney in the 50th minute and James O’Donoghue seconds after the hour mark, again when encountering Dublin the year before.

The best of managers make mistakes. Some get away with them: Jim Gavin’s Eoghan O’Gara gamble didn’t work in last year’s All-Ireland final.

And some don’t: Mickey Harte’s slavish commitment to double sweepers cost him against Mayo in 2016, as it did in being overwhelmed by Dublin last season. But Fitzmaurice’s ones have an awful way of coming back to bite him.

Whether that is by misfortune or something more tangible, the perception of Fitzmaurice is changing for the worse.

Former Donegal defender Éamon McGee’s assessment in his Daily Star column yesterday that he can’t now believe Fitzmaurice was the man that masterminded the downfall of his side in the 2014 final is a growing sentiment out there.

That Fitzmaurice franked what should have been a period of transition for Kerry, that he took the job when nobody else wanted it, is long forgotten.

Typically, he didn’t look for excuses for Sunday’s performance and his stoicism is another remarkable trait — he chose some time ago not to discuss referees anymore.

He did mention the greenness of the team by stressing the team was “a work in progress” and Galway being more “streetwise” and further down the road than Kerry. All of that is true but those comments didn’t chime with his pre-Championship enthusiasm:

I’m expecting a huge Championship from us, a lot of energy and I’m looking forward to it.

Huge in Kerry terms never equates to anything but the top prize.

Nobody needs to tell Fitzmaurice what’s on the line in St Tiernach’s Park — last winter was informative enough. He will have taken himself to one of his boltholes this week where he will pour over Monaghan and identify where they must be stopped and can be bettered.

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His players must play for him too but it’s in the heat of battle where he must illustrate he has the acumen.

Cats will be a force in 2019

For the third week in a row, this column writes about Kilkenny and the crippling schedule they had to encounter. We make no apologies for it either — what was asked of them would have broken most teams.

It’s not taking anything away from Limerick’s historic achievement to suggest they may not have won had Kilkenny had another week to prepare or had Walter Walsh been available. That’s hypothetical, yes, but it seemed Kilkenny were punished for doing as well as they did in Leinster.

True to form, Brian Cody wasn’t making any excuses but if this new Championship has taught us anything it’s that hurling teams can’t be expected to line out three weeks in a row.

Brian Cody watches on as Kilkenny were knocked out of the championship by Limerick
Brian Cody watches on as Kilkenny were knocked out of the championship by Limerick

This was the second time Kilkenny fell at this particular hurdle this summer having lost to a rested Galway in Salthill having faced Dublin and Offaly in the two previous weekends.

In Thurles on Sunday, Limerick looked a different side from the one that collapsed against Clare in Ennis, which also marked the third game for John Kiely’s side in 14 days.

We await with bated breath for Cody’s promised assessment of hurling’s new structures but at least there will be some ease in Kilkenny where the senior club hurling scene virtually grinding to a halt has caused a lot of recriminations.

Central Competitions Control Committee (CCCC) chief and former Kilkenny chairman and secretary Ned Quinn will be acutely aware of what people at the coalface feel about having to shift club championship fixtures until August and September.

As for the senior hurlers, statistics about this being the most fallow period in the Cody era and the first time in his reign that Kilkenny have gone two years without an All-Ireland semi-final appearance may be accurate but his Cats gave more to this Championship than most.

What’s more, they got more out of it than the majority. In 2019, they will be a force.

Punctuality or patience on wane

The starts to championship games these days are hardly as unruly as Semplegate, the 1998 Munster SHC final replay, Dublin-Mayo in 2005, or Tadhg Kennelly v Nicholas Murphy in 2009, but that’s not to say they are without commotion.

There are referees who insist on throwing up or in the ball when the bands haven’t yet left the field. Then there are those who do so in the absence of players. On Sunday, James O’Donoghue was still in the Kerry dressing room when Barry Cassidy raised the ball to the air for their game against Galway. O’Donoghue apparently required a new set of gloves as his original pair had been damaged in the warm-up.

The week before, James Owens began the second half of the Leinster SHC final replay despite Kilkenny forward Ger Aylward being in his team’s dressing room having taken a toilet break.

With the heat in Thurles, several players had taken on a lot of water and sprinted back into their changing areas to relieve themselves.

Both Cassidy and Owens were perfectly entitled to commence proceedings without O’Donoghue and Aylward. Rule 2.3 of the GAA Official Guide Part 2 reads:

A team may commence a game with 13 players but shall have fielded 15 players, inclusive of players ordered off or retired injured, by the start of the second half. In the event of failure to comply with this, the game shall continue.

However, neither player should have been allowed jump straight back into the action as they did. The next rule reads: “Players arriving late may join in the game during a break in play but must report to the referee before so doing.” Punctuality or patience, one of them is a dying virtue.


PaperTalk GAA Podcast: Dalo on a different Limerick, Divo on Galway's plan and Kerry's collapse

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