Selector Mikey Sheehy and coach Pádraic Corcoran stood with Éamonn Fitzmaurice for all six of his years as Kerry senior football manager. In a turbulent last 12 months, they weren’t spared much rod but it’s the players they feel most for.
Only returning from injury, it was out of duty more than anything else that Shane Enright travelled to Inis Mór last month to represent Kerry at the launch of the All-Ireland senior football championship.
The chances of him starting any of the Super 8 games were slim but he had been asked by management to give the Munster champions a face and he obliged.
There he spoke to the daily newspapers about his physiological setbacks this year and the unreliability of Cork as a barometer for the season ahead.
Towards the end he was asked if he had experienced grief from last year’s All-Ireland semi-final replay loss to Mayo.
He admitted he had, as had his mother Stella at the Listowel Races.
“I think it was just something over the goal the second day that Andy Moran got,” he recalled. “That’s the nature of the beast. That comes with it.”
The interview was embargoed for the week of the Monaghan game, a few days after the defeat to Galway.
By that time, a letter had been penned to Enright telling him what he should have done while posing for cameras on the cliffs of Dun Aengus.
As Éamonn Fitzmaurice told Newstalk earlier this week: “A player was told in a letter to jump off a cliff, and take two or three other players with him, those players were named in the letter — I felt that was going way too far.”
Management other than Fitzmaurice received poisoned correspondence too. For outgoing coach Pádraic Corcoran, the criticism was verbal in Muiris Dan’s, the Dingle pub he co-owns with minor coach Tommy Griffin.
“I got a fair bit of stick last week from some fella inside there. This fella doesn’t go to any games but he started giving his tuppence worth.
"He said we were doing such a bad job of it that he wasn’t going to watch the match on Sunday. The only thing I said to him after that was, ‘Well, it shows how much you know about it because the game’s on Saturday.’ You hear far worse stories than that, but that’s what happens.”
At the Allianz League launch in January, Mikey Sheehy unveiled just how
discontented winter 2017 was in Kerry: “Jesus, there were a lot of snipers around, I can tell you!”
That would have been fine, but he came in for criticism as a result of daring to question the loyalty of the Kerry following.
“I made a comment about the supporters that was taken up the wrong way. What I said was last year, for the replay above in Croke Park against Mayo, the numbers of Kerry supporters was embarrassing and of course, some people in Kerry twisted it into me saying that Kerry supporters were embarrassing.”
Sheehy has known this to be the way for decades, a man who received an anonymous call in a bar about his missed penalty in the 1982 All-Ireland final defeat to Offaly many moons after it had happened.
When people see you as public property the moment you don the green and gold, pubs are always dangerous places to frequent, never mind when you’re a player or a management member. Sheehy would have known that as soon as he began assisting Fitzmaurice.
The Castle Bar on Tralee’s Rock St and Quane’s in Blennerville are two places he enjoys a pint but he would have marked them as out of bounds during the championship.
“If looks could kill, you’d be machine-gunned. They don’t say it. When you’re involved and there’s championship football on, your game-face is on and you don’t be meeting people that much. I’d keep in my own group.
“It’s not that I wouldn’t be going in there because I know I was going to be criticised. Last year, I went out for a couple of pints after we were beaten by Mayo in the replay and you’d meet fellas and a fella would come over to you and say ‘ye made a right bags of it’ and I’d laugh it off. They’d be entitled to say that when we did.
"It’s not something that bothers me but I would lay low during championship. I wouldn’t back down from any guy if I had to but I couldn’t say I was ever abused. Maybe some fellas verbally abused me behind my back but that wouldn’t bother me.”
But what enrages Sheehy is the depiction of Fitzmaurice, a man who debunked the widely held view that Kerry were in transition to outwit Jim McGuinness, as a disappointment.
“This is not boasting about Kerry but the fact that Kerry have 37 All-Irelands, the standards are high. You’re rated on All-Irelands, not leagues or Munster championships.
"But I don’t care how bad the opposition were at times, Éamonn Fitzmaurice won six Munster titles in a row and an All-Ireland against the grain and a league last year yet he’s seen as a complete failure by a pile of people, which I find baffling.
“Pádraig Corcoran, Maurice Fitz, Liam Hassett, and myself are seen as the same because we’re part of his management team.
"The thing that would annoy me is that when these guys are sitting on their asses watching Champions League games during the winter, we’re out working with these lads. Other counties are the same.
During the week, Fitzmaurice distinguished Kerry supporters from followers, those who are sponges for all things Kerry but rarely, if at all, go to games. The true fans of Kerry, Sheehy and Corcoran have met over the six years. “The majority of people mean well,” says Corcoran.
“What Éamonn was getting at was the personal stuff. You’ve headbangers everywhere. That’s only a poisoned few at it, a very small minority.
“I met a fella on the field on Saturday evening and I saw that fella above in Omagh and over in Letterkenny. He comes to Dingle on his holidays and calls into the bar.
"I remember being at an U21 game in Tipperary in 2012 and there was about 600-700 people at it and your man is above there. These lads are travelling everywhere. When you get into this thing, whether you’re selecting, involved in management, or whatever, the flak comes with it.
"You have to be willing to accept a fair bit of it especially in a county where football is number one. But there are a few who go over the top.”
Sheehy spent long enough on team buses since February 2013 to know the geographical and financial lengths some Kerry people were going to in order to back their team.
“Above in Clones a few weeks ago, there was great Kerry support and that’s a long, long haul from home. We were lucky to get a draw but there was a great feeling after the game, the supporters waited outside the dressing room and around the team bus, these genuine supporters who had travelled miles for the team. And there was genuine support in Killarney last Saturday too.
“Éamonn was great at it and I wasn’t too bad at it myself (dealing with criticism). Maybe that comes from having played the game, because even when we were winning there was still that element out there that would be very critical of certain things. If you were sensitive about that, you would never get involved. Ultimately, Éamonn wanted to protect his players and that’s typical of the guy he is.”
‘Kerry Expects’ may as well be stitched under the crest but the expectation has been more acute these last couple of years. Not winning All-Ireland minor titles was never something that ever worried supporters but now that four have come one after the other, they are deemed an indication that the teams above them should follow suit.
“Four Hogan Cup-winning teams as well,” points out Corcoran.
“You see Ciarán Kilkenny and Jack McCaffrey and these fellas thrown in at 19 but they’re exceptional with a more seasoned group around them.
"If you’re going back to Declan (O’Sullivan) and Gooch coming in, they were coming into a team that had the likes of Darragh (Ó Sé) and Seamus (Moynihan) and all these fellas. I think Colm said it during the year that you weren’t expecting these new young guys to be frontline players.
“What David Clifford brought this year in the championship was phenomenal for a young fella in his first season, but not everyone can be brought through as quick as David.
"It’s one thing coming down the line that I’m not sure Éamonn will get the credit for but there are a lot of structures in place, pathways for developing players to follow, and you have to give Tim Murphy and the county board credit in that regard too.”
Sheehy suggests the restlessness in the county has much to do with Dublin doing so well and edging closer to that feat Kerry were unable to achieve 36 years ago.
“Kerry people are very proud of their tradition and the 37. They would of course. I take my hat off to Dublin and Jim Gavin and what he has done. And now they would have to be red-hot favourites to do the four in a row.
"Kerry will challenge next year, as will Mayo, but it does look like Dublin are going to break all records at the moment and Kerry people don’t like that.
“Then there is the four minors in a row but people probably don’t realise the step-up from minor to senior. Now, David Clifford and Seánie Shea are two exceptions.
"The conditioning of the Dublin team, I think Tyrone have got ferociously conditioned the last couple of years, I saw Monaghan up close the last day above in Clones and they’re powerful men, Mayo are strong, as are Galway… while some of our lads have another bit to go. That’s where patience comes in but it’s not in the DNA of Kerry supporters. Definitely not.”
Time is what Sheehy is afforded to the next man in but he knows he’s being wishful. He also knows what was offered up against Galway this year wasn’t good enough.
"The training and preparation couldn’t have gone better, fellas were hopping off the ground and then you’re just flat as a pancake and you’ve no control over it. It was something similar against Mayo last year but not quite as bad. In the six years, the Galway game was the biggest disappointment but that bunch just have to learn from it and I think they will.”
Not that it’s an excuse but Sheehy wants to see the provincial winners given home advantage in their opening Super 8 game. Corcoran too acknowledges that criticism of the display against Galway was merited.
“We tried something different with the sweeper option and it didn’t work out, but look, we were still there with 15 minutes to go. When Killian (Young) was sent off it was 10-9. I can’t put my finger on why we were flat.
"Everything is monitored to the hilt as regards GPS and that and you’re watching lads and they’re looking after themselves so well but we didn’t perform. You’re playing catch-up after that and that left us travelling to Clones the following weekend against a Monaghan team who are flying.”
As Kerry moved out of Kildare’s reach in Fitzgerald Stadium last Saturday, Corcoran turned to Sheehy to enquire about what was happening in Salthill. A despondent Sheehy nodded to the crowd and how quiet they were.
To exit on a victory was surreal but Sheehy was expecting that a failure to reach the last four would prompt Fitzmaurice to step aside. “I’m not saying he made the right decision in going but he made it at the right time after the game.”
It marked the end of an association that Sheehy already knows he will miss.
“If somebody said to me leaving Croke Park in 2012 when we were beaten by Donegal in a quarter-final that I’d be involved for the next six years with the senior team and Éamonn Fitzmaurice, I’d have laughed at them.
"It would have been the farthest thing from my mind because I would have been involved with minor and U21 teams for years and did a bit with the club and I won’t say I was gone past my sell-by date but I didn’t think I would be involved. But would you believe, I loved every minute of it. I’ll miss it.
“A pile of people… initially when I got involved a few fellas were saying to me ‘are you mad?’ but I’m not really. That’s one thing that couldn’t be levelled at me — I’m not mad. I’m mad for football and I’m going to be a supporter and watch all these guys I stood with in a dressing room and they’re going to have plenty of success down the road.”
On the bank-holiday Monday, Sheehy went for a game of golf on his own to make some sense of it all. On the walks between shots, he remembered 2014.
“It wasn’t a pretty final,” he accepts, “but I tell you something, I saw and played in a few cat finals and it’s always better to win a bad game than lose a good one.”
A couple of duels with Dublin gnaw at him for different reasons. “In 2013, we were a point down in the 68th minute against Dublin and there’s a breaking ball in the middle of the field and we had three fellas around the ball.
Had it broken our way, Kevin McManamon mightn’t have got that goal. Little things.
“The one I was disappointed about and I don’t think we ever got the credit for was the 2016 All-Ireland semi-final. David Gough came out about the Peter Crowley incident but I’ve watched that game a few times and that wasn’t the only mistake he made in that game.
“You could say we got the breaks in 2014 against Mayo and didn’t that year but the balance doesn’t work out that way for me and I felt that was an outstanding game of football.
"These relentless Dubs as I call them, we went five points up with about 15 minutes to go in that game but they just stuck at it. You ride your luck at times and they did the same against Mayo for a couple of years.
"They’re heading to be the greatest team of all time and it’s up to ourselves and the Tyrones and the Mayos, the Donegals and Monaghans and Galways to try and stop them.”
It might have been overdone at times but no Kerry management put more into analysing the opposition than Fitzmaurice’s and in 2014 it was accepted that the team simply had to adapt to what was being presented by their rivals, the sentry half-backs and the repositioning of James O’Donoghue against Donegal being the prime examples.
Corcoran looks back on it as a response to a means to an end. “The supporters demand success. We’d all love to be playing 15-on-15 football but the game is constantly changing and sometimes you just have to cut your cloth.
In the last 12 months, there’s been a more attack-minded dimension to the football but you’re still seeing a lot of teams getting a lot of bodies behind the ball when they’re defending.
“In 2014, there were things done like James coming out the field in the final and it was well-documented that he had sacrificed his own game for the benefit of the team, which he did. In the league final last year, Paul Murphy was playing at times as sweeper.
What Fitzmaurice’s successor now inherits is far stronger than what was left to him. “I was only thinking this morning that to have a fixed training centre there, especially for the new personnel coming in, is huge,” believes Corcoran. “You’re not worrying about pitches.
“Like, back in 2013 or ’14 we were travelling to UL for a training session. You’re no longer asking clubs for fields.”
And then there is the talent and how it is being harnessed. Sheehy envisages a flood of All-Ireland success but it may take a couple of seasons for the dam to burst. “Look at Dublin, no All-Ireland for 26 years and now they’re dominant and have one of the best teams that have ever played the game. We had to wait 11 years after ’86 and people have to realise we can’t be winning All-Irelands every year.
“The majority of these guys will win All-Irelands with Kerry, be it next year or the year after. There’s some brilliant talent coming up.
“I’ve seen some U15 matches there recently and they’re some beautiful footballers there. Once they get their conditioning right, they’ll be a serious threat
in the coming years.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved