Maurice Fitzgerald: 'I'm poles apart from that person now'
By John Harrington
When Maurice Fitzgerald was in his pomp for Kerry, part of his mystique was we know so little about him away from the field.
He shunned the media completely, so offered up precious little insight into his personality.
All we really knew about Maurice was that he was a gifted footballer.
So gifted in fact that he seemed almost aloof out on the pitch, playing the game with a disdain for the mere mortals around him who had nothing like his effortless style on the ball.
It was easy to convince yourself he was as aloof off the pitch as he was on it because you knew no better, but it turns out you would have been very wrong.
Now a selector with the current Kerry team, Fitzgerald made an appearance at their pre-All-Ireland semi-final media day and it turns out he couldn’t be more personable.
He didn’t mind admitting though he’s a very different animal in his current role than he was when he played himself for the Kingdom. Back then he regarded anything that affected his focus on being the best footballer he could be as a waste of time.
“I’m poles apart from that person now,” said Fitzgerald. “Not saying I would have been right or wrong then.
“I guess, if you know 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.
“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.”
As soon as Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice announced he was bringing Fitzgerald into his management set-up it was one of those decisions that immediately felt like a stroke of genius.
In a county where bona-fide footballing legends hang from trees like low-hanging fruit, Fitzgerald still has a special cachet all of his own.
If ever you wanted to bring someone into the fold who would immediately have the respect of every player in the panel then it was the Cahersiveen man.
Fitzgerald was surprised when he got the call, but he’s relished being a part of a Kerry team set-up again since accepting the invitation.
"It came from nowhere really,” said Fitzgerald. “When Eamonn gave me a call, when you don't need to think about a scenario, 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 to good times in my past. I'm enjoying it, very much excited.
“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. Because there was a relationship and friendship that was there.
“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.
“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.
“I can assure you, they don’t hardly listen to me, there’s a lot of arguing goes on, but then we do what we’re told at the end of it all, as you know.”
Fitzgerald went out of his way over the course of his sit-down with the assembled media to underplay his role within the Kerry set-up, but others are more than willing to sing his praises for him.
One of the stories of Kerry’s summer so far has been the superlative form of Kieran Donaghy who at the age of 34 is looking better than ever.
In a recent interview Donaghy gave a lot of credit for to Fitzgerald for working on his kicking and, according to Donaghy, “put manners on me” by marking him while Bryan Sheehan kicked in a series of balls between them.
"Did he say that?” smiled Fitzgerald. “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 things that was really exciting from Kerry's point of view 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.
“A lot of times with older players and maybe trying to commit to the traffic that they go through and maybe it helped him to be part of the basketball mentally and physically he’s coming back in a fantastic place and he's enjoying a very fine run.”
Donaghy is close to unmarkable on his day because of his unique skill-set, and that’s what Fitzgerald still believes is the most crucial element of Gaelic Football – skill.
Gaelic Football had changed quite a bit since Fitzgerald won his first All-Ireland 20 years ago, but as far as he’s concerned that doesn’t mean pure skill has lost any of its importance.
"No it hasn't. The fundamentals of that haven't changed. Okay there is an absolute physicality that has been brought in and the players are more powerful, they are stronger, their endurance (is greater).
“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.”
It’s no surprise to hear that Fitzgerald puts a big premium on skill considering he was one of the most skilful players to ever play the game.
His performance in the 1997 All-Ireland Final was one of the greatest to ever grace the big occasion, as he kicked nine of Kerry’s winning total of 13 points from a variety of distances and off both feet.
Not that you’ll ever get the man himself waxing lyrically about that day.
It might be 20 years ago and Kerry might be playing the same opposition tomorrow, but Fitzgerald sees no point in wallowing in the past when he’s still trying to achieve in the present with the current team.
"Really for me it's all about the present group,” he said. “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 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. Obviously we wouldn't be taking any group for granted but it's funny how the top three or four were being mentioned from the outset at the start of the year have come to the fore.
“Somewhere in the back of your mind you always felt these were the teams you would have to get over to get to a final. It's going to make for a great occasion.”