Pat Spillane on why Eamonn Fitzmaurice should stay on as Kerry boss

Eamonn Fitzmaurice
Eamonn Fitzmaurice

We don’t do moral victories in Kerry.

We hate losing – particularly to the Dubs – and boy how we detest being patronised and invited to celebrate our involvement in one of the greatest games of all time.

As an aside, I find it amusing that three of the games rated as being among the best of all time – the 1977, 2013 and 2016 All-Ireland semi-finals – all ended in defeat for Kerry against the Dubs. 

Kerry have produced many breathtaking performances over the decades, but I’ve never heard any of those contests rated as a game for the ages.

Maybe it’s my siege mentality, but it’s as if the first criterion the Dublin -based media require before labelling a game as ‘great’ is that Dublin win it. I’m only joking – I think!

In fairness, last Sunday’s encounter will rank as one of the greatest championship games of all times. This was the way football should be played. 

There was no fear of losing, no paralysis by analysis, no reliance on defensive systems or keeping possession at all costs. The message was that there’s nothing wrong with Gaelic football once teams have the right attitude.

Alex Ferguson used to say that players, not tactics, win matches. How right he was.  

After a lifetime of watching Kerry win matches and titles I should have been down after the game, but strangely I wasn’t. 

Why? Well, firstly it was such a brilliant game I could hardly moan.  Neither could I be critical of Kerry’s performance even if they lost.

I was spitting fire for a long time after Kerry’s performance in last year’s All-Ireland final because they had allowed themselves to be bullied. 

We played the game on Dublin’s terms, we played with fear and a lack of belief and most definitely didn’t bring the traditional Kerry swagger.

Worse still, we adopted a safety-first, defensive game plan. In doing so we abandoned everything that makes  Kerry football great. 

If we are to lose big matches I want to see us going down the Kerry way by playing traditional, attacking football and at least trying to win the game.

So this defeat wasn’t a bitter pill to swallow – as Jack Charlton used to say, “we gave it a lash”.

Every Kerry fan knew that the elder statesmen were in Last Chance Saloon territory this summer. We were delighted to acknowledge their commitment and thank some of the greatest players to ever don the green and gold for their contribution.

Marc Ó Sé, Aidan O’Mahony and Kieran Donaghy will almost certainly retire. The Gooch and maybe Bryan Sheehan and Donnchadh Walsh could go as well. They bow out owing Kerry football nothing. They were brilliant role models for the next generation.

Before reflecting in detail on the game, I want to make two statements.

First, Dublin deserved to win – they were the better team over the 70 minutes. Secondly, referee David Gough did get a number of close calls wrong – on both sides.

Certainly Kevin McManamon’s late charge on Peter Crowley deep in injury-time merited a Kerry free. Overall, the referee had a good day, but did some of his decisions cost Kerry the game? Absolutely not.

And that’s why I abhor the reaction of some Kerry fans who threw water bottles and match programmes at the referee after the game. This is not acceptable behaviour and it’s not the way the majority of our fans conduct themselves.

I will be analysing Dublin in greater detail over the next two weeks. For the moment it is sufficient to say that they’re on the brink of becoming one of the greatest teams of all time.

They’re the fittest GAA team I’ve ever seen. More importantly, such is their work rate, movement and pace that no team can defend against them for 70 minutes. They just keep coming in waves from the first to the last whistle.

More and more they remind me of the Kilkenny hurling team; they display such composure, belief and an ability to cope with whatever tactics their opponents throw at them. 

Most of all, it’s the legitimate aggression they bring which makes me think that I’m watching Kilkenny.

Jim Gavin talks about processes; Brian Cody alludes to intensity and work rate. This is what sets both teams apart from the chasing pack. 

Kerry lost nothing in defeat. They gave it their all and just came up short.

Even though it involved naming a dummy team, Eamonn Fitzmaurice got his team selection and his match-ups spot on.

Last week I detailed a 10-point plan Kerry had to implement if they were to dethrone Dublin. They ticked nine of the boxes.

Sadly, their failure to reduce the number of frees they conceded inside their own half proved critical, as eight of Dublin’s 22 points came from frees and, frustratingly, a high percentage of the frees should not have been conceded.

But let’s not start making excuses. Kerry had a five-point lead at the start of the second-half and they lost by two. That’s a seven-point turnaround.

Their kick-out strategy didn’t work – they lost more than half their own restarts. 

Half-time came at the wrong time for them as they were in the driving seat at the time. However, they undid all the work they had done in the closing 10 minutes of the first-half in the 10 minutes after the break.

They went defensive and stopped kicking the diagonal ball into the full-forward line. The loss through injury of Darran O’Sullivan and Donaghy didn’t help either. 

Only managing to score five points from play in the second-half – the first coming in the 53rd minute – says it all.

Kerry struggled in the third quarter. Their only return from 10 attacks was a pointed free, while they coughed up the ball on seven occasions.

As I predicted they would in this column last Sunday, Dublin won the game in the last 10 minutes, when their superior pace, youth and bench left its mark. Kerry had eight thirtysomething players on duty and had two 36-year-olds on the field when the final whistle sounded.

There was too much football mileage in their legs to cope with the fresh players Dublin sprung off the bench.  Dublin’s last eight shots yielded seven points, while Kerry managed just one.

This has been a recurring theme in the four key matches between Dublin and Kerry since Fitzmaurice and Gavin took charge.

In the 2013 All-Ireland semi-final, the 2015 final, this year’s league final and last Sunday’s encounter, Dublin outscored Kerry 4-15 to 0-5 in the last 10 minutes!

The message from the Kingdom this morning is that while we’re down, we’re not out. Indeed, the future is very bright.

There is a conveyor belt of talent coming through. In two weeks’ time the minors will be bidding for a hat-trick of All-Ireland titles. The junior team – which is essentially an U-23 development squad – won an All-Ireland this year. 

With up to six players likely to leave the squad there is a rebuilding job to be done. This should have started after last year’s final, but such was the nature of that loss to

Dublin that the older players decided to give it one last hurrah.

In retrospect it was a mistake. The hammering Dublin inflicted on Kerry in the league final was a reality check and it forced a rethink, but it was too late to save this season.

The burning topic of debate among Kerry fans this week is whether the management team, whose term has now ended, will stay on.

On the negative side, one victory in eight clashes against Dublin since 2013 makes grim reading for Fitzmaurice.

Kerry fans will also question two of his tactical decisions at key moments in the last two championship games against Dublin.

His decision to replace top scorer Paul Geaney with Marc ó Sé late on a week ago was puzzling, to say the least, as was springing Paul Galvin off the bench in last year’s final.

Overall, though, I believe that not alone should Fitzmaurice and his team be retained – they should be given a new three-year term by the Kerry County Board.

They have lost just three championship games – all to Dublin – in the last four seasons, but the Sky Blues haven’t pulled away from them.

Come next season the majority of the squad’s elder statesmen will be gone. This will allow Fitzmaurice an opportunity to put his own stamp on the team. 

He deserves this chance and the Kerry County Board ought to do everything they can to make it happen.