Wexford’s Conor McDonald has branded some of the recent criticism of manager Davy Fitzgerald as “childish” and “hurtful”, writes Brendan O'Brien.
Fitzgerald is serving an eight-week ban from all official GAA activities after encroaching onto the field of play and squaring up to two Tipperary players during Wexford’s league semi-final loss to the All-Ireland champions last month.
Newstalk pundit and former Offaly hurler Daithi Regan was especially scathing of the Clare man’s transgression in the aftermath, labelling Fitzgerald imbecilic, self- indulgent, and childish while arguing that he had let the county down.
“That’s silly, really,” said McDonald at the mention of the word ‘imbecilic’. “For a man showing his passion... to use words like that about him is fairly childish, if you ask me. In ways, it is a little bit hurtful as well to the players, of course.
“He’s one of us now and he would consider us as his family. We’re a tightknit group and we have to be for this situation itself and it’s only making us stronger. But yeah, I think it’s very harsh and silly to go to that extent.”
McDonald had forgotten about the incident until he read the headlines in the media and he played down any ill-effect Fitzgerald’s absence from training might have had as the team prepares for a Leinster quarter-final against either Meath or Westmeath and a likely semi with Kilkenny.
The majority of the Wexford panel are in Portugal for a training camp this week — McDonald plans on joining them — and the Naomh Eanna forward said Fitzgerald has been “overseeing everything from a distance” having apportioned specific roles to his backroom team.
“There’s not a whole lot to tell,” said the Wexford attacker when asked how the ban had altered their work on the ground. “Davy has got his ban and, to be fair to him, if it was any other manager I don’t think they’d have been able to deal with it as well as he has.
“His organisational skills just clicked up another gear and it hasn’t affected the training schedule at all. We do have a serious backroom team as well with him and, with him not appealing it, it was a bit of a statement that those lads can step up as well.”
Fitzgerald was charged under rule 7.2 (c) IIa, which covers any physical interference with an opposition player or team official. The ban will keep him from the sideline and prevent him from partaking in any coaching duties or attending official county functions. But he has been able to continue communicating with his players by phone.
“The Whatsapp group is flying,” said McDonald, who believes the criticisms of late will be water off a duck’s back for the two-time All-Ireland winning goalkeeper.
Fitzgerald has had a transformative effect on Wexford in his first season.
McDonald spoke of the confidence he has been able to inject into his players as individuals who have, he says, the licence to express themselves. The Clare native’s straight-up honesty has been another feature of his management and one in keeping with the culture that already existed in the squad.
“Nearly every time he speaks you get something new and that’s really refreshing. At the start of the year he would nearly just tell you how it is. That’s one thing the players have as well, that this year is completely so honest and that’s just how it is.
“He tells you what you’re good at and what you’re bad at. Players tell each other what they think you could do better. I could go meet a player and say ‘you know what, I don’t think you’re really excelling in this part of your game’ and it’s all for the betterment of Wexford and ourselves as a group.”
They’re a long way from the finished article. Fitzgerald has said as much time and again this past five months even as the wins were being racked up. The concession of five goals to Tipp is evidence that the sweeper system still needs fine-tuning, but the positive vibes are migrating from spring to summer.
“I’d say we’re still learning,” said McDonald. “The sweeper isn’t the only thing we had to learn either but I would say that it is more organised than it has been, even from the start of the year. It was always going to take a bit of time, a new manager with new ideas.”