The Kieran Shannon Interview: Seoirse Bulfin on riding shotgun to Davy Fitz

Selector. Coach. Friend. Many words can be used to describe Seoirse Bulfin’s relationship with Davy Fitzgerald since they first met in 2003. And after helping steer Wexford to tomorrow’s All-Ireland semi-final, he hopes there is another chapter to write

The Kieran Shannon Interview: Seoirse Bulfin on riding shotgun to Davy Fitz

Selector. Coach. Friend. Many words can be used to describe Seoirse Bulfin’s relationship with Davy Fitzgerald since they first met in 2003. And after helping steer Wexford to tomorrow’s All-Ireland semi-final, he hopes there is another chapter to write

On the very first page of Davy Fitzgerald’s book, he’s there, because, invariably, he’s there on the sideline too. At All Costs opens with the closing moments of the 2018 All-Ireland quarter-final in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.

“Hard place to be, Seoirse,” Fitzgerald says, turning to face his right-hand man. The Wexford side they’ve been coaching for the past two seasons are about to be eliminated from the championship by a Clare team they’d trained the previous five years. “A rollercoaster ride”, by Fitzgerald’s own admission, for which his trusted lieutenant was “with me for all of it, through the good days and the not-so-good”.

And before that, he was with him in Waterford. And before, during, and after that, he was there with him in Limerick IT for those legendary, early-morning sessions in the biting cold and howling wind.

Hard places, mountaintops (figuratively and literally), forests, troughs, and valleys, crossroads that they’ve faced and others where they’ve danced, Seoirse Bulfin has been there beside and for Fitzgerald.

At times on their journey, it’s as if they’ve been at the wheel of a juggernaut. But they can also tell you and even laugh at the times when the car spluttered and nearly broke down. Well, they can laugh about it. They’re not sure if Brian O’Halloran yet can.

Fitzgerald’s fourth year in Waterford was O’Halloran’s second on the panel and Bulfin’s first, being the team’s new goalkeeping coach. O’Halloran was studying in Bulfin’s alma mater of Mary Immaculate where Fitzgerald would collect him before they’d meet Bulfin at a gas station in Tipperary town and head together to training.

One evening Fitzgerald decided to brush up on his delegating skills so he could take a phone call: O’Halloran would fill his tank while Bulfin went in to pay. Half a mile out the road, Fitzgerald’s BMW started to chug. We’ll leave Bulfin take it from here.

“Davy goes, ‘Brian, you put diesel in, didn’t you?’

“And Brian gets a fit of laughter. ‘No, petrol, Davy!’

“Davy: ‘Brian, you put diesel in, didn’t you?!’

“And then it dawns on Brian, a lovely, raw young fella, the blood draining from his face.

“We just about made it back to the garage. Davy rang some crowd to tow it away and left his keys with the garage.

“We didn’t wait because with Fitzy, when it comes to training, if he’s not two hours early, he’s late. So we hopped into my Peugeot van. Me and Davy in the front, poor Brian in the back, lying on top of tackle bags, hurleys, cones! He was almost touching the roof! I’ll never forget it! Sure the slagging that went on in training…”

For almost a lifetime now, that’s the kind of company and habitat Bulfin has savoured: With a hurling man like Fitzgerald, players with both the talent and vulnerability of an O’Halloran, surrounded by hurleys and water bottles and the whiff of muddy boots, a bagful of sweat-filled jerseys and Deep Heat.

It’s the only life he’s ever known. As well as taking countless teams at home in Bruff where he was the local primary school teacher, Tom Bulfin was also a coach with Phil Bennis to the Limerick teams that won a minor All Ireland in ’84, the U21 in ’87, and the national league in ’92. Seoirse was a waterboy and hurley-carrier for that latter triumph, having chosen to retire from club rugby at 12 years old in favour of inter-county hurling because training clashed.

“Tommy Quaid, Lord have mercy on him, was top-class. I remember before some big games he’d send me to the shop to get him two bars of chocolate, and me running underneath the Gaelic Grounds to get them. I’d come back in and I’d be in bits. And to this day you’d look at the faces of some of the Wexford lads before a big game and you can tell that while they wouldn’t want to be anywhere else, a part of them would love to be a million miles away.

“That Limerick dressing room was the same. Ciarán Carey would be inside the jacks getting sick. Yet there would be Tommy Quaid sitting on his own, cool as a breeze, eating his Dairy Milk.”

Everything about the environment fascinated him; how they all dealt differently with big-match nerves; how they were all devastated after a big championship defeat; to this day he remembers tipping down to a dressing room in Midleton to see his father after the 1988 U21 Munster semi-final and the “utter disconsolation” that he ambled upon. And then there was the dynamic between his dad and Bennis.

“Phil, for me, was way ahead of his time. I mean, here we are talking about 20x20 but Phil had the late Noreen Lynch in as fitness trainer to the Limerick minors that won the All-Ireland in ’84. And that’s maybe why I warmed so quickly to Davy’s methods. Like Davy, there was a ruthless streak about Phil. He had a ferocious attention to detail. And he was able to get the most out of players.

“His style would definitely have been more Alex Ferguson than Jurgen Klopp, more hairdryer than arm around the shoulder, but at the same time he knew when to pull back.

“And I suppose that’s why he had my father there. If Phil was having a go at players, he knew that they could talk to dad and he’d soften the blow a bit. But dad would admit he wasn’t ruthless enough to be a manager himself. He still coaches kids, including our daughters, but he hated telling people they weren’t on panels or they were being dropped. Phil could do that. They complemented each other well.”

It was inevitable Seoirse would catch the coaching bug himself. By the time he was 14 he was giving Tom a hand with the club’s U8s. By the time he was in second year in Mary I he was managing the college’s freshers. Then he began helping Éamonn Cregan with the camogie team. Once he graduated from that college, he landed a job across town as a GAA development officer in LIT where’d he come across a certain Mr Fitzgerald.

Bulfin was that rare Limerick person who would have been favourably disposed towards the Clareman. He was a goalkeeper himself, even played minor for the county in ’97 before he found he was getting a fairer crack at coaching teams in Mary I than he was at trials with the county U21s. He’d make his way out to Sixmilebridge for his hurleys because he’d heard that Torpey was Fitzgerald’s choice of hurleymaker.

At 5’8” he wasn’t the tallest himself, but it was Fitzgerald’s defiant demeanour that he found so endearing. “He was that bit mad, in the best sense of the term. Just the way he used to take to the field and maybe wear a hurley off the crossbar.”

They first met in the LIT canteen in autumn 2003. “I remember he brought me a cup of tea and a purple Snack. Good start — those purple Snack bars are nice! So we talked about the Fitzgibbon year ahead and the thing that immediately struck you was that this guy was super-organised.”

Over the years Bulfin would field countless calls from career guidance counsellors and parents enquiring if Fitzgerald was committed to coaching the Fitzgibbon team the following season; no better man to mould and improve a young player.

Even blue-chip talents were drawn to the hardship he promised. The likes of Jackie Tyrrell, Eoin Kelly, Joe Canning, Shane McGrath, Conor O’Mahony all willingly signed up to the 4.30am sessions. At the time Bulfin was also giving a hand coaching the Limerick camogie team where a couple of players had once asked if they could leave training early so they could put on fake tan for a 21st. Fitzgerald demanded and extracted another sphere of commitment.

“It was just to set the tone: Right, I’m committing to ye and I want something back and buy-in from you. It was about testing guys. How badly did they want it? The likes of [Kieran] ‘Fraggy’ Murphy had played a few years under Donal O’Grady, Jackie Tyrrell would already have been well used to Cody and wouldn’t necessarily have needed to train like that over the winter, but they did because they wanted to play under Davy and saw the benefits of his ways. And they enjoyed it. That’s the thing. Now, it’s tough for that hour, but when you get through it and you’ve suffered as a group, it’s great to be able to draw on later that year.”

Over the years such nocturnal sessions have involved their share of scares and scrapes. Bulfin remembers one Christmas Eve during the Clare years where one younger player had to undergo a circuit in the Cratloe Woods an hour earlier than the rest of the panel because he had work that morning. Bulfin was in the patrol car for that early shift when he lost track of the lad. “I got out, looked everywhere for about 15 minutes, then spotted Mike Corry, who’d be one of Davy’s trusted confidantes and stats guys, over by the gate, talking to this man. I come over, laughing, ‘Johnny’s lost!’ I could see Mike’s face change. ‘Ah, no,’ he says, ‘he’ll be out in a second!’ I knew something was up then. Sure wasn’t the man with him the lad’s father to take him to work! So I go, ‘Oh, right. Yeah, he’ll be out there in a minute! We’re just locating him!’

“Eventually ‘Johnny’ showed up. But the thing was, he had to do it like everyone else. Again, it was just that collective sense of having done the hard work.”

Over the years Bulfin’s seen Fitzgerald adapt. The Wexford lads have been spared such Christmas week exertions after Davy seemed to deduce that he’d maybe pushed the Clare lads a tad too hard in his final years there.

“He’s definitely learned from Clare,” says Bulfin. “If you think you’ve lost a game in July over something you didn’t do on Christmas week, then something must have gone badly wrong in the intervening six months.”

Wexford manager Davy Fitzgerald a n d s e l e c t o r S e o i r s e B u l fi n c e l e b r a t e t h e Leinster SHC final victory against Kilkenny at Croke Park last month. Picture: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile
Wexford manager Davy Fitzgerald a n d s e l e c t o r S e o i r s e B u l fi n c e l e b r a t e t h e Leinster SHC final victory against Kilkenny at Croke Park last month. Picture: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile

Although at times Bulfin might appear a Mini-Me version of Fitzgerald, either remonstrating alongside him on the line or assuming the bainisteoir bib whenever he’s been suspended, he’s no extension or lackey of Fitzgerald. They’ve had the odd tiff. For a year or two they weren’t even talking after some episode of internal LIT politics until one autumn, Bulfin recognised Fitzgerald could do with more support. They cleared the air and within months an unfancied LIT team were in the Fitzgibbon final and Bulfin was down in Waterford with him as his goalkeeping coach.

He’s been by his side ever since: Selector, coach, friend. In his fine book published last year, Fitzgerald described Bulfin as one of the “incredible people” he has been lucky to count on as part of his coaching staff, “a brilliant man with infectious enthusiasm”. But why does Bulfin himself think Fitzgerald has him by his side?

“I could be way off here but I think it’s because between us we achieve a balance. I know he feels I could be a bit more animated on the line because there are certain managers who will try to dictate to linesmen and referees and at times you’ve to meet fire with fire. But he also knows that at times he might bark or give out and that I’ll reason him down when needs be.

“A few weeks ago in training he let this lad have it and I saw the guy physically sink. So I was a bit like my dad [in his time] with Phil Bennis. ‘Listen, don’t mind the boss today. He’s under pressure and you bore the brunt of it. He still knows what you bring.’

“Because I know myself I’ve said the wrong thing to players. I’ve cracked a joke about maybe something someone did in a game, he’s taken it the wrong way, and I’ve had to go: ‘Listen, I shouldn’t have said that. I was just trying to have the crack.’”

And why does he enlist for every adventure, the Sancho Panza to Fitzgerald’s Don Quixote, even when it’s something as seemingly futile as going tilting at windmills over in Wexford?

“Fitzy has a great way of getting you to commit to something,” Bulfin grins. “Like, you could be three or four weeks into something before you realise, ‘I said no to the guy a month ago!’

“I remember one year in LIT, Paddy Donnellan told us: ‘Lads, I have no interest in hurling over the winter, I want some time off. And anyway, I’m away skiing with the girlfriend the weekend of the Fitzgibbon [finals].’

‘No bother,’ says Fitzy. ‘We mightn’t even get that far. Just help us out in the league, play a few rounds and then go away skiing.’

“In fairness to Paddy, he was true to his word. We made it to the Fitzgibbon weekend and might even have won it if Paddy had been around. We tried everything to fly him back but he stuck to his guns. The following autumn Fitzy got the Clare job and I know Paddy told a friend of his: ‘Oh my God, I might never see a Clare jersey again!’ Instead Davy made Paddy his Clare captain. He was the man who collected Liam MacCarthy in 2013.

“This year Fitzy’s taken on the club [Sixmilebridge] as well. Back in March he said to me, ‘Will give you us a hand there?’ I said: ‘Sure where am I going to have the time for that?!!’ But then I said, ‘Tell you what, I’ll give you two or three sessions a month until we’re finished with Wexford.’ Sure, I’ve seven sessions done already this month up in The Bridge!”

It helps that at home he lives with someone totally obsessed with hurling. Sharon O’Shaughnessy, as she used to go by, played for Limerick, just like her All-Star brother Andrew.

“Sharon would have been well known among referees in Limerick,” says Bulfin. “Very feisty. She’d be put out a lot more by results than I would. I get home, rue on it for a while, but then the bins have to go out. This year Galway beat us in the league [quarter-final] by 10 points. On the Thursday I go to her: ‘Sharon, you’re in bad form. Are you still…’ She says: ‘I am. Those boys are a lot better than they showed on Sunday.’”

Remind you of anyone? Exactly. Though, says Bulfin, her philosophy towards hurling differs from Fitzgerald’s on one count. “She’s not a fan of the sweeper!” he says. “Well, the first year she wasn’t anyway!”

As it happens, Fitzgerald’s partner is also called Sharon and next weekend Bulfin’s Sharon will be on her hen. In the meantime their other halves have the matter of a certain game in Croke Park.

A year ago did they think an All-Ireland semi-final spot and a Leinster title was possible? Bulfin brings you back to the opening scene in Fitzgerald’s book, that ‘hard place’ below in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.

“It was devastating, because we just didn’t perform that day against Clare. I was coming off the pitch, congratulating the Clare lads, when I turned and spotted a bear of a man in a Wexford jersey coming towards me purposefully.

“I said to myself: ‘Jesus, this guy is going to give me a shot on the jaw or some awful abuse.’ Well, didn’t he stick out his hand. ‘You know what, today wasn’t our day but we’ve had some great days these last two years. We’ll have them again. Keep up the good work!’”

“And I think that encapsulated the whole Wexford project. I mean, that was completely different to what we had experienced in Clare. Even after only a couple of Walsh Cup games you could sense that if we gave the Wexford people something to follow, they’d be mad to row in behind you.”

There were other differences, though, from Clare upon arriving down there.

“When we first met the players, I was a bit taken aback, to be honest. We were coming from Clare where the lads were supreme athletes. In Wexford there were a few love handles around which I wouldn’t have seen in a dressing room in a while. But that changed. They totally bought into Davy. They were humble lads mad to learn.

“In all my time in hurling I’ve never felt a vibe in a set-up, from the kitman to management to players, that’s as strong and positive. I know winning helps but I was saying to Micky McCullough [a friend who coaches the Dublin hurlers] only the other day, even if we had lost every match these last three years, the bond among these fellas would be special. I love going to training. It’s a three-hour drive but I love it.”

He didn’t stick around for the Leinster final celebrations and homecoming in Wexford Park.

For him the moment was the final whistle, being there on the sideline with the likes of Fitzgerald, JJ Doyle, and Keith Rossiter.

“It was being with the people you’re with in November, who know what it’s like to drive into Ferns when it’s snowy and their hands are numb.” And especially one of them who also knows what it’s like when Brian O’Halloran puts petrol into a diesel car in Tipp town.

Long may you run, Fitzy.

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