If speculation hardens into fact, Davy Fitzgerald will take a break from inter-county management next season, thus ending 12 seasons on the sideline.
Last month’s Leinster final win over Kilkenny marked his 54th since he dipped his toe in succeeding Justin McCarthy in Waterford 11 years ago.
His SHC return reads 27 wins, seven draws and 20 defeats.
Compared to Liam Sheedy’s SHC record of 16 wins and four defeats, Fitzgerald’s win rate falls short but then his stellar work has been done with the “little fish”.
Where would a win over Tipperary on Sunday rank in his 10 greatest victories as manager? Right up there, but for now we’ve rated his finest achievements across Championship and League thus far.
The crowning glory of Fitzgerald’s time in charge of Clare as much as it had drained him by the end of his five years at the helm. After Domhnall O’Donovan was the saviour in the drawn final, it was Fitzgerald’s bold move of promoting teenager Shane O’Donnell that worked the oracle as Cork were hit for five goals by a usually goal-shy Clare.
“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 way.”
The eagerness of Fitzgerald as he waited for the final whistle was as compelling as the closing stages when Kilkenny untypically look flustered in trying to cut Wexford’s lead.
Equal and more to the Cats in Wexford and Nowlan Park in Fitzgerald’s reign, they had finally done it where it counts the most.
: “I love seeing that. I love seeing them — they are Leinster champions 2019, and no-one can ever take that away from them, no matter what the story is. I am so happy for them, so happy for them.”
The Thurles rain couldn’t dampen the spirit of the Waterford team as Dan Shanahan’s goal in the second half of extra-time provided Fitzgerald with his first piece of inter-county silverware as manager.
“There’s not many Clare men have managed teams to Munster championships. This is big. I’ve seen these fellas low and I’ve seen them kicked. Two years ago people said to walk away from them.”
Who can forget Fitzgerald being given a king’s chair in Plunkett Station after this win? Fitzgerald is one of only four managers to inflict a Championship defeat on Sheedy and this was a famous one not just for it qualifying the Déise for their first All-Ireland final in 45 years but how mighty Tipperary were in the Munster championship.
“When I went down the first or second night to training, I could see in the older Waterford players — ye don’t have any idea what it means to them to be able to contest a final. These guys’ hearts and souls are inside of this. I knew I had a special group of players when I went down there.”
A day that still haunts Declan Hannon given his nightmare from placed balls in the first half but for Fitzgerald, this was heavenly as Colin Ryan sent over 11 frees and Darach Honan bagged the only goal of the game.
“Listen, the way we have to rank it is Clare has been in five or six finals in over 120 years. That’s where you rank it, that’s a pretty big achievement no matter what happens.”
Rob Brydon didn’t base his small man in a box character on Fitzgerald here but the Wexford manager was in a purpose-built one in the media area for this clash in Wexford Park as he served a suspension following his Division 1 quarter-final pitch incursion. A first Leinster final appearance in nine years for the Model County, a first win over the Cats in 13.
Nothing. He was advised not to as he was serving his ban.
Coming after Tipperary had hit his team for seven goals in the Munster final, this 10-point win was a masterful recovery.
“I’ve a great thing about life, you never give up on anything no matter what the story is. You fight, you fight, you fight and keep fighting even when things are bad. I’m really proud of the boys so I am. All of them mysterious calls in the middle of the night I enjoy them, keep them coming! I’m not going into it, they are not worth even talking to. They can keep ringing, that’s all I’ll say to you.”
The Banner’s first win in Munster in five years and, as it turned out, the only time Fitzgerald claimed one in the province in charge of his native county. And it came all so easy as Clare dominated the second half to win by eight points.
“They’re a young bunch, growing all the time, and we’ll just keep looking to improve. And it has been a good few years, waiting for this, and there was a lot of pressure on us too, coming into this game.”
Only a fourth-ever National League title for the Banner, their first since 1978, in what was Fitzgerald’s last season in charge.
Waterford returned the favour in the Munster SHC but this was a dramatic win given Clare trailed for so long and Tony Kelly sealed it with two additional time points.
“I’d have got killed if he didn’t score that point from the free because I changed the free-taker myself. I felt he (Kelly) was on fire, I felt that that was one made for him and I asked him to hit it.”
A 60-year wait for a senior win over Kilkenny in Nowlan Park was ended here as they dominated the home team and Conor McDonald’s injury-time goal sealed it.
“I always think you’ve a chance. I don’t care who you’re with. I don’t buy into a lot of stuff that teams are invincible.
“They might beat you but you learn and come back.”
Key Model Questions
After the Leinster final, Davy Fitzgerald revealed Wexford played five different formations against Kilkenny. More may be required to topple Tipperary. Here are five pressing questions for them...
The co-captain did an excellent detailing job on TJ Reid in the Wexford Park game, but was a little looser in the Leinster final where the Kilkenny captain picked off four points from play.
However, that had a lot to do with Kilkenny creating space for Reid to exploit. With Liam Ryan an ideal man to shadow Seamus Callanan, Jason Forde could be considered as more up O’Hanlon’s street with the likes of Simon Donohue possibly the man for John McGrath, Paudie Foley suited size-wise to Dan McCormack, and Shane Reck could track John O’Dwyer.
A more conventional approach by Wexford would mean he isn’t, but then they won’t have their own free man at the back if they go man-for-man in the forward line. Fitzgerald will have watched with interest as Kyle Hayes’ size and speed gave Maher a headache in the Munster final, and Lee Chin would ask plenty of him if Brendan Maher isn’t given the duty of tagging him.
The problem is, though, Chin will be required in the middle, the one place where the Leinster champions clearly have an advantage. The best policy for Wexford would be to run at Maher than push up on him.
Yes, it could be as simple as that given that both defences coughed up far too many during their respective provincial Championships. Wexford saw 1-37 scored against them from frees in their five games while Tipperary gave up 0-42.
Former Wexford defender Declan Ruth says seven frees per game is an acceptable number, but both teams are averaging over that number and it has been costly.
Chin showed in the Leinster final that he can punish from distance and there are at least three men capable of doing the same — Ronan Maher, Noel McGrath and Forde — in the Tipperary team.
Yes, and that’s the balance they have to strike the most because they have players who can make their presence felt almost as much as Limerick did against Tipperary last month.
Tipperary have the advantage in terms of skill and long-range shooting in the likes of Noel McGrath and O’Dwyer, but ball- winners is where they are short, and Wexford are not. For a Tipperary team that thrives on space, Wexford have to make Croke Park feel as small as possible for them and that will require hounding and driving their opponents into exhaustion.
The Munster final was the only time this summer Tipperary haven’t hit the 30-point mark, which Wexford only surpassed in their win over Carlow. Averaging a goal a game to Tipperary’s mean of two per match, it will be shutting out Tipperary’s marquee forwards that they will premise their path to a first All-Ireland final in 23 years but they will need a figure of around 25 points to win. Expecting that to come from points alone is a big ask, and they will require at least one raised green flag.