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Making sure everything Fitz

Former Kingdom player and manager's take on Kerry's recent underage development

Making sure everything Fitz

Former Kingdom manager Éamonn Fitzmaurice remains on the pulse of Kerry GAA. He is now in his second year as Principal of Dingle's Pobalscoil Chorca Dhuibhne, who he managed to successive Hogan Cups. He handed senior debuts to 10 players who played minor against Derry. He spoke to Michael McMullan...

***

A 45 minute phone-call to Éamonn Fitzmaurice is time well-spent. The former Kerry boss is as interested as he is interesting. Calm. Concise. A listener and a talker in equal measure.

“No problem,” comes the response earlier in the week, to a request for a Kerry angle on an Ulster minor football feature. A peek into the county who know it better than most. A county where football chat ebbs around every corner and silverware is the only currency.

Derry went 13 years without an Ulster minor title. Gradually the wheels of change are beginning to turn. We start our conversation with Kerry's shortfalls.

From 1994 until the golden minor generation, Tom Markham didn't set foot inside Kerry. In the senior ranks, by the time Liam Hassett lifted Sam, it was 11 years since 1986 skipper Tommy Doyle carried it into his native Annascaul. A real famine in these parts.

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As the noughties began, Sam came to visit more often.

“There were senior All-Irelands being won and there were no minors being won, so it wasn't as much of a concern,” Fitzmaurice said of the his playing career at the start of the millennium.

'One or two' players coming off a minor production line added to an already strong senior core. It's above that where his concern rests. At U21 level, a grade where Fitzmaurice, the player, annexed two All-Ireland U21 medals and found the net in the 1998 win over Laois.

“It is a better yardstick for players in terms of making it to senior afterwards,” he adds, looking through the eyes of an ex-senior manager. A sole title since, in 2008, is a 'concern' for him.

The minor success was still great, he continues. Of the 14 players from the winning teams to have already tasted the senior championship, Fitzmaurice and Peter Keane dished out an equal number of debuts. Another eight have played in the league.

“I think it is a case by case basis,” Fitzmaurice replies, when prompted about the decision to bring them in.

Tom O'Sullivan, Barry O'Sullivan and Brian Ó Beaglaoich, from his Hogan Cup winning team, were first.

It is a delicate balancing act, he concedes. Finding the middle ground between giving players exposure and risking 'long-term prospects'.

“You have David Clifford and the Seánie O'Shea, they are the exception rather than the norm, who can come through and make an impact straight away,” he points out.

Diarmuid O'Connor played in the league once he stepped out of minor, just one game. Clifford is the only one from the five minor teams to become a fully-fledged Kerry senior in his first year out of underage.

“What you find with a lot of the other players, it does take a couple of seasons training with the senior squad,” he added.

Five seasons passed before Peter Keane made Shane Ryan the regular senior goalkeeper, reaching an All-Ireland final in 2019. Liam Kearney, minor captain in 2014, wasn't a regular until this season.

Another 2014 graduate, Miceál Burns, couldn't nail down a starting berth in the Dr Crokes team that defeated Slaughtneil in 2017, but is now a Kerry regular. Killian Spillane went the scenic route via the All-Ireland junior winning team.

“It has probably taken longer than they would've anticipated themselves to come through, but it is such a big jump up from minor to senior.”

Fitzmaurice chips in with Dublin's U21 success. The Metropolitans have won four titles in the last 10 years and lost last year's final.

“It takes a couple of seasons to come through and get ready to be at the level where you can really impact...to get used to the level of training, to be physically developed and mentally and emotionally be ready,” he believes.

***

Kerry's minor run had to start somewhere. It was a collective, according to Fitzmaurice. Development squads were a 'big factor', as well as having former Kerry players teaching in the locals schools. The local influence was massive.

Jack O'Connor is in Coláiste na Sceilge, Liam Hassett is Deputy Principal in St Michael's Listowel. Marc Ó Sé is in 'The Green' in Tralee.

“They are willing to give time to develop the school teams,” stresses Fitzmaurice, who also has help from an unlikely source in Chorca Dhuibhne.

Back in 2012, when Fitzmaurice was Kerry U21 manager, he knew the season was going to clash with the school's football season.

Tommy Griffin runs a pub in Dingle and the hours were never going to clash with school training. Plus, with many of the pupils coming from Tommy's native Dingle, the local club would benefit. He gladly agreed.

“That was a big factor (in winning the Hogan) and other schools have done that, where people were available and were happy to come in to help - it was completely voluntary. It was a 'coup and a half' for us, that someone like that would get involved.”

Donal Daly is another link. He played with Fitzmaurice on Kerry teams and operates a 'hands-off' approach in his role as Kerry GAA's Games Manager. He uses his experience from the county scene to oversee and trust people. Allowing them to paddle their own canoe, yet pull the strings together at the same time.

“That's been very effective and has worked well,” Éamonn comments, while also acknowledging the efforts of clubs.

“When you put it all together, then a lot of very good players have been developed over the last 15 or 20 years and it has certainly worked.”

Relationships are important. The school versus county minor loggerheads is a common scenario. But, with Jack O'Connor at the helm with the minors in 2014 and 2015, it was the perfect scenario.

Fitzmaurice had a 'good working relationship' from playing under Jack with Kerry, and later alongside him as a senior selector.

“We had an arrangement that the players spent most of the time with us (school), played most of the football with us and when the different Kerry (school) teams got knocked out along the way, they spent more time with the minors,” Fitzmaurice explains.

Mark O'Connor and Brian Ó Beaglaoich show off the Hogan Cup

Four days after the 2014 Hogan Cup final win over Maghera, Kerry played their first minor championship game, a comfortable win over Clare. O'Sullivan and Ó Beaglaoich lined out in defence. Current AFL player Mark O'Connor and Barry O'Sullivan were at midfield, Cathal Bambury was in attack, with Tomás Ó Sé (the dancer) coming off the bench.

“That was certainly a challenge for the minor management,” he concedes. “They had a bunch of players coming in, who they not seen a huge pile of.

“That became the model for other years when Peter Keane became involved (with the minors), Tommy (Griffin) was a selector with him so there was crossover and co-operation.”

St Brendan's Killarney followed up with two Hogan Cups.

In Fitzmaurice's opinion, there was no masterplan, yet it worked. Co-operation, communication and trust, the three words he rolls out. The minor management knew the players would be primed for action.

“It has definitely stood us (school and county) in good stead at colleges and minor level, thankfully it has worked out from our perspective.”

***

Trotting down the Cusack Stand corridor, with swapped jerseys slung over their shoulders, the Kerry minors' chiselled physique matched their silky skills of the previous hour.

When asked about the provision for strength and conditioning, it was done within the school with advice from the minor setup. Given the size of Kerry, pooling for central sessions wasn't feasible.

Again, Fitzmaurice drops in the word balance. Between conditioning for the minor season and playing in the schools' 'performance phase' and knock-out football.

“We got advice on what the minors were doing and what we could do in the school. In the winter time, we did gym work in school and took it into the minor season.”

Chorca Dhuibhne could avail of Tomás Ó Beaglaoich, a teacher in the school. Though not fully qualified (in S&C), he had knowledge, which he mixed with the advice offered by the county 'experts' and supervised the sessions.

“It is an awkward balancing act. We fed into it and tried to do it as best we could. In 'The Sem' (Killarney), they had Arthur Fitzgerald, who had been involved in the strength and conditioning with Kerry minor and U21 teams,” Fitzmaurice explains.

“I think, across the county, there is joined up thinking from the development squads right up to senior level as to what the best route way is for players and the best way to manage it.

“It is a challenge because of all the football players get to play, to balance that with physically developing them. It worked out quite well for us, in that a lot of it was a common-sense approach.”

***

One aspect of the school versus county situation across Ulster, was the clash of the MacRory and MacLarnon Cup players and U20 squads, due to the changing of grades to U17 and U20. It forced players into making choices and balancing spinning plates.

Fitzmaurice feels that it is always fair to give new ideas a chance and allow experimentation. Two years down the track, he can now make up his mind.

“I think the older age groups (U18 and U21), for me, worked better,” he answers, with the experience of the pathway both as a player and manager.

“The way it is now, you have a lot of lads doing their leaving cert, they are playing U20s and I'm not convinced it works.

“I think U21 is a better age-group, by the time they are finished they have a good grounding at the end of the development phase and getting ready to make their mark at senior level.”

Comparing the Derry and Kerry minor teams of 2015-2017, the scoring returns and a better balance to Jack O'Connor and Peter Keane's teams was the game-changer.

“Forwards don't tend to be a huge problem for us, they seem to be part of the identify of Kerry football,” states Fitzmaurice, while feeling the county needs more steeliness in their defence. A couple of 'hard as nails' defenders, he jokes.

Does he feel this attacking flair comes from the standard of club football, tradition down through the years or more expression being encouraged?

After a brief pause, he feels it's a combination of all three.

“The standard of coaching and club football is very good here. Every generation growing up, they are looking at Mikey Sheehy, then you are looking at Maurice Fitzgerald, then the Gooch and now Clifford. There is always someone to look at and to learn from, so that helps.”

The Kerry style of play, he continues, does allow forwards to express themselves more - particularly at younger age groups. All emphasised by the county board coaches around the schools.

Fitzmaurice feels the standard of coaching, all over Ireland, is of a high standard, with resources and clinics for coaches to improve.

“At the younger age groups there would be a huge emphasis on skill development, getting all the basic skills and going up through the grades, particularly as they get older, the players themselves get more competitive.

“It is not enough to have the skills, they need the grounding, the basics and fundamentals at a good level so they can start to aim at winning things. It becomes a bit more serious and tactical, but at the younger age groups there would be a lot of freedom.”

The conversation heads to a conclusion, with his impression of Derry. From playing, managing and being at the coalface of underage at school. Alex Doherty's performance in the Paul McGirr final gets a mention.

Growing up, do Kerry players have a better chance to flourish?

“The way football is played down here (in Kerry), they have a bit more time to develop their craft whereas if you are playing a very defensive-orientated culture it is hard.

“Playing against Derry myself, and watching Derry in the recent past they have played a bit more defensive.

“There was a time when Derry, if you think back 10 years ago or certainly when I was playing, they were very much a strong physical team and they were a kicking team. They had a great forwards, they had the Bradleys (Paddy and Eoin) and they were hard to contain.

“That is different over the past couple of years for sure, I would've thought in the past that the forward culture wouldn't have been that different between the two counties.”

The Kerry man 'would have often' likened the Derry style of play to Kerry. And people down here know their football.

The roll of honour reinforces that.

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