The logic is difficult to contest. Under the Finuge man, Kerry’s winning percentage in championship football is over 76%. Dublin, albeit thrice, are the only team that have managed to get the better of his teams. He’s claimed four consecutive Munster titles, a feat not achieved by a Kerry manager since Mick O’Dwyer in 1979. The achievement has coincided with a period where Cork have been out of sorts but it’s the sort of local supremacy Kerry like.
As the county braces itself for a handful of retirements in the coming weeks and months, Fitzmaurice offers not just continuity but consistency too and the most diligent of football minds. Respected and revered by players, his attention to detail is legendary. Would any other manager in the county have done such a detail on Donegal as he did in the 2014 final?
The problem was never with the executive — Fitzmaurice was their man. His decision to stay on aids their succession strategy, giving Jack O’Connor and Peter Keane sufficient time to work with their under-age teams until they move to the next stage.
But Fitzmaurice had to want it too. A most cynical observer may say he is a buffer until he tags back in O’Connor to further the development of the groups he led to All-Ireland minor titles the last two years and is currently doing at U21 level. But Fitzmaurice isn’t doing anyone else’s spade work but his own. He clearly believes an All-Ireland title is within Kerry’s capabilities and his players believe in him.
Four years at the helm is a long stint even for a man who won’t hit 40 until next year. If he had decided to leave, it’s likely it wouldn’t have been long before he was asked to call again. And, in ways, Fitzmaurice may have been fairer on himself to step back and wait for the glittering generation of footballers coming off the conveyor belt to fully establish themselves.
But then he is already benefiting from that industry. Besides, he was more than due the courtesy of being given first refusal not just for landing Kerry an All-Ireland title when it was least expected but twice coming close to upsetting what are undoubtedly the greatest Dublin team in history. Kerry’s right man at the wrong time, his chances of being the right one at the right time are greater in the next two seasons as he decks his panel with some of the best underage talent the county has ever produced.
It’s a far cry from August 2012. As Kerry chairman Patrick O’Sullivan said last week, there weren’t too many people putting up their hands when Fitzmaurice took the reins from O’Connor. He picked up the pieces when Kerry, as they were against Tyrone in the 2000s, were found wanting. He fashioned a Kerry team that had to be humble and accept the process of being hard to beat.
Fitzmaurice never made any apologies for the immense respect shown to opponents in how he set up his sides. What he was doing was cemented in pragmatism. Only for Fitzmaurice, the subsequent retirements of Tomás Ó Sé and Declan O’Sullivan may have come earlier than 2013 and 2014, respectively. Ditto Paul Galvin. Now as Kieran Donaghy, Aidan O’Mahony, and Marc Ó Sé are expected to exit stage left, it may be that Fitzmaurice’s continuing presence ensures one or two chose to stick around and/or the likes of other 30 somethings – Anthony Maher, Darran O’Sullivan, Bryan Sheehan and Donnchadh Walsh – don’t join them.
Fitzmaurice might never get the opportunity to field the likes of David Clifford but All-Ireland finals and the prospects of a 38th title remain healthy under him. Munster are paired with Connacht in next year’s All-Ireland semi-final and there will be short odds on them facing Mayo as they did in 2011 and ’14.
Dublin are the itch Fitzmaurice has yet to scratch but his reach in the coming year or two may turn out to be longer.