I was in a bar down the road from Fitzgerald Stadium before the Kerry-Kildare game last Saturday. The volume on the TV was turned up as the Irish women’s hockey team began their second penalty shoot-out of the tournament for a place in the final of the World Cup.
It seemed like I had strayed into the Killarney branch of the Hockey Supporters Club, such was the level of interest that gripped the public house. It was quite funny to see grown men and women in Kerry and Kildare jerseys roaring instructions at the TV screen telling each player what they should be doing with their penalty.
I’d never watched more than a few minutes of the sport before, maybe some time around the Olympics, but this was easy to follow and enjoy for complete novices like myself.
After the first penalty miss, a man in a large black cowboy hat turned around from the counter and exclaimed that she should have ‘kept it low and belted it past the big padded lady’. It seemed like sound advice.
Soon enough the entire bar full of GAA supporters were quickly developing a level of expertise about a sport I’m pretty most were seeing for the very first time. When the final Spanish penalty taker in regulation flicked the ball over the keeper’s head, there were inevitable comparisons to Mikey Sheehy’s quick free that floated into Paddy Cullen’s net 40 years ago.
Afterwards, people were speaking with a real authority about the complexities of the hockey shoot-out. A game that most scarcely knew existed a few days previous, was suddenly being dissected with a fine-tooth comb.
Is it any wonder that Eamonn Fitzmaurice was receiving anonymous hate mail telling him the error of his ways? Half the country seemingly became astute hockey observers over a pint, never mind a life spent immersed in Gaelic football arming us with the inflated know-how to be able to tell others how to do it better.
Ultimately, Kerry got what they deserved from a Super 8 campaign that never really
ignited until being a man up in the second half against a Kildare side with nothing to play for. They’ve played five championship games this season, winning three by an average 17 points, drawing one against Monaghan and losing out to Galway by three points in Croke Park. That was the performance and result that forced Kerry to depend on others doing them a favour and left them in a precarious position.
Shortly after the final whistle on Saturday, word filtered out that Fitzmaurice had informed the player s of his decision to step down as manager after six years at the helm. It wasn’t a huge shock, as there has been an undercurrent of discontent with the management team down this way for a while now, but it really started to bubble up since the Galway game.
When the manager was first appointed, one of his earliest orders of business was to end a lifetime tradition for the Kerry supporters: Fitzmaurice decided it was time to lock the gates and keep the supporters and other prying eyes out of their training sessions.
I said it at the time, it was the right move and was long overdue. Nevertheless, it was a hugely unpopular move for those who used to make Fitzgerald stadium their weekly pilgrimage to see who was moving well in training.
It mightn’t sound overly significant six years on, but I honestly believe it was the genesis of his fractured relationship with the Kerry supporters.
Add to that his propensity for keeping the county players away from playing much football with their clubs and he found a way to really antagonise many of the people on the ground.
Every coach or manager over any team who is lucky enough to stay in the role for as long as he did will accumulate their fair share of mistakes and there were certainly some hairy team selections, substitutions and chopping and changing of game plans over the last number of years that were easy to pick apart That’s the unfortunate part of the process.
However, it shouldn’t be forgotten that he got plenty right too. Winning six provincial titles, a national league and an All-Ireland title is a more than respectable haul by most people’s standards.
And while I think fair and reasoned criticism was justified in some instances, that should be a million miles away from abusing a volunteer who was spending every waking hour doing the very best he could for the county.
For what it’s worth, I didn’t agree with plenty of the calls he made through the year. That’s normal enough, but I always appreciated the way he carried himself with a dignity and civility that he displayed to those around him when representing Kerry. Whether that was through TV and media stuff, or the complete absence of histrionics on the side line during the whitest of championship heat. He was an outstanding ambassador for Kerry football during the past six years.
Of course, his Kerry story began long before then. He started out playing minor with the county in ’94 and basically remained involved in some capacity up until last Saturday night.
Twenty four years give or take.
Of course, those who took the time to pen and send those ugly letters were in the tiniest minority of Kerry spectators, I wouldn’t dignify them by calling them supporters, and won’t contribute a speck of what Fitzmaurice has given the Kerry football cause down through the years.
Criticism can be deserved, and is generally expected in any inter-county managerial position, but that shouldn’t be confused with abuse.
Ultimately, performances and results are what matters most down here and talk of a three-year plan could do little to quell the desire for more immediate gratification.
The time is probably right for a change. A fresh voice with new ideas may recapture the spark that went missing mid-season, and will reinvigorate a squad that could look very differently at the start of next year’s national league.
Fitzmaurice has long been a loyal servant to Kerry football. He took the top gig when nobody wanted it and has now left it in a better place. For the vast majority of Kerry supporters, we can’t ask for much more.
PaperTalk GAA Podcast: Éamonn Fitzmaurice’s box of letters, Clare’s regret and Galway’s low battery
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