Éamonn Fitzmaurice doesn’t need any reminding as to Luke Connolly’s ability as he plots and plans for Saturday night’s Munster final.
Prior to becoming senior manager, Fitzmaurice had one season as Kerry U21 boss when their 2012 season was ended with a provincial-final defeat to Cork.
Having hit a run of late points to bring the game to extra-time, his charges — which included Mark Griffin, Paul Murphy, and Tadhg Morley — appeared poised to push on during the two additional 10-minute periods at Austin Stack Park.
A Connolly goal swung the game in the visitors’ favour and ended Fitzmaurice’s tenure at the grade.
The mercurial Nemo Rangers forward has struggled in his transition from U21 to senior and while he kicked 1-1 when introduced against Mayo in last year’s qualifier, Cork’s Munster semi-final victory over Tipperary — just his fourth championship start — was the evening when he finally announced himself on the inter-county stage.
“He was outstanding for Nemo this year and all throughout last year. We know all about him. I know all about him. The year I was in charge of the U21s, he got the crucial goal in Tralee. He is a top player and is going to take watching. If you stop him, we are obviously helping our cause.”
The Kerry manager is keen to stress that Cork’s attacking threat doesn’t begin and end with Connolly. The 25-year-old, in what was his first appearance in a red shirt in 2018, accounted for 0-10 of Cork’s 1-17 semi-final total, as well as providing the final pass for Colm O’Neill’s goal.
Fitzmaurice won’t agree to the thought process that if you stop Connolly, you stop Cork. “He was outstanding the last day, but other players played very well that day too. Ruairi Deane was outstanding as well.
“If they have go-forward ball and are attacking, the quality of players they have up there is such that if Luke Connolly wasn’t there, someone else would have done damage. They’ve plenty of other players [outside of Luke].”
No more than Connolly, many of Fitzmaurice’s young troops chase a first Munster SFC medal on Saturday. Ronan Shanahan and Seán O’Shea, two of the seven who made their championship debuts last time out, were on the matchday 26 for the 2017 triumph over Cork. For the remainder, the goal is rather simple.
“I imagine it is a huge motivation for the lads that don’t have a medal,” said Fitzmaurice. “A share of them would have got one last year, as subs, but a lot of the lads who made their debuts the last day don’t have one.
“The Munster final stands on its own, but if you can win it, you are into the Super 8s and you can be planning for it. Whereas if you lose and have to play a qualifier a week before the Super 8s, it brings an extra layer of difficulty. So there is a huge prize there.”
With Clare offering little by way of proper examination on the afternoon of Kerry’s championship opener, the jury remains out on what improvements basketball coach James Weldon, drafted into the Kingdom backroom team during the off-season, has brought about in the areas of spatial awareness, shot selection, and one-on-one defence. Fitzmaurice said he had little option but to shake matters up such was their limp display when falling to Mayo in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final replay.
“Particularly the way we performed in the replay, we all had to ask a lot of hard questions. We had to try and head in a new direction. We’ve done that, in certain ways, this year. It has been positive. All of the additional people who have come into the backroom team helping out, they are all bringing loads of ideas and expertise.”
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