The man who prepared the Limerick rocket for moon landing

Shane Fitzgibbon

THE KIERAN SHANNON INTERVIEW: An hour after Declan Hannon lifted the Liam MacCarthy Cup last August, Éamonn Cregan phoned another Adare man whose leadership wasn’t so visible. ‘Congratulations. That’s what you started.’ Shane Fitzgibbon may have been a frustrated if well-heralded player, but that would inform him in becoming a brilliant, if unsung coach.

FUTURE HISTORY

MAY 2011 and Shane Fitzgibbon assumes a seat in the lobby of a Limerick hotel to help document the past, but, as it turns out, remarkably foresee the future.

A young researcher from UL called Regina Fitzpatrick is carrying out a GAA Oral History Project and for its purposes asks one of its former county players about his background and career.

So the subject — “Born April 1963” — speaks about how his father before him played hurling for Adare too but was suspended for a few years during The Ban for playing a bit of soccer on top of it. 

How he himself then was coached by a visionary but fearsome Christian Brother called Br Dwain who in the winter would coach badminton to help develop their hurling, the end result being Fitzgibbon blossoming into an underage international in his second sport as well as the first player from Adare to play senior championship for Limerick.

Towards the end then, Fitzpatrick asks Fitzgibbon about his own coaching and his involvement with the recently launched Lifting The Treaty strategy and its fledgling development squads that he’s helping to co-ordinate. Limerick is just after its annus horribilis when Justin McCarthy refused to coach certain players and other players then refused to be coached by him. Does he still have hope for Limerick hurling?

History now proves Fitzgibbon’s answer is that not just of an optimist but that of a clairvoyant. Though his tone is soft, the belief is strong.

“Oh, I have great hopes for hurling in Limerick. I think we’re improving. I think we’re doing the right things. I think there are great people involved. I think we have a plan. There’s a vision for the future. I think if we continue to work hard, we will be successful, because there’s a recipe there and there’s enough people trying to follow it.

“We are playing catch-up. We are not Kilkenny. We won’t be contesting All-Irelands every year. We’re not as big as Cork. We don’t have the playing population of Tipperary. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be successful.

“My expectation would be that at underage we will be consistently competing for Munster and All-Ireland honours. We won’t win them every year but we should at least be seen on the winning rostrum once a decade. And at senior level we should be capable of winning an All-Ireland or two every decade.”

But is it not an impediment that more people than not in the county have never seen Limerick win the Liam MacCarthy?

Fitzgibbon acknowledges the validity of the question, especially coming from someone whose discipline understands the weight as well as power of history. But already he’s seeing and nurturing a player who views such an obstacle as just another challenge to hurdle.

Funny enough, adults carry baggage but kids don’t. If you’re north of 22 or 23, you might be carrying that baggage but if you’re 17 or 18, history is of no consequence to you. I think by going after the younger group and by improving the way they’re prepared, that instils (the necessary) confidence. There is a bridge to cross but we’ve started. And I think this generation can become successful.

PREPARING THE ROCKET

Eight years on to the very week and Shane Fitzgibbon enters the lobby of another Limerick hotel for about the only sit-down interview he’s granted or even been requested since contributing to that oral history project.

The face isn’t one that we instantly recognise — “Shane?” “Kieran?” — and for most people who weren’t around when he played, the name wouldn’t register either.

Even in all the tributes paid to the unsung heroes of this Limerick revolution, Fitzgibbon’s name has gone untraced in the volumes of odes and articles last August’s nirvana inspired and spawned. He wasn’t an identifiable head of an academy like Joe McKenna; he was the guy before Joe, and, as he’ll quickly point out, before Joe brought it on and made it better.

But that’s perfectly fine with him, just as it always was. In fact, Dr Áine MacNamara will contend that was one of his greatest strengths as well as charms.

MacNamara is now one of the UK’s leading researchers and consultants in talent development, operating out of the University of Central Lancashire, working with multiple international athletes, teams and national governing bodies. But one of her fondest collaborations remains one of her first, when as a young sport psychology lecturer in UL almost a dozen years ago, she was asked over a coffee in the Sports Bar by a strikingly modest coach if she could be a critical friend to him and this programme for Limerick underage hurling that he and a few colleagues were trying to get off the ground.

In MacNamara’s line of work, they talk about the power and value of the egoless talent coach. Someone who doesn’t necessarily want to go to the moon but just wants to prepare the rocket so that someday it will head and land there. Fitzgibbon, she found, was that rare, precious coach.

“The thing that really struck me about Shane and that group of guys was that they were in it for Limerick and not for themselves,” she says. “It wasn’t about Shane Fitzgibbon driving the future of Limerick hurling, it was about Limerick hurling.

“I talk a lot about what we call Delayed Gratification. If you’re in the space of developing talent, what you may be doing now might not reflect well in the moment but will reflect well on Limerick hurling in six, seven years’ time.

Myself and my partner happened to bump into Shane on the way into Croke Park last August and someone in our company said, ‘God, it’s such a shame no one knows the work you guys did with Shane Dowling and all those minor and underage teams.’ And Shane looked at him. ‘It isn’t about that. It isn’t about us. It’s never been about us. Them going up and lifting the Liam MacCarthy, that’s what counts.

A green-and-white flag planted on the moon.

THE FRUSTRATED CORNER-FORWARD

If Shane Fitzgibbon was part of the Limerick solution, then, by his own admission, he had also been part of the problem. As a coach and talent developer, the first thing he’d insist upon was hard work, work hard. 

As a player, he didn’t. His first year on the senior panel, he blitzed Clare for 1-3 in the national league final. For the next nine years he never again had to worry or even listen whether he was in the starting 15 or not.

“I remember very early on in my career, Paddy Kelly saying to me, ‘You’re on the team now and it’s going to be harder to get off it than it was to get on it.’ At the time I laughed but he was right. I never knew what it was like to lose my place and fight to get it back. And I would have been better off if I had known. Instead I took it all for granted.

“And looking back, I didn’t always deserve to be on the team. I wasn’t always playing well enough. I wasn’t always fit enough. Sure in 1991 I went for my honeymoon in April. For three weeks! A few weeks after I got back we were playing Tipp in the championship — and I was picked to start! Do you think John Kiely would have picked me to start?! Only I didn’t start. I pulled a hamstring and failed the fitness test. Sure I wasn’t right! I wasn’t fit!”

On mature recollection though, it wasn’t just that he could have helped himself and Limerick that bit more. With a bit more wit and cunning, Limerick could have helped him as well as themselves a bit more.

Just as Mickey Harte has attributed much of his coaching to having been a frustrated player, or more particularly, a frustrated corner-forward. You were a scavenger, living off scraps from ball meant for the big man at the edge of the square, never for you. While Babs was preaching to Tipp the importance of always having a message on any ball, there was no such direct mail or delivery intended for Fitzgibbon.

“When I look back on almost all the Limerick teams I played on, there was no plan. As a corner-forward, I might just hope the guy might mishit it so it could land in front of me. Any ball you got was almost happened by accident.

“I remember in the early ’90s, Gerald McCarthy came up to coach Adare for a year. I was playing with Limerick at the time but he was another level up altogether to anything I had been exposed to. Every night he concentrated on the skills. We got to the county final but Patrickswell beat us again. We were having a few drinks afterwards and I asked Gerald, ‘Now that you’ve coached in Limerick for a year, what have you found is the difference between hurling here and in Cork?’

He sat back for a while, then said, ‘In Limerick, it’s 80% brawn and 20% brain. In Cork it’s 80% brain and 20% brawn.’

“That resonated with me. And it was the starting point for me. That something had to change here, both in my club and in my county if we were going to be successful.

“Because if you look at the videos of those old games, the effort Limerick would expend in the first 20 minutes would be phenomenal. But that effort wasn’t sustainable. Our hurling would break down. Ball in hand, we weren’t able to execute as good as the Corks and Tipps. We were producing inter-county players but not enough of them because there wasn’t enough attention given to skill development.

“It was the same with the club. We had players who independently would try their hearts out. Patrickswell had a team all on the same page trying their hearts out. Phil Bennis had them playing to a plan.”

At the end of the 1993 season, Fitzgibbon finished up playing with Limerick, disillusioned. Bennis had coached the county the previous two seasons, guiding them to a fantastic league final win in ’92 over reigning All-Ireland champions Tipperary, but after Ennis witnessed both an ambush and the birth of a fine young new Clare team, he was dispensed with by the county board. Fitzgibbon duly followed him out the gate.

Tipperary’s Paul Delaney battles for the ball with Limerick’s Shane Fitzgibbon in the NHL final in 1992. Picture: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho
Tipperary’s Paul Delaney battles for the ball with Limerick’s Shane Fitzgibbon in the NHL final in 1992. Picture: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho

The new management led by Tom Ryan tried to coax him back but Fitzgibbon declined. “And I’ve regretted it almost every day of my life since. It was a terrible mistake. Because I felt I could have made some contribution in ’94 that could maybe have helped the lads get over the line.”

Truth be told, he was missing it — struggling — long before that September. The lads. The banter. Even the slog. So weeks after Offaly broke a county’s heart, Fitzgibbon began “training like a dog on my own” and right through that winter, in the hope and expectation Ryan would call again.

 But the phone never rang and Fitzgibbon never thought to put in a call himself.

“Mike Galligan would be a great friend of mine and he’s often said to me, ‘Why didn’t you just ask him?!’ And I’ve often wondered the same myself. But back then it never crossed my mind.”

To fill the void he’d throw himself into coaching.

He’d dabbled in it before. In 1990, the year before he married Elaine — a Dub he met on the international badminton scene — he’d taken the club minors. In the county final they faced a Na Piarsaigh team that had won the previous county final by 20 points. 

No one gave Adare a chance but Fitzgibbon gave them a plan and thanks to it and a last-minute goal, the club won its first ever county title in that grade.

That though had been a short-term project. His next one wasn’t. Fuelled by McCarthy’s 80-20 observation, the club’s continued wait for a first senior title and the inability to field an U10 team, Fitzgibbon notified his brother-in-law and the principal of the other primary school in the locality that for anyone interested, every Sunday morning he and his pal Ger Hickey would be coaching kids in the skills of the game.

Sunday Morning Hurling in Adare began in October, 1994, just a month after Fitzgibbon had helplessly watched his old Limerick teammates lose what’s now known as the Six Minute Final. And for seven years straight he’d keep showing up every Sunday to that school field, from 10am to 1pm, guiding up to 60 kids in the basics and seeing their little eyes light up upon lifting the ball for the first time. They’d throw skills competitions doubling up as Christmas parties. Who could strike the ball over the bar from 30 yards out? Who could take a lineball?

By the end of the party, every kid would have won a prize. By the end of that seventh year, Adare were county champions for the first time.

By the end of the noughties, they had been county champions five times, with nine of the 2007 team having come through the Sunday Morning Hurling academy. In 2008 they had been U12, U14, U16 as well as senior champions.

Unlike the winter of 1994, someone wasn’t leaving it to chance that Shane Fitzgibbon’s contribution to Limerick be utilised. Adare club chairman Tom Keane on his own initiative rang the chairman of Limerick Bord na nÓg.

Talk to Shane. The Adare template could become one for Limerick.

LIFTING THE TREATY – NOT TAKING THE PISS

Fast forward a few years later and Shane Fitzgibbon is taking an underage Limerick squad for a Saturday morning session on one of the 3G pitches on the north campus of UL when he sees two players — who would go on to be 2018 All-Ireland senior winners — standing at the side of the pitch, urinating.

What does he do? What would you do? Ignore it and pass it off as something harmless and something they’ve probably seen or even done before back at their clubs?

Not when you’ve talked about and emphasised the importance of culture. There’s more to it than sweeping the sheds. It’s literally not taking the piss. Not around here.

“I called all the lads in and said to the two boys, ‘Lads, would you stand up and piss in your sitting room?’ Of course the boys were all sheepish. ‘No.’

“So I said, ‘Well, why would you come into this facility and disrespect it?’ Now apologise to the group.’ So they did. And then I said, ‘Okay. Now tog back in. You’re not training today.’

“Then I said to the rest of the lads, ‘This has to be a lesson to you. This is Limerick hurling. In Limerick hurling everything we do is about respect. We respect the facilities, we respect our teammates, we respect everything to do with Limerick hurling. The minute you get that jersey, you are elevated to another level, so we must behave accordingly. At a higher level’.”

It was one of the first things that cropped up when he met with Carmel Ryan and Tony Roche from Bord na nÓg back in 2008 in the car park of the pitch in Croagh, a small club between Adare and Rathkeale. They asked Fitzgibbon, who worked in the bank then but is an area manager with FBD now, to write up some kind of memo on Limerick underage hurling and how it should be restructured. Having read the works of the likes of John Wooden and having observed and met Brian Cody, he put hard work and honesty and respect as the foundation of his pyramid.

“I’d often go to see Kilkenny train in Nowlan Park. Henry Shefflin would be on the field by quarter-past-five. By half-five most of the team were out, bating balls across the field. By 20 to (six), they were all out. Then the local church bell rang for the Angelus and they all ran into Mick Dempsey. Bang. Six o’clock. Training’s starting. They’d all warmed up themselves.

“In Limerick guys would still be running out onto the field, pulling up the socks. Different culture, different mindset. So we had to change that. One of my great frustrations in Limerick was that for generations we were beating ourselves first before a Cork or Tipp would try to.

“Cody took an U16 team of ours one night and he made it patently clear there’s a right way of doing this and there’s a half-right, half-hearted way of doing this. And that’s his gift. You can’t go through the motions on his beat and convince yourself you’ve worked hard. He ensures as well as insists that you work hard.”

Limerick had had development squads before. Fitzgibbon had helped out with them before. The late great Tommy Quaid had established them in the mid-1990s and a core of the three-in-a-row U21 teams had undergone sessions out in UL and in Sexton Street. But within a few years they’d petered out. They needed something more sustainable.

“By 2006 guys were coming in to play with Limerick underage, getting the gear and leaving the squad. There was no value in being part of a Limerick squad. All they wanted was to have the gear to parade around town. So when we were starting out on this, I said, ‘We need to set up a structure so that it leaves something. You’re training differently, you’re treated differently. This must be something that is so bloody good, you’ll crave to be inside here.’”

There were county board figures who told him he wouldn’t be able to get enough good coaches and people involved. “I said, ‘Well, I’ll get them involved.’”

And he did.

The first one on board was Éamonn Cregan. (“I don’t think he gets enough respect in this county. He’s the only Limerick man to both play in and coach a winning All-Ireland team. How could you not learn from that man?”) That was the U14s coach sorted.

Fitzgibbon himself took the U15s. Ger Hegarty, the U16s, Anthony Carmody the U17s, with the likes of Brian Finn, Ger Cunningham, Frankie Carroll and Mike Galligan assisting them.

But there was an inherent danger in going with known names and friendly faces. They couldn’t coach the way they themselves were coached. The coaches would need to be coached, by the likes of experts like Áine MacNamara. To watch and improve their language. And to see the bigger picture.

I remember in 2012 she got all of the managers from U14 right up to senior into the one room. It was the first time that had ever happened in Limerick. I was the minor manager. John Kiely was the intermediate manager. John Allen was the senior manager. And she started by asking, ‘Right, who’s here because they want to win?’

“Now I was lucky enough that I had been at a conference where Declan Kidney had asked the same thing. I’d put up my hand. ‘Yeah, sure, isn’t that what I’m here for? To win?’ But Kidney rightly pointed out, ‘If you’re coaching underage, your primary objective is to develop the player to help them reach their optimum ability.’

“So when Áine asked the question, my hand was the only one that stayed down. And she said, ‘John Allen is the only one who is right to have the hand up. As a senior manager, he is here to win. The rest of us are here to develop players so he can win.”

THE BIGGER PICTURE

They took some knocks and barbs for seeing the bigger picture. Players who in some circles might have been criticised for a poor game with the U16s were retained for U17s; a bad tournament didn’t mean they were now a bad player but rather a wiser one. 

When they initially brought in Andy Murphy as a S&C coach to the development squads, county board delegates rubbished and condemned it; what had that shite to do with putting the ball over the bar?

Murphy even got some heat from his teenage charges. “I remember the first couple of years, Andy wouldn’t allow them lift weights. Instead he had them just lifting brush handles. Of course, the lads were extremely frustrated. But Andy used to say, ‘Get their technique right first. We can load them as they get older. By the time they’re 23, 24, they’ll be extraordinary athletes.’ Jesus, was he right.”

Fitzgibbon was also there with a couple of Bord na nÓg officers and Éibhear O’Dea, the board’s then brilliant games development officer, when they went around selling the Lifting The Treaty paper they had written together. At the time the four divisional boards were four independent republics. 

You couldn’t call a development squad session for a Tuesday night because the South Board might have games on that night, or a Thursday because the West Board had games then. For a co-ordinated games programme and training schedule, the divisional boards would need to be scrapped, at least at senior level. O’Dea’s task was akin to asking turkeys to vote for Christmas.

Suffice to say, the turkeys didn’t like the idea. When they met with one particular divisional board, the delegates one by one stood up and announced that as a form of protest, they were walking out the door. “We were left sitting there with our presentation, yet to open our mouths!”

But eventually they were persuaded back into the room. And to listen. And in the end to vote for Christmas. Because it was what was best for Limerick.

There were lots of little wins like that. Some away from the field. Some on it. In 2011 Fitzgibbon stepped up to coach the county minors. The previous 10 years Limerick had won only two Munster championship games in the grade. They’d lost their previous nine games by an average of nine points. 

In the first round of that 2011 Munster championship, Limerick would win by eight points, their first win over Cork in over two decades. The next year they’d beat Cork again, this time in Cork. 

Both years their summer would finish with extra-time one-point away defeats to Waterford and Clare, no backdoor for them though there were for others. But it was real progress. A sign this system was working. The Treaty was rising.

Since then the only year Limerick haven’t reached the Munster or All-Ireland minor final was in 2017 when again it took extra-time down in Ennis to deny them. And though they didn’t win any of those All-Ireland finals, it was still in keeping with MacNamara’s raised hands exercise. As long as it was all helping towards the senior manager and the senor team winning.

“Did losing the 2014 All-Ireland minor final detract from Limerick? No, it helped. Because they had walked out on Croke Park on All-Ireland final day. So when it came to the senior final four years later, they had already experienced it.”

By then Fitzgibbon had stepped away from the academy, his work done, the baton handed over to safe hands. Around 2011 he was at a function, sitting beside Joe McKenna who enquired how the underage project was going. Fitzgibbon was straight up. They could do with more money. They were bringing in nutritionists to talk to the kids — and their parents — about diet and then feeding them with the wrong food after training. They needed buses and gyms to hire, more access to UL.

Joe said he’d talk to JP and Gerry McManus. After being stung and hurt by the humiliation of 2010, the brothers were more than happy to help. Only thing was, they needed an identifiable co-ordinator for it all, someone they knew. Joe, their clubman. Which suited Fitzgibbon fine. “It needed to be elevated further. And Joe was the man for that.”

Fitzgibbon hasn’t coached the past four years. After almost quarter-of-a-century of doing it non-stop, he could do with a break. Clubs have called him but every time he’s declined. 

I’ve only had two passions in coaching in my life — Adare and Limerick. That’s who I wanted to help, to develop players so we succeed at last. And they’re still the only two places I’ve coached. I’ve no interest going anywhere else and take a shilling for coaching somebody else.

Instead these days he’s just a supporter. Following his son John, who hurled senior with the county up for three years, and following Limerick. Sure what a time to be doing that.

He was in the premium section of the Cusack Stand last August. Was by himself, among Galway supporters, John having opted to go to the game with his girlfriend. So what was the moment like? What did Delayed Gratification feel like?

“The three words I kept saying were yes and yes and yes. Now what that meant I don’t know. And I actually think that I cried.”

The Galway supporters wouldn’t have had a clue who was in their midst just as many of the young lads who went up those steps would have been oblivious to the Lifting the Treaty document he and O’Dea and other hidden figures would have compiled. 

Even Declan Hannon, who lifted Liam MacCarthy and who Fitzgibbon would have coached from eight to 18 back in Adare, wouldn’t have had any idea of the circumstances that spawned Sunday Morning Hurling, or how O’Dea persuaded those divisional board delegates to hear him out. Sure how could he?! Why would he? What mattered was he’d planted the flag.

I remember Ger Hegarty saying when we started out with this, ‘We’ll start it but we won’t finish it. And if we’re doing it in expectation of any thanks, we’ll be disappointed.’ But about an hour after the match I’m driving down the road on my own when I get a call — Éamonn Cregan. ‘Congratulations. That’s what you started.’

That night he watched the game back in the early hours with Elaine, then the following night welcomed Declan Hannon and Liam MacCarthy back to Adare. That was a thrill and a joy, but the real joy has been in seeing how they’ve conducted themselves. 

“There’s a genuine great level of humility about that team. I was talking to Darragh O’Donovan, congratulated him on the All-Ireland. And he said, ‘Oh yeah, well that’s over now. We’ve to move on and just try to win the next one.’

“And they have all the components in place to win more. It could all have fallen off the cliff there for a while, because the environment they were leaving with the underage wasn’t quite there with the seniors, but the board and JP and Joe recognised that John Kiely was the man to bridge that.”

Declan Hannon lifts the Liam McCarthy cup.
Declan Hannon lifts the Liam McCarthy cup.

THRILL OF THE CHASE

And that’s been the real thrill. How the language championed by Caroline Currid chimes with what MacNamara was speaking a decade ago. Joe O’Connor cementing and building on the work Andy Murphy, now with Connacht rugby, did all those years ago. 

The skill and intelligence Paul Kinnerk has them playing at. At Cregan’s first U14 session he asked the players to lift a ball on the 21 and strike it over the bar. Most of them couldn’t do it. Now they can all do it. Virtually every U15 hurler in Limerick can do it.

“That was the thrill. Those little wins. Calling a selector, saying, ‘Did you hear Johnny in the dressing room tonight? The way he spoke to the group? He’s learning! They’re getting there!’”

He was just happy to prepare the rocket. He didn’t need or want to be there for the moon landing. But he saw it.

From a long way out, he could see the whole of the moon.

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