ÉAMONN Fitzmaurice was referring to Stephen Cluxton’s radar kickouts, but he might have been subconsciously alluding to Kerry’s inexplicable no-show in last year’s All-Ireland final.
“Of course we will have a plan for (Dublin’s kick-outs) but plans sometimes work and sometimes they don’t, so we’ll have to be ready to adapt.”
The precise depth of Kerry’s private torment from that no-show last September is difficult to measure in fathoms only because it has never been scrutinised in public by those that matter — the management and the players. Indeed, it’s hardly ever been mentioned. And that’s no coincidence either.
Fitzmaurice hates losing almost more than he likes winning, and for a gameplan to misfire as fatally as it did in the All-Ireland final will rankle with the manager — a stickler for detail — more than anyone. The best way of knowing that is to search for any meaningful quotes from him since on the matter.
Of his players’ hunger to atone to some degree in Sunday’s Allianz League final, Fitzmaurice was marginally more expansive: “I don’t really know… If you were looking at the (League) game last January, you would think it was us that had won the All-Ireland and Dublin that had lost it because of the levels of hunger they showed that (January 31) night. For any team to go through the league unbeaten the year after they win the All-Ireland underlines their hunger levels are exactly where they need to be.
“I hope that the hurt of losing last September might be a factor but it’s something that we’ll have to wait and see whether it does prove to be a factor on the day.”
If Kerry’s problems last September emanated in the defensive responsibilities some forwards failed to carry out, there have been no such misunderstandings this spring. From Johnny Buckley through to Colm Cooper, the forward division has thrived on all surfaces, and has thrown Alan Fitzgerald (0-12 thus far) and Brendan O’Sullivan into the mix, and facilitated the rejuvenations of Darran O’Sullivan and Kieran Donaghy.
“Kieran’s fitness levels are off the charts at the moment. His GPS figures are huge, week in, week out and it’s mutually beneficial that he’s really enjoying his football.
“Darran is in a sustained period of good form going back to last season. He came into great form at that time and pushed hard for a starting place in the All-Ireland final team and didn’t quite get in there but when he came on he was one of our best players.
“It’s great to see him going well, he’s a serious forward when he has a line of form like he has at the moment and long may it continue.”
In their final round fixture at home to Cork, Kerry had 11 different scorers, something the Kerry manager is encouraging. However, the shift their forwards put in without the ball may be as relevant on Sunday against the fluidity and athleticism of the All-Ireland champions. Even if there are a share of 30-somethings in green and gold.
“Dublin are the best team in the country at the moment and that’s not trying to be clever or building them up, everyone knows it. They’re unbeaten in league and championship since the last time we beat them in the league in Killarney in March 2015 — that’s a 21-game run which is a huge amount of games whatever way you look at it.
“Since Jim Gavin has taken over they’ve won eight of the nine trophies that really matter, Leinster Championship, national league and All-Ireland Championship. So it’s a huge game but it’s a great game for us. There’s no shadow boxing, it’s a big game.
“If you are not conceding goals you’re winning games. It’s not a coincidence. If you’re shutting it down at the back you’re making it harder for other teams. But some teams would not have been as offensively minded as Dublin will be. So if you want a test on how your backs are going or how solid you are, Dublin are the team that will test you and they’re also the test you want. On Sunday, we’ll know exactly where we’re at in terms of defensive strength.”
Fitzmaurice also noted that the Dubs are a “very pacy outfit. As are we, by the way. I think it’s more their pace of movement than actual pace, people get the two mixed up. Dublin’s pace of movement is exceptional but again there are ways around that and we’ve to try to come up with solutions to counteract it on Sunday.”
Kerry clocked an impressive 9-124 en route to Croke Park this weekend against Dublin’s 9-110, and the primacy of Stephen Cluxton’s role in Dublin’s attacking arsenal is evidenced in the strategies teams employ to upset the rhythm of Jim Gavin’s quarter-back.
“He’s really back to his best this year,” nodded Fitzmaurice. “If you were watching the semi-final against Donegal on TV, you wouldn’t have an appreciation of how strong the wind was and how difficult it is to judge your kick-outs, particularly against that breeze. That only adds to the quality of his kicking the last day.
“We all know about his quality, how important a weapon he is to Dublin in getting the ball further out the field and up the field quickly, getting the backs and the Dublin machine rolling. It is a big part of the game and I’m sure just as we’ll be looking at the Dublin kick-outs they’ll be looking at ours. It’s a big opportunity to get possession and attack the opposition.”
If Fitzmaurice uses the hour home from school in Dingle each day to plan ahead, he needs every moment of it. From managing a county’s expectations to managing the workload of his veteran players, there is so much beyond the drills and the dressing room.
He’s also had the usual headache of early season injuries and rehabilitation to contend with, though he is delighted to report 34 players saw game-time during the league this term. The likes of Donaghy, Aidan O’Mahony and Marc Ó Sé haven’t been as compromised this spring as last.
“There was a lot of different bits and pieces that were working against fellas last year which can be a challenge the year after winning an All-Ireland. This year I think there’s been a better sense of purpose about us from the start and once we started training nearly everyone was back from the start and that was a plan, something they were working very hard individually on. So that means that the lads are probably that bit fitter and fresher this year. But we have tried a lot of players in the league. There are still other fellas who haven’t played any football this year that we would be anxious to get football into them.”
The only two front-liners still without game-time in 2016 are Anthony Maher (hip) and James O’Donoghue (shoulder), and both will be back training in June. Maybe a Munster final comeback would be the most realistic target.
“Anthony is progressing well but he hasn’t played any football yet. So he is going to be another while before he is up to full speed. Both himself and James O’Donoghue are on schedule to where they should be, it’s a matter of getting them to the point where they will be playing football and it’s away with them then.”
Here’s a little extra sport. Watch the latest BallTalk for the best sports chat and analysis:
Premier League Manager of the season
Premier League Player of the season
Premier League Flops of the Season
Airtricity League: Munster clubs special
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