TONY LEEN: For Kerry's prospects, it’s crucial Éamonn Fitzmaurice remains at the helm

For all the plaudits — dangerous ones before a final — swirling around Peter Keane’s Kerry minors, few in the Kingdom were looking to teenagers for succour yesterday.

The first refuge of an honest defeated team is the mirror, and self-flagellation is often the torture of choice. There is little doubt Dublin were the better team in Sunday’s dramatic All-Ireland semi-final but Kerry had the situations and opportunities to beat them. That will hurt Kerry folk for a while, and Éamonn Fitzmaurice a while longer.

Fitzmaurice doesn’t require Sunday’s curtain-raiser to recognise the flush of talent coming through in his county; he’s been at the core of it with schools and U21s. But he’ll have chewed a lot of the winter before long-term prospects figure in his thoughts.

His considerations are more immediate. Only those close to the scene understand the unsettling vacuum looming in Kerry if Fitzmaurice elects to cash in his chips after four years as senior manager. Jack O’Connor is more project-driven these days and won’t be wedged away from the Kerry U21’s with a crowbar in 2017. Hardly surprising.

He is grooming a serious crop of talent Kerry minor manager Peter Keane and coaching officer Eamonn Whelan is feeding into. In three years time, Kerry will have a wealth of options.

They may even have a top manager in Declan O’Sullivan at that stage, but if Fitzmaurice has decided enough is enough, the cupboard is pretty bare in terms of handing the baton over. A haymaker of a challenge too for a new Kerry GAA chairman. Patrick O’Sullivan will step down in December though it would be a surprise if he hasn’t already been in Fitzmaurice’s ear about the importance of continuity — and the fact that he is clearly still the best man for the position in Kerry.

There’s a lot for the Finuge man to consider, not all of it football-related either. His wife Tina is expecting their first child before Christmas, a life-changing thrill for both. If that isn’t exhausting enough, the prospect of looking up that hill again to next September is enough to stop the most defiant in their tracks.

And yet it’s the right play to stay put. February will bring the energising prospect of throwing Mark O’Connor, Tony Brosnan, Barry O’Sullivan, Killian Spillane, Adrian Barry, Jason Foley and others into potential Allianz League conflict. Fitzmaurice knows Dublin are better than Kerry at the moment, but they are not pulling away from them. The Kerry management squeezed every last drop out of this group, much like Jack O’Connor did in 2011, but natural wastage and retirements will create half a dozen vacancies without Fitzmaurice even getting to the hard conversations. It’s not like staleness in the squad will be an issue. That question is more for Fitzmaurice himself. He’s stubborn in a good way, and not solving the Dublin puzzle grates with him like a stone under the front door. He likes to close every circle.

He might be livid with himself and his management too over the inexplicable 66th minute Paul Geaney substitution on Sunday. Bringing Marc Ó Sé on is one thing, but removing the sharpest, most lethal outlet in the full- forward line with the game in the melting pot beggars belief. Signs on too, with three subsequent Kerry attacks foundering for the lack of options inside. Another itch to scratch. The walk down the corridor between speaking with dignity and class to RTÉ’s Joanne Cantwell and facing the interrogators of the written press allowed Fitzmaurice a moment to ponder whether focusing on referee David Gough was a fool’s road. He will know that Dublin dominated an hour of Sunday’s game, and Kerry played like a team playing on the break in the away leg of a Champions League tie. But he is also aware Kerry had Dublin pinned on the ropes only for the referee’s half-time whistle to rescue them. For all the talk of Dublin being a team for the ages, Kerry football is going strong too.

“The way that we were written off earlier in the summer in my mind was crazy,” he reflected after Sunday. “I knew what was there and I knew what was coming today. We knew there was a big kick in the group and we have prepared like that all summer. I didn’t need any convincing. It didn’t take today (Sunday) to convince me of what’s in this group.”

The manager knows the future is bright in Kerry. Whether he wants to be part of it, at least for another season, is at the heart of the issue now.


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