On the morning of September 29, 2013, Davy Fitzgerald sat alongside the Liam MacCarthy Cup and spoke for the first time about the fabled MiWadi and biscuits, all the while doing his best Frank Sinatra impression. He had done things his way.
He spoke of how his players made him feel so young. It was a very good year. He didn’t exactly say the best was yet to come but he had high hopes.
Lifting the cup at one stage as he answered a question about critics, Fitzgerald spoke as if to say “they can’t take this away from me”. Or words to that effect, anyway.
In an interview with this newspaper later that year, he actually gave the line: “What a feeling to get there with a team that’s not meant to get there.
"That’s the biggest thrill for me and it can never be taken away. If we don’t win another game in my next four years they can never take that away.”
The “they” he refers to are the snipers in the county that have him in their crosshairs for either being just Davy, playing a brand of hurling which they took issue with, or a combination of both.
Their guns are still trained on Fitzgerald but to fire at him now after the health difficulties he’s had these last 10 days just wouldn’t look good.
Now is a time for grace but the shots will come, have no doubt.
A third season without a Croke Park appearance won’t sit well in the county. It shouldn’t either. After two seasons of sliding, Clare may have moved up the rankings to fifth in the country but that’s not sufficient.
For all that Fitzgerald has brought to Clare, the Munster hoodoo continues. May’s capturing of a first Division 1 title in 38 years was an achievement but has since lost some of its gloss due to the defeats to Waterford and Galway.
Now that Clare are expected to challenge for All-Ireland honours — and in truth Fitzgerald did plenty to raise those hopes in what he achieved in 2013 — he hasn’t been able to return them to Croke Park.
It’s no good being dubbed a Croke Park team when you can’t get there.
Limitations in tactics have been exposed. Once again, Clare found themselves put in the shade by their opponents in the hooks-blocks-tackles department.
To use Fitzgerald’s fondness for answering his own questions, is there a possibility of paralysis by analysis? Maybe. Have Clare been guilty of being too rigid? They have.
But let us ask ourselves some further questions. Would anyone else have put their health and well-being on the line for the county as Fitzgerald did on Sunday? No.
Has any other Clare manager contributed as much time and effort, be it studying games or raising money, as Fitzgerald? No.
Is there a better hurling brain in Clare? If there is, please let us know.
Was Conor Ryan and Pat Donnelllan’s physical presence missed just as David McInerney’s class in Munster and a fully-fit Conor McGrath on Sunday? You betcha.
Speaking after Sunday’s defeat to Galway, Fitzgerald quoted Clare’s 2016 record of two defeats in 17 games (16, in fact).
A handsome return, it was nevertheless a misnomer considering those losses arguably meant more than the vast majority of the victories but don’t be mistaken that the Clare manager is somehow divorced from reality.
In fact, he is more in tune with it than many in the county who maintain a team as small as Clare can go man-on-man with bigger sides like Galway, Kilkenny and Tipperary.
He’s au fait with Clare’s history too. The three All-Ireland U21 titles in a row have given some in the county delusions of grandeur.
If Limerick’s similar string of honours in the early 2000s isn’t evidence such success doesn’t necessarily breed similar at senior level, then what is? And if this truly is the golden era of Clare hurling then why do so many eyes turn to Tony Kelly for deliverance?
The secret and not-so secret society in Clare who have it out for Fitzgerald, who argue he hasn’t done enough with the talent at his disposal, neglect these truths as well as the fact Clare GAA’s Caherlohan training facility wouldn’t be what it is but for the mammoth fundraising drives he has embarked on in recent years.
It was also Fitzgerald who weeded out the “social animal” culture in the panel, which had been holding back the county.
Fitzgerald has another season to run in his current term but the nouveau-riche in Clare will be determined he not be on the sideline next year.
Fitzgerald’s health is the priority right now and he has done enough to decide his own fate. But maybe he should go. Maybe he should give his detractors what they want. Then, and only then, might his significance to Clare be truly appreciated.
His heart scare last week prompted the worrying thought of what hurling would be like without him. The game will always have a place for him even if Clare doesn’t. But as he himself might say, that’s life.
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A bad weekend for pundits
Across the Irish Sea, Gary Neville has become the poster boy for pundits who can’t translate their analytical expertise into management.
There are a few keen to lump Kevin McStay and Dónal Óg Cusack into the same bracket after the happenings last weekend.
Had McStay, already an All-Ireland club winning manager, succeeded in guiding Roscommon to a win against Clare on Saturday — six days after losing a Connacht final replay — it would have trumped his and Fergie O’Donnell’s achievement in keeping the county in Division 1 earlier this year.
The task was brutally difficult. As Derry boss Damian Barton said after their loss to Tipperary, he fully expected Clare to win.
Cusack had a relatively successful year working alongside Davy Fitzgerald but there won’t be many tears shed for him in certain Cork GAA circles after Clare’s championship exit on Sunday.
The only way Cusack will be handed the reins in his native county is with irrefutable evidence of his abilities elsewhere and they are not yet apparent.
For Ger Loughnane, that Galway win over Clare saw him served a large slice of humble pie.
Tipperary’s footballers felt they served the same dish to Joe Brolly in beating his Derrymen following his and Colm O’Rourke’s fit of laughing on The Sunday Game in their half-time commentary of their Munster final defeat to Kerry.
Brolly insists their humour was brought on by an off-air joke but it just goes to show perception is what counts for most.
Above everything, his and the experiences of RTÉ stable-mate Loughnane and former colleagues McStay and Cusack highlighted just how precarious punditry can be.
Why we should applaud rather than criticise
It goes without saying that the GAA’s split All-Ireland qualifier system has not worked as it was intended.
Counties can take some of the blame for that, failing to utilise a more predictable calendar to organise club fixtures, as they can for not voting against non-final replays, which caused such bother for Cavan and Monaghan.
Croke Park, in fairness, did warn us there was more chance of repeat fixtures and sure enough Kerry and Clare on Sunday meet for the second time in two months.
The criticism of the championship structure in delivering such a pairing is just as much a knock at Colm Collins’ Clare who have reached their first All-Ireland quarter-final entirely on merit.
They and Tipperary might not be among the best eight teams in the country but they certainly are in the top 12, both sides having beaten teams in higher divisions.
It has been pointed out that Kerry have a facile path to an All-Ireland semi-final but the snobbish short-sightedness of that argument conveniently ignores the achievements of Clare and Tipperary.
Admittedly, Roscommon were seriously hampered by the six-day turnaround on Saturday but Clare have had quite the hectic run themselves with three games in 13 days.
As so often is the case in Ulster, one side of the draw is stronger than the other. Those are the breaks. The A and B qualifier system follows the same procedure.
That may have to alter it in future but in the clamour for change let’s applaud rather than knock Clare and Tipp for winning matches.
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