Every manager’s perfect Fitz

Gerry Fitzpatrick has been one of Ireland’s leading, if unsung, sports operators for over four decades. From hoops to hurling, from training Henry and Mullane to watching Shaq in the flesh, he’s seen a lot, if not it all. Now, he’s playing his part in the Wexford hurling revival.

Every manager’s perfect Fitz

You rarely see him in the limelight but he’s a big reason why others are.

Ten years on from Tom Semple’s field in Thurles been taken over by an ocean of blue and white triggered by the Waterford hurlers winning probably the best and most storied Munster final ever, Gerry Fitzpatrick was last week again partly responsible for another human tsunami engulfing a hurling pitch.

This time the colours were purple and gold, the venue Nowlan Park. There might have been no trophy to crown the moment but for Wexford playing a third consecutive weekend of championship hurling with a fourth to come was a form of liberation in itself.

Yet while the masses and the laurels were heaved and heaped in the direction of Liam Dunne and his band of fresh young hurlers and new heroes, the manager had the awareness and humility to deflect them elsewhere. It was no accident to him how a county whose fitness had been questioned for a number of years had now prevailed in two overtime games against the All-Ireland champions and another nail-biter against Waterford.

“We have one of the best trainers that I’ve ever met in Gerry Fitzpatrick,” Dunne would tell reporters, “and he does a superb job.”

One of the defeated Waterford selectors could have wistfully smiled and both shaken and nodded his head at that. Ten summers ago Dan Shanahan was the hottest hurler in Ireland, and again in 2007. In his autobiography he would attribute his own and his team’s success as much to Fitzpatrick as the hurling coaching of Justin McCarthy.

“I couldn’t credit him [Fitzpatrick] enough for how we developed,” Shanahan would write. “He was the man who dealt with the players. He was far more than a trainer; he was part psychologist as well. He’d say to us ‘Have three or four bottles of beer three weeks before the match; don’t be going cracked on the beer the night before.’ He’d advise us on our diet. If we had any kind of problem at all he was available to talk on the phone all the time. We had great time for Gerry. He was a huge help.”

As glittering a testimonial as Shanahan’s is, it still hardly does justice to the scope of Fitzpatrick’s expertise and experience.

He is far more than a physical trainer or part psychologist; he was one of this country’s first qualified sport psychologists, undertaking a masters in the discipline in America almost 35 years before finishing another masters in strength and conditioning only last month.

Long before he became one of the best physical trainers in hurling he had established himself as probably the best coach this country has produced in probably the most-coached-oriented sport of them all, basketball.

Through his work in Waterford Institute of Technology he is one of Ireland’s leading sports academics as well as one of its best practitioners, that rare someone who can talk both theory with Dr Aidan Moran and points and pints with John Mullane.

If they say sport is a blend of the physical, tactical, technical and mental then there is probably no sport scientist or operator in Irish sport with a better all-round understanding of all four.

He’s less a jack of all trades as a master of them — usually with a masters in them. You can’t confine him to one sport, one role, one discipline.

You can’t restrict him to one place either. While he trains Wexford and is now four decades living and working in Waterford, he’s originally from Limerick, the county in the opposite corner in Thurles tomorrow. It’s where he went to school, Sexton Street CBS, and it’s where he went to college, being part of one of the first intake of PE students at Thomond College.

It was an exciting, invigorating time. While Tony Ward, Brian Mullins, Pat Spillane and Jimmy Deenihan were lording it on the playing fields, the lecture halls were populated by hugely influential and pioneering minds: Dr Liam Hennessy, Eddie O’Sullivan, Coaching Ireland’s Liam Moggan and Pat Duffy, future Mr UL Sport Dave Mahedy as well as future Mr WIT, Fitzpatrick himself.

“You think back and wonder did you appreciate it at the time,” Fitzpatrick says in that distinctive soft, measured voice of his. “There were people there that changed your whole perception of sport and coaching. We had a Canadian lecturer called Paul Robinson who took us for gymnastics and I find a lot of the stuff I’m doing with rings in S&C now we were doing with him. I was at a lecture [famed sport and fitness coach] Vern Gambetta gave in Cork two weeks ago and I’m thinking ‘PJ Smyth was talking about all this stuff way back in the ’70s’.

“David Weldrick trained the football team to an All-Ireland club title and I remember an article in a national paper bemoaning how his team were using video analysis, or watching film as we called it then, of Austin Stacks to prepare for a Munster club final and how this was contrary to the amateur ethos of the GAA. David ran training sessions like we had never seen before but then he had done his masters in America, he was versed in American coaching, he was ahead of his time here.”

Soon all those things would apply to Fitzpatrick too. After teaching PE in Tallaght for a couple of years he moved over to America and upstate New York to study a masters in sport psychology in Ithaca College.

It would be the first of many trips to the States to acquire knowledge, such as the time in the mid-’90s when the Orlando Magic and their coach Brian Hill would grant his request to observe a week of their pre-season camp. He can still see Horace Grant stopping a practice session on a particular defensive system and forcibly asking Hill about a particular nuance about it; at that level if Hill didn’t nail the answer he was finished, but he did nail it with a staggering level of options and detail.

And he still smiles at the memory of Shaquille O’Neal barely tolerating the free-throw coach specifically designated to him and instead gleefully challenging the poor guy to a game of one-and-one. The hapless free-throw coach duly caved in to O’Neal’s childish whim, and being a foot and a half smaller than the behemoth O’Neal, had to endure his head being repeatedly patted as O’Neal bounced the ball into the key before dunking on him.

Long before Orlando though, there was Ithaca. It mightn’t have been the NBA, only NCAA Division 2, but it was still a world away from part-time Ireland. Fitzpatrick had received a stipend involving some work with the soccer team and being an observer-coach apprentice to their basketball side. It meant a lot of standing by water coolers and back walls, sitting in on planning practices, scouting opponents, keeping game stats and watching a lot more film than Thomond ever did of Austin Stacks. He repeated the trick in Kansas State, hanging around the weights room, seeing how the best athletes on one of the best basketball programmes in all of America worked out, and observing top coaches like Indiana’s Bobby Knight going up against them.

By the time he returned home to lecture in Waterford IT, he couldn’t wait to apply much of the American model here.

It started in the humblest of settings. An old colleague from Thomond was teaching in the local Mercy Convent. She asked if Fitzpatrick could help out with one of their basketball teams and that was the birth of the Waterford Wildcats, named after the Wildcats at Kansas State.

The early years were an education in humility. Fitzpatrick would bring them to Cork where the sport was ablaze but such trips to the Parochial Hall often left the Waterford girls scorched.

“I remember losing games up there 60-34, then you’d come back in the second round it would be 60-44. The next year it would be 60-54. The year after then we’d be the ones winning 60-54.

“You had to learn that the only way to win was to go where it was competitive and keep training and keep coming back again and again and again.”

In 1987 they would go national league, with his wife Mary, a former elite runner, on board.

Their finances were so bare they’d only train with the rubber basketballs from the Mercy. “Our one leather ball was kept in the boot of my car,” says Fitzpatrick, “and only came out for game days.”

But then Waterford Creameries started sponsoring them. The 12-year-olds he and Evelyn Hearn began coaching in the Mercy were now coming through as fully-fledged internationals. In 1990 they would win the Top Four. In 1995 they would win their first league. By 2001 the club had won six leagues, a feat no club in women’s basketball has managed to surpass.

Fitzpatrick had moved on to other challenges by then. In 2000 he would coach the famed Neptune club to one of their most comprehensive Superleague title victories ever and then coached the senior men’s national team loaded with American-born talent, just as he had the women’s senior team earlier. In 2005 he would take them to the brink of qualifying for the European Championships, only for a highly-contentious last-second call in Denmark to rob them off that stage. It was devastating for him, and he has not coached an adult basketball team since.

Luckily for him and Waterford hurling another scene had opened up by then.

His first foray into training a GAA team came in 1994 with the Fitzgibbon team in WIT, a gig he would stay on in for five years, developing the likes of Henry Shefflin. He made such an impression Mount Sion and then the Waterford county team came calling. In 1996 though, Waterford wasn’t really ready for a Gerry Fitzpatrick; it would take the Gerald McCarthy revolution for them to get a grasp of what competing at the top level entailed. By 2004 they had a better idea and it was then Justin McCarthy had the ingenious one of going back to Fitzpatrick.

He’s seen a lot of change through the years. He started out being known as “the fitness fella”. In the Noughties it was “physical trainer”. Now it’s “strength and conditioning coach”.

He’s found exciting and fun to see the landscape as well as the body shape of the GAA alter in that time.

“I was lucky to be around at a time just as hurling was becoming open to new ideas and I was comfortable with that but I wasn’t ‘Right we should be doing this right through the year’.

“Back in ’96 the dominant GAA philosophy was you got fit for six weeks over the spring and then you played hurling for the rest of the year. Tony [Mansfield, 1996 Waterford manager] tried to change that but it was going against the grain a bit. At the time you didn’t combine going to the gym and hurling right through the season even though strength is reversible.

“I wouldn’t say it [the GAA] was backwards but there was a fear there that you could do too much too quickly and in a way it was right because a lot of fellas were only starting to do it late in their inter-county career and then getting injured. They were starting at the wrong end of the ladder whereas now there’s an appreciation of long-term athletic development and anybody coming into a senior set-up has been exposed to it before.

“Starting out in 2004 only a handful of the Waterford hurlers would have been able to do Olympic lifts. In 2014 the vast majority already know. I remember a real changing point was coming into a training session with Waterford and James Murray asking if he could readjust his strength programme in terms of the intensity and volume.

“He was asking about maybe doing one exercise instead of another and doing four sets of five rather than three sets of 10. That was the start of a new breed of player.”

He thrives in the multi-disciplinary approach now to preparing inter-county teams, the way you dovetail with the nutritionist, the coach, the sport psychologist and performance analysts to help players perform at their best.

But having been a coach himself, he’s very mindful that it should be all kept in its proper place.

“I like the whole sport science thing but I always say it has to be on tap but never on top. It’s ultimately about the hurling and the coaching and playing the game.

“I think that’s where Liam [Dunne] has been very sensible and Kevin Ryan before him in Carlow.

“Kevin spent four years there but in his first year when he gave me a call he said ‘Look, I want to have a chat to you a bit about S&C but I’m not bringing you in this year. The emphasis has to be on their first touch and make them more skilled’. It was in later years I came in, then the psychology, the nutrition, the video analysis.

“But they weren’t ready for all that starting out.”

And above all it’s all about people. Characters. In Wexford there’s plenty, some you’ve heard of and some you haven’t, from the sincerity of Ger Cushe to the infectious passion of Liam Griffin to Liam Dunne to his brother Seán Dunne, the kitman. Seán reminds Fitzpatrick of MacGyver, the troubleshooting TV wizard from the late ’80s. “He’s made our prowlers, fixed our hurdles, acquired all kinds of equipment we couldn’t afford to replace. And I’ll say ‘Where did you get that?!’ but Seán just winks and touches the nose. We talk about our MacGyverism skills and Seán has the best around.”

The Waterford dressing room was particularly full of personality.

When he thinks back on those six years it’s the fun and the laughter, not the tears, he remembers. As a highly technical coach himself from another sport, he was blown over by Justin McCarthy’s capacity to fine-tune the hurling skills of raw players like Dan Shanahan and Brick Walsh, but he’s on record as saying what really sustained him in those years was “that they were a team that wanted to train harder than they were often being encouraged or allowed to.”

So, regrets, they have a few, but that’s not what they should mostly mention. Ask Fitzpatrick how that Waterford side should be perceived and more importantly how they should perceive themselves and he says: “I think they were a great team that were as close as you can be without winning it. They happened to be around when two superpowers of hurling had probably their greatest ever teams. If Kilkenny and Cork hadn’t those dynasties Waterford would have been champions and I hope they know that. It’s more a reflection of how sport can go sometimes rather than of themselves.”

Now it’s Wexford he’s trying to help make the breakthrough. He did some work with Oulart-The Ballagh when Ryan was coaching them and Dunne was still playing for them.

Ever since then, as Fitzpatrick puts it, he’s been “following the Kevin Ryan or Liam Dunne bandwagon around the place”.

Wexford has been a process, a progression, a bit like those Wildcats teams he’d take up to the Parochial Hall in the mid-’80s. Last year they brought Clare to extra-time and lost. This year they brought them to extra-time and drew. Then in the replay they brought them to extra-time and won.

“Liam’s put in place the structures and processes and discipline and standards for the players to realistically pursue the longer term goals they have. They’re a very committed and very ambitious bunch and that’s very much a reflection of the management. There’s that continuity between the minors and 21s and seniors. You’ve young guys not in the 26 but are great athletes and very good hurlers who could be in the starting 15 next year. He’s put things right.”

Not least by putting the right people in place, particularly Fitzpatrick himself.

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