Anyone within earshot of Davy Fitzgerald in Cusack Park last Sunday week would testify the man remains as passionate as ever. But is it finally time we realised his box office appeal extends beyond the “hell for leather” caricature?
‘You know what I love?” Davy Fitzgerald asks with that customary half-wink of his. Before you suggest the bacon and cabbage he has just tucked away, he has the answer: “Helping a team do something they’re not meant to do. When they achieve something, that time after it and seeing people’s emotions, people who haven’t had success. I love watching that because you can never say never. You can always do it. That’s my fulfilment. That comes from training junior and intermediate clubs, LIT, Clare, Waterford. You’ve done things that you’re not meant to have done and that makes it twice as sweet.”
Fitzgerald the underdog is alive and well. The competitor too, you’ll be glad to know. As if you weren’t already aware. As if you don’t want to see his reaction to every score, be it for or against Clare. Because it means more. Coming from a county that learned to fight on their backs, he could never imagine himself taking charge of a team that were ready-made for glory. Words like convention and tradition are omitted from his vocabulary.
From the age of 18, he’s been managing, the constant being they were teams that had to break routines to break teams. Beating odds so often, though, takes a toll.
Management is an integral part of his being but away from the whitewash he’s more philosophical about it now. “It’s just been in my DNA. Will that change at some stage or another? It could, it could change. I think I’ll always be drawn back to it but you never know what’s around the corner. You can’t stay doing something forever.
“It’s a funny thing but I’m not that old. I’m still in my early 40s. Last year was a tough year. Maybe I’ve a new approach. All we can do is our best and I’m enjoying it. I always enjoy working with the lads and I’m kind of focused on that a bit more. You can’t do anything about what the hurlers on the ditch say, and it doesn’t particularly bother me too much any more.
“Maybe it might have a couple of months ago, a couple of years ago, but I like what I’m doing and I’m trying to win as many games as I can. I’m not trying to prove anything to anyone, only to be the best I can to myself. I’m really enjoying working with the group of players and the backroom staff we have. We have a good collection of people but it is easier, I’ll be honest, when you’re winning games and that’s the bottom line!
“There will be a time when you won’t be manager of Clare or you might be involved with another county or go to something else completely. It if happens, it happens. I take the today and live for today. I’ve a contract with Clare until the end of 2017. Whatever it is, it is. That’s my way of looking at it. I have to feel I’ve a lot to offer to a team in order for me to be there.”
Not necessarily words you would associate with the dictator caricature often ascribed to the 44-year-old. Looking down the long list of a backroom team he has assembled and the strength of the characters among them, that perception doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
Unfair judgements like that may have irked him before but he’s learned to let it slide or at least put it on ice for another day.
“You’re not going to please everyone in this game. Life is too short to be fecking getting tied up on stuff. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen every now and again but I’ve tried more than anything to say what it is, it is and just try and give your best to the lads as much as you possibly can.”
Fitzgerald’s phone buzzes four times during the course of the interview. He charges it a couple of times a day, making sure he has enough battery for the certain member of his backroom team who likes calling him at 11pm. But he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“If I see a number come up and I don’t know it, I probably won’t answer it! That’s normally trouble and that could be something you have to deal with that you don’t like.”
Thrashing things out with a selector or coach is something he will always have time for, though. “I like detail. I like looking at stuff. I like all that stuff. I’ve tried to surround myself with people who are not yes men. I don’t believe in having yes men and I don’t think I’ve ever had them whether it’s been Waterford, Clare, LIT or anything like that. Having people who constantly question you and ask why and what you’re doing is enjoyable.
“I can tell you in Waterford and in Clare, I’ve had strong men with me. I honestly didn’t pay too much attention when people would be calling you a dictator. I can’t help that but if you’re in the scene yourself and know the story you appreciate that there are different opinions.
“I’ve lost very few people who have been involved with me. A lot of them have stayed involved with me. You look at Mike Deegan, for example, who was a selector with me in ’12, ’13 and ’14. He stepped away but he is still at every game helping out behind the scenes. I would have a lot of people I worked with like that and if I was such a massive dictator I don’t know would that happen.
“As a manager, you have to make the call. The buck stops with you but you also have to listen as well and take the best advice you can at times. I’ve been pretty successful because I haven’t picked too many bad lads around me, which is very important.”
‘Next thing he (Fitzgerald) just says to me: “You know you’re the only one who could nearly figure out what we were doing last year.” Nearly figure out! That shuts me up. Nearly. He’s either giving me a compliment or having a laugh at me. Either way it’s the smart half of Davy’s brain talking again.”
— Dónal Óg Cusack, Irish Examiner (July 4, 2014)
Five months in, Fitzgerald reports his relationship with new selector/coach Cusack is working as good as can be. They share the same sense of devilment as they do a love for exhaustive analysis. Winning all 11 of their games so far this year has extended their honeymoon period but should Clare lose to Tipperary tomorrow there will be no fallout. They dream the same thing. They want the same thing.
When Fitzgerald made that comment to Cusack the night of Ken McGrath’s fundraiser in Walsh Park, he wasn’t trying to be smart but attempting to pay credit to a man with a similar hurling vision.
“Everyone looks at the game differently. I see it differently than other people see it. I probably think outside the box an awful lot and I was just amazed how much he had copped onto what we were doing because not many people had those different things. But he was pointing out things and I was saying to myself, ‘Jesus, will ya stop saying what you’re saying, will ya?’ So I was having the slag with him and that would have been one of the big factors why I went looking to talk to him. I just liked the way he saw it.”
The manner in which Clare bamboozled Limerick at the outset last Sunday week with reconfiguration after reconfiguration was classic Fitzgerald. Cusack’s paw prints were all over the overwhelming success of Patrick Kelly’s puck-outs.
Clare have also been credited for diversifying their style with more direct ball finding John Conlon, although Conlon pointed out his goal came from his understanding with Clonlara colleague Colm Galvin.
Will there be more variance to Clare’s play under Fitzgerald this season? “We won’t say too much about that but we do our things and certain things happen. Whether there’s a reason for them or not, we won’t go into it. Certainly, if you’re a club-mate of someone, you’ll have an idea of what they can do.
“Most of the credit here has to go to the lads. When you give them something to apply themselves to, they’re mad for information and to try it out. If you stay doing the same old thing, you’ll keep getting the same old results.”
Plenty of water has passed under the bridge since February 2013 when Clare were booed and heckled as they went down to Waterford in a league opener in Cusack Park. Clare’s fourth All-Ireland title quelled the discontent with the team’s short-pass style only for the criticism to resurface with the early Munster and All-Ireland championship exits these past two years.
“I can’t change the minds of the hurlers on the ditch. They’re entitled to their opinions. I’m only worried about the lads I have inside and ensuring they understand what we’re doing. If they understand that, then you have a chance. There are no rights and wrongs and I’m not saying I’m right but I believe I’m doing what is right for the group that I have. That’s it.
“Every sport evolves. Every sport never stands still. In the mid-90s, we were a certain way. It evolved on again in the 2000s with the dominance of Kilkenny in the latter half of the decade. It was great but of course the game is going to change and not everyone is going to like it.
“To me, Waterford have been phenomenal but that’s because they came up with something different. Does it matter if it’s attractive or that what we do is attractive? It doesn’t matter.
“If Waterford are winning games, Tipperary are winning games, Clare or Limerick are winning games, it doesn’t matter. If it’s good for the team and they can be more competitive... I love change. I have no problem with it.”
Speaking after promotion was sealed last Sunday week, Fitzgerald paid tribute to the supporters for the way they got behind the players this year. Away from Brian Lohan’s call for an independent review of the team’s 2015 season and Ger Loughnane’s criticisms, he has detected a groundswell of support for the group.
“I feel it. I could be walking down a street in Ennis and someone will come over and say, ‘Well, how’s the team going? How’s things?’ I know when they look at you, they know you’re trying your absolute best. I have kind of got more into that kind of a place.
“You’re going to be cut and you might be cut by people that you thought were close to you or people who have issues and other agendas but I’ve gone from that. I’ve gone (shrugs shoulders) ‘whatever’. I’m not saying it works all the time but that’s just my own mindset and what I’m trying to do. None of us are perfect.”
‘I was amused at the time, to be honest. I have seen it before, I have heard it before. People get excited when they see something as if... it’s as if like people never scored goals before or as if people never hurled before. It happens. The participants weren’t claiming it. The media came up with all sorts of novel ideas that had been thrown out over the years. I have seen about four or five new types of hurling since I came into this job in people’s minds. It’s impossible to change the fundamentals of a team sport like hurling. If you think it can well then you might start winning All-Irelands.”
— Brian Cody on the hype following the Clare-Cork 2013 finals (September 28, 2014)
The above is as close as Cody has ever come to castigating another county and even at that he doesn’t. The gushing praise that came Clare’s way may not have been their fault but they were witheringly viewed as the nouveau riche in Kilkenny.
“Brian was always entitled to his own opinions and I have so much respect for him,” says Fitzgerald.
“You can never take away their style of play and what they have done but we just brought another aspect to it. We are one of only two other teams that have won an All-Ireland in the last 10 years. We had to do something completely different. If we are to do it again, we might have to shake it up again. It’s up to the rest of us to do something different. I don’t think it would be bad if another team was to make a breakthrough.”
After February’s win over Tipperary, TJ Reid spoke of how much he enjoyed playing them because “it’s just really good hurling. You hate a game going wrong or tactics being involved”.
A week after Kilkenny lost to Waterford, his comment may have been construed as a dig but then Clare under Fitzgerald have taken hurling’s most dreaded t-word and made it a strength of theirs. Doing what they’re not meant to do.
“Certain people like Kilkenny have a style, which is very effective and you would have to admire it. But that doesn’t mean Clare have to play that style. To me, it comes down to the team you have and playing a style that suits the players you have.
“Trust me, there are a lot of people who wouldn’t have liked our style but it wasn’t about playing a style for the sake of playing it. It’s about playing a style to suit the guys and that’s why you would have to admire the Kilkennys of this world.
“They play a savage style that suits their players.
“I don’t believe in copying. I’ve often had teams in LIT who I wouldn’t have playing in a similar way to Clare because there are different individuals who would prefer playing a different style. That’s the good thing about hurling — you can come up with different things and I don’t see anything wrong with it.”
Davy’s way. You don’t have to like it but you can’t ignore it. You don’t want to either.
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