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Dublin: 1 °C Sunday 18 March, 2018

'I’m poles apart from that person' - 20 years on, Maurice Fitz returns to face Mayo again

A Kerry player in 1997, the Kingdom great is back as a selector.

LET’S DISPENSE WITH the trip down memory lane first.

MauriceFitz Maurice Fitzgerald is back at the heart of Kerry football. Source: INPHO

Maurice Fitzgerald has no interest in doing so but two decades on, the prospect of another Mayo challenge in Croke Park hurtling towards him, makes that topic impossible to resist.

Selector in 2017 with Kerry for a semi-final with Mayo, star forward in 1997 with Kerry for a final with Mayo.

Each of his nine points contributed towards puncturing Mayo’s Sam Maguire dream twenty years ago.

Modesty precludes him from recalling those scores in vivid detail.

“Really for me it’s all about the present group. I don’t dwell, as you all 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.

“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.”

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The call came as a bolt from the blue last winter. When Diarmuid Murphy stepped away, there was a void to be filled on the Kerry sideline.

In the spring of 2016 Fitzgerald had guided his native St Mary’s to the intermediate summit of All-Ireland club football. That work was an alert but Fitzmaurice had spent enough time in the trenches with Fitzgerald as a player.

Maurice Fitzgerald and Tom Connolly shake hands after the game Maurice Fitzgerald after the 2016 All-Ireland intermediate club final. Source: Tommy Grealy/INPHO

“I needed someone who could fill big boots and Maurice was the man,” says Fitzmaurice.

“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.”

Shane Enright, Michael Geaney and manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice with his players after this summer's Munster final. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“When Eamonn gave me a call, when you don’t need to think about a scenario, I was just delighted, surprised and thrilled,” reflects Fitzgerald.

“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 to good times in my past. I’m enjoying it, very much excited.”

That enthusiasm spills into the week of a game. The days counting down to a match were a chore for Fitzgerald the player.

Now that trip from Caherciveen to Killarney is something Fitzgerald the selector relishes.

“I’m poles apart from that person. Not saying I would have been right or wrong then, but if you know the physical geography of the county, I’m an hour away from Killarney.

“A lot of it would be just trying to have yourself ready for the energy of what is a huge weekend.

“So 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.”

All Ireland Football Final 28/9/1997 Maurice Fitzgerald is congratualted after the match Maurice Fitzgerald after the 1997 All-Ireland football final. Source: © INPHO/Patrick Bolger

Two All-Ireland senior medals, three All-Star awards and every leading individual honour in 1997, form the backbone of Fitzgerald’s glittering playing CV.

Yet despite all those football experiences he stockpiled, Fitzgerald deflects any suggestions he has expertise.

“Sure look it, from where I am at, 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’ve always enjoyed it as a spectator. I’ve always been intrigued by the different things.

“I try to watch it, you’re wondering what’s happening, if there’s any kind of a comment or contribution you can make.”

Maurice Fitzgerald is congratulated by Jack O'Connor after the game Maurice Fitzgerald is congratulated by Jack O'Connor after the 2004 Kerry county senior final. Source: INPHO

The new chapter in Fitzgerald’s Kerry career has afforded him the chance to renew a football relationship with old acquaintances.

“I played with Eamonn so I would have known him very very well. He would have been a very nice fellow to play with and he would have been quite the opposite to play against.

“We go back a long way because we played together with Kerry so when Eamonn 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, and always was the case.

“I used to meet him on and off but to actually be in their company again has been kind of very exciting and something I hadn’t considered. That was one of the big bonuses for me.”

Liam Hassett Kerry selector Liam Hassett Source: James Crombie/INPHO

He observes the players now and notes the unstinting commitment that is required.

“The fundamentals of the game haven’t changed. I really admire the commitment and effort that the players are making, they’re very selfless.

“It’s much more intensive now as a group and I think it probably eats into their personal time a bit more.

“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 but the total commitment the group, there is a bit more time involved.”

One last shot then at unearthing a retrospective view on that 1997 battle.

Maurice Fitzgerald (Kerry)/Pat Holmes (Mayo) 28/9/1997 Maurice Fitzgerald in action in the 1997 All-Ireland final against Mayo. Source: © INPHO/Lorraine O'Sullivan

Mayo’s pursuit of that coveted All-Ireland title has dragged on, did Fitzgerald ever wonder himself before the final two decades ago whether he would get his Celtic Cross?

“I would always have felt that we are so blessed in this county that there is so much talent coming through in any era that you just felt it would happen.

“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.”

He’s not in the mood for revisiting past glories then.

Fitzgerald has Sunday trained in his sights.

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And the 2017 August All-Star football awards go to…

Quiz: Can you match these Kerry and Mayo footballers with their clubs?

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