The Wexford manager is no stranger to doing an inside job on Clare. He’d already managed it in the past whilst the gaffer in Waterford but he wore the expression here of a man for whom the experience will always generate inner conflict.
“I found it hard. I am a Clare man and all I ever wanted to do was play for Clare and manage Clare. It’s difficult but I think the lads knew that. All week we did not dwell on the Clare thing. I actually tried to go away from it. I tried to concentrate on Wexford.”
He may be of the Banner but he is of hurling, too, and the performance put in by his Wexford team will have been considerable consolation to the hurt Fitzgerald felt for taking down his native county, including players for whom he repeatedly declared his respect and admiration.
For Wexford, any fears of relegation have been dispelled, replaced instead by the need to plan for a league quarter-final. They are three from four now and perfectly in tune with the rigours and flows of life in the top flight on their return from Division 1B.
Clare were unbeaten through the opening three rounds of 1A as they made for the south-east but they were blown away in the second-half by a Wexford side that combined sheer physicality and some finesse in front of a crowd of 7,800.
Both sides had the odd player doubling up after Fitzgibbon Cup duties the day before. Paudie Foley, who put in 47 rather uneventful minutes out of position for DCU on Saturday, lined out at wing-back here for Wexford.
Conor Cleary, who lifted the college trophy with UL, was in situ at full-back for Clare. Tony Kelly was named on the bench too but didn’t feature in a game that was all grit and very little polish through the first 35 minutes.
Both counties registered eight wides in that first period on a pitch and under blue skies that were just about as good as you could hope for in late February. Bunching, unfortunately, was a particular blight and Clare led by a point at the interval.
The difference in Wexford after the break was night and day. Lee Chin had kept them in touch with four placed balls only to be replaced at the change of ends with a quad injury that is likely to see him rested next week. In his place came 19-year-old Rory O’Connor who landed four crucial points from play.
Even more notable was Wexford’s doggedness. Fitzgerald sent them back out with instructions to push up and squeeze a Clare side that would be perfectly happy to counter the wind in their faces with short, sharp passing moves. If allowed, which they weren’t.
Wexford tore into them, repeatedly turning ball over in the middle third. Their drive and momentum produced a tsunami of scores, eight of the first nine in the second-half emanating from the hurley of a man in maroon.
Fitzgerald has worked assiduously on that physicality and Clare noticed it.
“The physicality of Wexford relative to Kilkenny, Cork or Tipperary was a completely different level in terms of the size of some of the guys they have and the job that Davy has done with them,” said Clare’s joint-manager Donal Moloney. “But it’s not just size, it’s skill as well.” For the visitors, this loss isn’t terminal to their league ambitions by any means but it may give them reason for contemplation over the strength in depth they have at their disposal. Like Wexford, they have a good handful of players for whom a championship berth will be a goal.
Clare managed 3-62 in their opening three fixtures this term but only three players got on the scoresheet here from play and Moloney wasn’t all that interested in using as an excuse the fact that the Banner had already assured themselves of a last eight place. “I don’t know. We wouldn’t like that to come into it. We would want to go out and perform in every game. There are certain aspects of the performance today that we were very disappointed with so we will have to go look at those and understand why.
“You have to be able to perform every week. Just because lads have done it so far up to this week doesn’t mean they didn’t have to do it again today. It’s a different environment and a different challenge and we probably didn’t play as well as we expected.”
R O’Connor (0-4); L Chin (0-4, 3f and 1 ‘65’); M Fanning (0-3f); P Foley, C McDonald and K Foley (all 0-2); J O’Connor, C Dunbar (both 0-1); P Morris (0-1f).
P Duggan (1-7, 1-6f and 0-1 ‘65’); J Conlon (0-4); D McInerney and S O’Donnell (both 0-1).
M Fanning; D Reck, L Ryan, C Firman; P Foley, M O’Hanlon, D O’Keeffe; K Foley, A Nolan; J O’Connor, C McDonald, S Murphy; L Chin, D Dunne, P Morris.
R O’Connor for Chin (HT); C Dunbar for Morris (58); H Kehoe for Dunne (60); A Maddock for Murphy (66).
D Tuohy; J McCarthy, C Cleary, J Browne; S Morey, D McInerney, M O’Malley; C Galvin, C Malone; N Deasy, J Conlon, D Reidy; S O’Donnell, P Duggan, P Collins.
M O’Regan for Galvin (35+2); D Corry for Deasy (HT); G O’Connell for McCarthy (56); M O’Neill for Collins (60); D Ryan for Morey (69).
C Lyons (Cork).