The new face of Kerry football

Eamonn Fitzmaurice doesn’t do public rage. In fact, he’s impossibly and unfailingly polite.

When Tadhg Kennelly broke a squad embargo in 2009 to do a commercial gig, the new Kerry coach — then a selector — walked away from his wife and down to the seafront to vent his fury at the breach of squad collectiveness.

After defeats, he takes himself off and out of reach for a few days, preferring to tease out the failure in his own head before he confronts it with the world at large. He is unbending in his self-belief, not of himself, but of those he trusts.

Before the 2009 All-Ireland final against Cork, a friend said he’d call over to the team hotel if they won.

“Then you will see me,” dead-panned Fitzmaurice.

Calmness. Perspective. Self belief. Three characteristics he will need in abundance as he throws himself (at 35) headlong into one of the most demanding posts in GAA.

Though he is inexperienced in the role itself, he has served as selector to the shrewd Jack O’Connor for three summers, the latter relying on Fitzmaurice’s forensic attention todetail to the point where he told close associates the Finuge man was hisideal successor.

O’Connor’s decision to “pull pin”, as he says himself, a year earlier than anticipated, gave the handover a slightly hurried accent, but not to the point of instilling any doubt in Kerry chairman Patrick O’Sullivan — nor his board executive.

The only one who wasn’t sure Fitzmaurice was the right man in the right place at the right time was Fitzmaurice.

He told himself that it was too early for him, that he needed at leastanother season with the Kerry U21s. And with his mind made up one night, he tried to sleep easy. And the following night the same.

Each morning he got up uneasy and agitated. “Usually, when I make my mind up on something, that’s it, I put it to bed and sleep easy. That didn’t work this time though,” he admitted.

Instead he began to think of how few get offered THE JOB in Kerry. And the danger that just because it was on the table now, didn’t mean it would be on the table in two or three years. He has no doubt that the potential to be competitive in the championship is still available. Besides, will the landscape be better in a few years’ time? Chances are it will be far worse when the likes of Galvin, the Ó Sé brothers, Declan O’Sullivan and Colm Cooper have had their fill.

As he mulled over the possible configuration of his management team, Fitzmaurice’s appetite grew by the minute.

He spent his first day as Kerry coach fitting in media duties between classes and meetings at Pobalscoil Corca Dhuibhne. Notwithstanding his time as a must-read columnist with this newspaper, Fitzmaurice is acutely aware of the importance of PR and communications and Kerry’s stock in the GAA.

One of the things that shocked him when he took over the Kerry U21s was the apparent nonchalance of some players towards wearing the green and gold. Some were given a short but pointed history lesson.

He is not so arrogant or stupid to presume that Kerry can still inflict their way on the opposition. Indeed he is a voracious student of teams and wore out the video player again this summer putting together segments for many Kerry players on their upcoming rivals.

“Fitzy did some super video analysis with us last night,” was a commonresponse from players to progress in training.

The difficulty now is that Fitzmaurice will probably have todelegate a lot of that work to his fellow coaches and selectors.

His backroom team will not be formally announced until the October meeting of the county board, but if he is true to form, he will be looking to throw something new at a group of players that have seen it, done it, and wear the tee-shirt saying as much. If he convinces Diarmuid Murphy to stay on board and encourages Seamus Moynihan to join, it would make sense to opt for someone with a bit more age and experience like Mikey Sheehy.

He was back in Croke Park Sunday getting another look at the Jim McGuinness revolution and possibly comforting himself that, as bad as Kerry were in the quarter-final, they were still not far away.

Familiarity with the players should not be a problem. The new coach has been described as ruthless, which he may be, but stoic and sure-footed are more apt. Either way, he can’t shy away from difficult conversations and if he is to go for freshness, there will be some tough sit-downs.

Paul Galvin, whose sister Tina is Fitzmaurice’s wife, should remain a key part of the set-up so long as he maintains his discipline and remains a leader — not a liability.

No-one has more football and human respect for the new coach than Galvin, and so few will benefit more from the regime change than the former Footballer of the Year, who may have quit inter-county football in other circumstances.

Of course, he is mindful that it could go pear-shaped. If Fitzmaurice doesn’t get it right in Year One — and that means, making a semi-final at least — pressure will increase in 2014.

By the end of his term, Fitzmaurice could be like his North Kerry colleague, Ogie Moran, the right man in charge of Kerry at the wrong time.

He is a devout fan of the foot in football, and Fitzmaurice’s hours spent watching Donegal in the flesh or on video this year has not altered his view that Kerry can still succeed via the boot. Nonetheless, he will bring the best scientific methods to bear in terms of presenting his Kerry team at their physical peak next season. The progress made in both areas with an average group of U21s this year is encouraging.

Charlie Nelligan was on local radio in Kerry yesterday urging football folk in the county to be patient and none too demanding. In that sense, the timing of Fitzmaurice’s ascension is ideal.

His honeymoon period will take him through to next summer and it may be this time next year before we get a real sense of progress or otherwise.

But once Fitzmaurice returns to Croke Park, expectations will surge in the south-west. Even if there are new, vigorous challenges coming from north, west and east. Not to mind rejuvenated neighbours.


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