And all because Eamonn Fitzmaurice said Yes

WHAT would Kerry have done if Eamonn Fitzmaurice had said No?

And all because Eamonn Fitzmaurice said Yes

It nearly happened. Kerry chairman Patrick O’Sullivan said he didn’t prepare a Plan B because he wasn’t taking no for an answer from his No. 1 target to take over from Jack O’Connor two years ago as Kerry football manager.

But Fitzmaurice sought copious counsel before concluding — despite his limited experience — there was no guarantee Kerry football would be a more appetising proposition three years down the road. Or that the opportunity would even be there.

Chances are O’Sullivan would have gone back to his brother-in-law, Pat O’Shea, to resume the reins — thus involving himself in protracted negotiations with O’Shea’s employers, the Munster Council, to job-share. From this remove, and remembering the eleventh-hour haggling that eventually brokered an arrangement for O’Shea to take the Kerry position in 2007, that was a pretty unpalatable prospect.

Kerry had lost an All-Ireland quarter-final to Donegal. No-one — and I stress no-one — was putting their hand up to reposition Kerry football for the future. If it wasn’t already a mess, it would’ve done fine until the mess arrived.

The chairman got lucky. Napoleon lucky. At a moment in time when Kerry football was on the brink of a recession the scale of which few realise even now, Fitzmaurice said Yes.

“Jack said he wasn’t continuing on a Saturday and we were in contact with Eamonn on the Monday morning. And we were in contact too with the people he was seeking counsel from to ensure they knew our determination to get him,” the chairman said this week.

It was a quantum leap for Fitzmaurice, only after one season as Under 21 coach with Kerry, when they failed to get past Cork.

“It’s his level of attention to detail that we knew was there — all the way back to his columns in the Examiner. It was right down to the minutest detail. It wasn’t just organising the sandwiches — it was the time they should be consumed.”

In that moment, a lot of things changed, but most importantly, everyone got time to breathe again. And strategise for the future. For too long, the relative success of the Kerry footballers masked the problems beneath the surface. It was time to take some tough decisions.

There was blood on the floor when the chairman brought a messy, if unavoidable, end to Mickey ‘Ned’ O’Sullivan’s time as Kerry minor football coach, facilitating the reintegration at that grade of Jack O’Connor. O’Sullivan must reflect now, from his position as the chairman who has delivered the county’s 37th football All-Ireland, on the slim line between Jones Road and the road to nowhere. It’s only last March Kerry diehards trudged out of Austin Stack Park after another comprehensive beating from Cork’s U21s. Fitzmaurice left that night with little in his notebook in the way of prospects to work on. But behind the scenes, the 2012 near-miss had rattled everyone in the county board.

“A lot of credit for the turnaround goes to Donal Daly, the development officer, who has been driving the player development programme and who helped bring about the results of a special working group involving Tony O’Keeffe, Pat O’Shea and Bomber Liston,” O’Sullivan reflected.

Kerry had some autumn luck for sure, but Fitzmaurice might feel he earned that in 2013.

At the beginning of December, Kerry are still racking up 2014 football titles — All-Ireland senior and minor, Munster Club senior, intermediate and possibly junior, if Brosna can eclipse Glin this weekend.

Of greater importance, though, is the managerial and coaching options that have surfaced with the rising tide. Jack O’Connor is back on board, and working through the schools network to bring a more uniform brand of football to the system. Stephen Wallace guided the Kerry juniors to an All-Ireland final and unearthed some unpolished gems in the process — the likes of St Mary’s Denis Daly, Seanie Moloney from John Mitchels and Templenoe’s Brian Crowley are all U 21 in 2015.

Alongside Pat O’Driscoll — who had an all-too-brief tenure as Kerry minor coach in 2011 — they have piloted a Division 3 club in Ardfert to a Kerry and Munster intermediate championship double this year. A stunning achievement.

But no more so that what Stephen Stack has done in reconditioning Austin Stacks and piloting them to their first county and provincial titles in two decades — bringing, like Fitzmaurice, a decidedly North Kerry pragmatism to the Tralee side.

Stack is ambitious and driven. In Feargal McNamara, Greg Horan and Shane O’Callaghan, the Rock have players with genuine inter-county ambitions, even if their February 14/15 All-Ireland semi-final against Slaughtneil might scupper Eamonn Fitzmaurice’s plans to give them some National League game-time. A conversation between Stack and Fitzmaurice may be needed to bring that one to a mutually satisfactory conclusion.

Darragh Ó Sé’s U21 project is the one blot on the copybook, but anyone who saw their defeat to Cork last March would accept his management team were limited enough in the scope of their options — with the possible exception of Castleisland’s Thomas Hickey. Then again, how many identified Paul Murphy from the U21 class of 2012?

Bringing Seamus Moynihan on board as a 21 selector — and using the strength and conditioning nous of Ciarán McCabe, involved with Austin Stacks this season — suggests better times lie ahead. A recognition that the U21 programme needs a work-over from the bottom up is implicit in Kerry’s involvement in the Hastings Cup in the New Year. O Sé and co are determined that the county’s depressing run in the grade cannot continue.

Fitzmaurice. Jack O’Connor. Stephen Stack. Darragh Ó Sé. Seamus Moynihan. Stephen Wallace. Pat O’Driscoll — and the likes of Dara Ó Cinnéide and Tomas Ó Sé not even on the first rung of the ladder yet.

Suddenly the sideline is sprinkled with spice.

It’s a good thing Fitzmaurice said Yes.

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