Savouring Killarney on summer nights

As a player Maurice Fitzgerald never appeared to look stressed. As a freshman Kerry selector has he found even deeper calm?

Same animal, different beast. Maurice Fitzgerald prowls his kingdom again with that elegant gait. But once, at times like this, he’d stray far from the pack.

Legend had it, on Croke Park weeks, they’d see little of Maurice around Kerry camp. Instead, he’d block out the buzz and the fuss, kicking balls back in Cahersiveen.

At those old-school press nights when writers roamed the training plains for prey, he’d fine-tune that elusiveness for repurpose on the big day.

Maybe he saved enough talking for the field that he can spare a little now to hold court.

A freshman selector for Kerry boss Éamonn Fitzmaurice, the man who never looked stressed has since found even deeper calm.

“I’m poles apart from that person,” he says. “Not saying I would have been right or wrong then. I guess, the physical geography of the county, I’m an hour away from Killarney and a lot of it would be just trying to have yourself ready for the energy of what is a huge weekend.

“A lot of it would have been the physicality of the drive up and down and knocking around spending time.

“But now I’m totally relaxed. I enjoy every part of it now. It’s a totally different thing. Then I was preparing for the tools of your trade which was to be at the very peak of your physical powers. Now, I’m in a completely different place and I must say I’d be very relaxed and enjoying all aspects of the thing.

“I love the camaraderie around it. Of course it was different as a player. But I love the joy of people getting together for these weekends. The hustle and bustle of tickets and all that. Something I mightn’t have been comfortable with as a player but now it’s all part of the fun, the craic, and what our games are. It’s a very special part of our culture, I suppose, as GAA people.”

When his old teammate’s number awoke his phone last autumn, no arms needed twisting.

“I was just delighted, surprised, and thrilled. I was delighted to come on board. It seems to be a return to a happy place.

“Coming back to Killarney on summer evenings with all those young fellas, in many respects it is reminiscent of good times in my past.

“We go back a long way because we played together with Kerry.

“Éamonn would have been a very nice fellow to play with and he would have been quite the opposite to play against. So when he rang me, probably the familiarity and the friendship that was there would have allowed me to jump into the chair and fall in with them.

“I think that’s one of the surprises about getting back involved. Renewing all of those friendships and having time to be with people like, for instance, Liam Hassett, who I played with, and Mikey Sheehy, who obviously I revered growing up. I used to meet him on and off but to actually be in their company again has been kind of exciting and something I hadn’t considered.

“If you’re asking me about getting back involved, that was one of the big bonuses for me, because we’re all footballing people, and it’s great to sit down with people like that you enjoy.”

The bonus for Fitzmaurice was the thrill it gave his dressing room.

“There would, initially especially, have been that aura about him, of course,” the Kerry manager says. “But when you get down and dirty with fellas then and you’re working with them night in, night out, the lads are just taking from him rather than looking at him in that kind of light. They’re looking at him as someone they can learn off and can help them and I’d say if you asked any of the lads, I’d say they love working with him.”

When it comes to identifying what exactly that work
involves, Maurice’s old habits resurface. A dip of the shoulder. A shimmy.

Above in the stand on matchday with Mikey? The eye in the sky?

“Sometimes.”

How does the communication with Éamonn work? “Sure they don’t listen to a word I say.”

He continues: “I couldn’t say I’m doing one thing and someone else is doing something else. I’m very relaxed at the games actually, and I can enjoy the games, which I don’t know if you’re supposed to or not, but I do. I enjoy the contest that’s happening in front of me. Obviously I try to watch it, if there’s any kind of a
comment or contribution you can make, you try.”

What about the tactical side?

“I’m really a novice, in the sense that it’s my first year involved with a senior inter-county team. So in many respects I’m googly eyed and eyes wide open. I came up to enjoy myself and the young men who are giving everything for Kerry. I’m an open book and thereafter anything and everything that I could help or impart would be no holds barred.”

An open book. Just don’t try to read him. Fitzmaurice laughs at ways he knows well.

“He’s not into the specifics, you’ve to nail him down!

“When Diarmuid Murphy stepped away last year after doing an incredible job for a good few years, four years with me, two years with Jack — six years at that level is demanding — I needed someone who could fill big boots, and Maurice was the man.

“Obviously his forward’s brain is excellent for the lads, he’s a great communicator, he’s very good at getting points across, ideas across. “Different things that mere mortals like myself wouldn’t think of.

“And his personality, I’ve always said his personality is a huge thing. That’s what he brings. But then, on the pitch he’ll help fellas with kicking, the free-takers, he’d have advice for the goalkeepers on what forwards don’t like. He’ll have advice for the backs on what forwards don’t like.

“You have to remember he’s stuck in school teams the whole time himself, he’s managed St Mary’s successfully, so he has a lot of experience and he brings that to the table. He’s a top man and he’s doing a great job.”

Kieran Donaghy described his prescribed course of Maurice treatment in the lead-up to Kerry’s championship opener with Clare. Evidently, not all the tools of the trade — nor the physical powers — have been packed away.

“Maurice Fitz worked on my kicking at the posts after we had finished a few sessions in the weeks leading up to the game. That gave me good confidence. There was an evening where Bryan Sheehan was recovering from injury and was kicking the ball in to me. Maurice came up to put manners on me. I didn’t win a ball for a while, he was hanging out of me, pulling me, bumping me as I took off for a ball. I was getting half thick but he is a selector, so I couldn’t do much.”

Fitzgerald’s turn to smile.

“Did he say that? I think anybody would know if you were bumping into Kieran Donaghy at any stage in your life that you would know all about it. Just a bit of banter on the field.

“One of the things that was really exciting from Kerry’s point of view was that Kieran was able to give the commitment coming back after his period in basketball. He was very healthy and in a great place. You only have to look at him in his clothes and you can see that he’s ripped and he’s in great form and moving well.

“As a group, we’re delighted to have his presence back and his talent which is fairly obvious to all and sundry and to be so healthy in himself which is so important. He’s coming back in a fantastic place and he’s enjoying a very fine run.”

If Donaghy has contributed handsomely to the terror Kerry have inflicted on Mayo in recent decades, it was Fitzgerald who had to twist this relationship back the way it usually faced, not to mind release Kerry from their own demons.

It’s 20 years since the high-spec tools of his trade stripped down Mayo in an All-Ireland final to end Kerry’s 11-year fast, after John Maughan’s boys had taken a first Kingdom scalp in 45 years the season before.

So those mind game enthusiasts, who parse every move Kerry make, clucked sagely when this old predator was released into the wild this week. But Fitzgerald is not for rattling up old ghosts.

“Really for me it’s all about the present group. I don’t dwell, as you probably know. I don’t go back on much if anything at all. So when you talk about Mayo all I am interested in is the Mayo that we are togging out against and the lads that we are going to battle with, as it were.

“Anything from the past, they’re just happy memories. It’s boxed away. It was a good time to be involved, a good time in my life. Now it’s all about two teams that are really wanting the same thing. They’ve had an exceptional journey coming into this. To go through what they have gone through in the back door has been quite an incredible achievement, very courageous, very determined. That can bring a great strength within a group.”

He’ll prise the box just ajar to assess how the game has changed in the two decades since he kicked those nine September points.

“I really admire the commitment and effort that the players are making, they are very selfless. I suppose sometimes you do forget when you become a supporter and enjoy that role, you look down on any given Sunday and you’re giving out about this, that and the other. You do forget the
absolute commitment that they give. It’s a lifestyle. It’s not two or three days a week training, it’s a total commitment to their trade.

“Growing up, when you’re in that circle, you don’t feel it’s a sacrifice even though people use that word. If you love it the way these guys do, it becomes a very natural lifestyle choice. I take my hat off to the commitment and the effort to the way they present themselves to be ready for the fray. It’s one of the things that I am glad that I have tapped back into. You get a full appreciation of what you put in.

“We would have had a lot more down time 20 years ago and you would do your own thing a bit more and you wouldn’t be on the road as much.”

He remains in thrall to the essential skills. He might be sharpening others’ rather than his own, but most of the tools haven’t changed.

“The fundamentals haven’t. Okay there is an absolute physicality that has been brought in and the players are more powerful, they are stronger, their endurance...

“It goes hand in hand that the level of skills and the skills that they are working on is the same as ever and more and they are very precise in what they do.”

The style of his precision had thesauruses spitting out words like languid, laid-back,
insouciant. But if you were bumping into Maurice Fitz at any stage in your life, you would know all about it too. Tonight he uses the word ‘obsession’ five or six times.

“All that matters now is that in any era you get one opportunity and we’re 70 minutes away from getting that opportunity. That’s the only obsession.”

It takes a lot of effort to look effortless. So there’s no giving thanks he was king before two strong lungs became almost as important to a toolset as two good feet.

“I’d love to be playing at any time. I’d love to be playing now. Anybody who gets that opportunity is just so lucky and privileged that the lads are grasping that opportunity and that’s the one thing that stays the same. That’s it. Their absolute passion, their drive for their county and their want to get to the last Sunday in September.

“That hasn’t changed.”


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