In Kerry they can get very serious in telling you how they take their football very serious.
Animals and anonymous letters aren’t the half of it. There’ve been anonymous phone calls too, with the one Mikey Sheehy received upon entering a bar, castigating him for missing a penalty in an All-Ireland final two decades earlier, a line routinely trotted out as evidence of just how on the money Páidí was with his assessment of how restless and ruthless the natives can get.
A particular favourite of ours is a scene Paul Galvin paints in his book. A couple of weeks after the 2011 All-Ireland final defeat to Dublin, he was in a queue in a hardwood store when an old man in his late 70s approached him.
“He grabbed my hand around my wrist and squeezed, looking hard at me,” recounted Galvin.
Galvin possessed enough perspective to later reflect how surreal it was, but also enough experience of how in Kerry they can tend to lose perspective when it comes to football. “It shouldn’t be that serious,” he’d conclude about his interaction with the elderly stranger, “but it is, I suppose. It reminded me just how much Kerry people care about football.”
Last Sunday night Pat Spillane reiterated just how gravely they care their football there. After initially offering certain compliments and qualifiers about Éamonn Fitzmaurice’s reign, the RTÉ pundit baldly proclaimed:
In Kerry. In Kerry. In Kerry… At which point may we observe and suggest: In Kerry, maybe folks need to get a grip? Thinking that in “everyone’s eyes” Fitzmaurice has been “a failure” the past four years?
Or that just because you’re from the same county as Sheehy, a cold, timid soul as yourself has the right to castigate a man who both stumbled and won repeatedly in the arena? Or that even if you’re a kinder, more empathetic animal, that the “pain” of seeing your county narrowly miss out on winning a fifth All-Ireland in seven years somehow equals that of a player who has trained and toiled in the mud, rain, and gym for the previous nine months?
In essence, in Kerry, who do you think ye are?
Tradition and expectation is one thing, a fine thing. Entitlement is something else, something unsavoury.
Even mentioning the letters and phone calls of anonymous animals feeds and legitimises that entitlement, that they’re all just a measure of “how much Kerry people care about football”.
Anonymous and hateful correspondence is not exclusive to Kerry players and management — as extreme as the Sheehy example is. But more eye-raising than the hate mail Fitzmaurice received from the more lunatic fringe of the Kerry support was just how critical and ungrateful a sizeable contingent of the more moderate, mainstream Kerry
football public became of his tenure.
Take their aristocratic counterparts in hurling, Kilkenny. There was no shame or outrage last year when they lost to Wexford and Waterford, exiting the championship before it had even reached the All-Ireland quarter-final stage. Likewise there was no disgrace or outcry this year upon failing to reach an All-Ireland semi-final for a second consecutive season. There was an appreciation that the great team was no more, that a league title and a Leinster final appearance was no bad return for a side in transition.
In Kerry, no such understanding was pervasive. Winning a Munster title by a record margin — beating the best Clare team since ’92 by 22 points and then a Cork team in Cork by 17 — with seven rookies on board was an astonishing achievement.
However, it soon became a stick to beat Fitzmaurice with rather than a shield from any brickbats. Rather than wondering how he could win so convincingly with so many kids, the question became how could he not reach an All-Ireland semi-final with such stellar young talents?
The answer, of course, is the Galway game. Darragh Ó Sé, in his column, attributed that underperformance to attitude more than tactics. What he overlooked was how the
tactics dictated the side’s attitude.
In Munster, Kerry were the aggressors, the attackers, totally in tune and familiar with a game plan Fitzmaurice had drilled brilliantly into the side on the training ground; no team or manager better utilised the gap — in Kerry’s case, a 10-week one — between league and championship this summer.
But then, spooked by a league game in March well before he had time to install his Munster championship game plan, he changed horses midstream. Instead of being the initiators, Kerry became the reactors, going with a double-sweeper system with which the players weren’t familiar.
Not only could you hear the players shout for the ball in an eerily quiet and empty Croke Park that day, you could nearly hear the Kerry players thinking. Where am I supposed to be again? A tentativeness, a hesitancy — a fear — came into their play.
It was a considerable miscalculation by Fitzmaurice, all the more so for bearing too many resemblances to the loss to Mayo the previous August that ended and marred an otherwise excellent 2017 season. After that, he and Kerry were scrambling.
It was hardly a sacking or resignation matter though. For all the mistakes he made, Fitzmaurice got a lot more right, more than most Kerry supporters tend to remember.
It has never been mentioned in many of the more reasonable plaudits that have come his way but probably his finest achievement is that he made Dublin, and not Cork, the measure of where Kerry stood in the scheme of things; on his beat he helped make Cork an absolute irrelevance.
At the start of his tenure that would have been inconceivable. Hard as it is to believe or recall now, at the start of 2013 Cork were still viewed as the frontrunners to win Sam, not just Munster, with a fourth consecutive league title a prospect that year as well as a string of provincial U21 champion sides to replenish the side.
While Cork were undoubtedly the primary architects of their own downfall, the example of Fitzmaurice illustrates just how badly they got it wrong and how well he got it right.
In Cork, a manager who had been asked at his job interview what he planned to do “with all the deadwood” duly gave the answer that was sought; meanwhile, Fitzmaurice squeezed absolutely every last drop out of everyone from Declan to O’Mahony, Marc, Donaghy, Donncha, and Darran.
In recent days, he’s been accused of being “too loyal”. Better playing Killian Young the odd Super 8 game too many than prematurely disposing of one man’s deadwood but another man’s champion class.
For sure he enjoyed an element of fortune in winning the 2014 All-Ireland; had Shane Enright received a second card, as he should have, in the passage of play leading to Cillian O’Connor putting Mayo into an early seven-point lead in Limerick, Sam would not have resided in the Kingdom that winter.
They say luck is when opportunity meets preparation. Even with 15 men instead of 14, it was some achievement to come back against Mayo that day.
And to outsmart Jim McGuinness in the final, as much as Jim overcooked that one. And the way Fitzmaurice deployed the masterful Declan O’Sullivan and the unstoppable James O’Donoghue in the annihilation of Cork in the last game in the old Páirc Uí Chaoimh, a game, we all forget, that Cork entered as favourites.
True, they didn’t beat Dublin that year, or any other summer. But they did beat them in a league final, and pushed them all the way in 2013 and 2016 in classic All Ireland semi-finals.
Forget for a moment how good Fitzmaurice was for Kerry; he was great for football. The games his team, the best Dublin team ever, and arguably the best Mayo team ever served up against one another from 2013 to 2017 compare favourably to anything football — or indeed any hurling triumvirate — has ever served up over a five-year period.
A considerable portion of the Kerry public who wanted change probably don’t even know where Fitzmaurice got it wrong and now what needs to be put right. There’ll invariably be calls for more former players with limited coaching experience to be part of the new backroom team.
If anything, that was one of Fitzmaurice’s failings: During his time he would have had at least one selector too many living off what they did as a player than what they could contribute in the coaching sphere.
And in a way, that’s understandable; they’d have been reared on the tradition of everyone from Eddie Tatler to Donie Sheahan to Johnny Culloty being a good man to see a switch or have a word in the ear of a Kerry coach as to who’s moving well and who isn’t.
Football has moved on since. Dublin certainly have.
If a player isn’t going well, you don’t make a judgment on him, you make an intervention, beyond what playing time he gets. You improve him, coach him. Improve him and everyone and you improve everything.
But first you have to improve yourself. You may have been a better player than Mick Deegan or Jason Sherlock but are you a better coach or mentor? And if not, then why are you or Kerry entitled to win an All-Ireland ahead of them?
Even in Kerry, All-Irelands are earned. Fitzmaurice earned the one he won on his beat and the respect of anyone who truly “cares about football”.
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