Will Clare, under Davy Fitzgerald, ever be at their best?

Hurling’s seesaw tilts again.

If not quite in the way imagined. The fact that 2016 sees the same semi-finalists as 2015 should not obscure lessons learned. This season, hurling moved on quite a bit. Economists speak of ‘market corrections’. The most beautiful game, recently suffering in aesthetic terms, has been undergoing its own version of a corrective process.

Leading moral? The waning attraction of sweeper-focused and defence-orientated systems. That tide is ebbing. I happened to attend a press conference for one of last season’s All Ireland semi-finals. On the day, journalist after journalist peppered Kilkenny management and two articulate players with questions about sweepers. The only topic in town was this reinvention of hurling’s wheel. It was as if Popeye, in the guise of the fourth estate, had just discovered spinach.

All sport ends up a results business. The durability of any initiative ends up audited by practical success. Clare’s six-point defeat to Galway in last Sunday’s All-Ireland quarter-final is one matter. Defeats come and go, same as deaths and taxes. Clare could have afforded a loss. They had a list of nagging injuries to flag and an NHL title in back pocket as a buffer.

What could Clare not afford? To go ten points down to Galway within 30 seconds of the restart and remain obdurate about playing with seven defenders and five midfielders. That craic beggared logic. Never were the flawed assumptions underlying sweeper-focused hurling left barer. Nobody sensible in life drives from Portlaoise to Dublin if they are going to Limerick. Nobody sensible in hurling decreases their chances of scoring at any time. To do so when aided by the elements or chasing the game is the bizarre side of mistaken.

Various ways, Clare got lucky in 2013 and took a back door All-Ireland. Right enough, they produced some fine hurling and got there in the end on merit. But luck was a central factor, right down to referee Brian Gavin’s decision to permit more than the allotted added time in 2013’s drawn All-Ireland Final. Three seasons is a long scroll and this duration has unfolded, in neon, a negative verdict on Davy Fitzgerald’s tenure as Clare manager. Above all else, his selections and style of play have become predictable and stale. With sport, predictability is the enemy of success.

We have to stand over our own views, good or bad, brave or weak. Back in June 2015, I wrote in this column: “Clare’s wonderful victory in 2013 had come to seem something of a Ponzi scheme, seven or eight different ways of hurling actually one track over reliance on a few personnel.” I copped flak over the comment, which was fair enough. Hedging your bets always plays well with majority opinion.

How does that view read, 13 months down the line? If nothing else, the notion of Davy Fitzgerald as some sort of mastermind, moving hurlers around the pitch like a small ball Dr Evil, is certainly up there with other great ideas such as Guinness Light and Brexit. There are plenty of smart hurling minds in Clare and not of all of them own an All-Ireland medal.

Another lesson learned? That Dónal Óg Cusack’s move to Clare offered no magic bullet. To be fair, he is said to have sat well with the players and might yet become their next manager. But how distinct a departure would that swerve involve? Would logic improve? Cusack is a hardline devotee of the short game in hurling, someone obsessed with quick puckouts, with any tactic that circumvents the ability of half-forwards to gain possession under their own dream. Cusack’s abilities might be considerable but winning championship contests is a fair bit more taxing than waving a pen on The Sunday Game.

Item: Cusack as pundit got Tipperary’s Darren Gleeson an unwarranted All Star in 2014 by becoming lost in praise over a puckout performance against Cork in the All-Ireland semi-final. Said performance arrived on a day when Cork simply did not get off the bus. Gleeson proved unable to repeat this level of puckout completion against Kilkenny in either the drawn or the replayed All-Ireland Final. Did Cusack notice?

Do the math: one in three equals 33 per cent. Since when did 33 per cent become first class honours, academe’s version of an All Star? Cusack’s obsession with the short game leads inexorably to this kind of flawed analysis. Do the path: the element that loses contests on the sideline, as per last weekend, is flawed analysis.

Besides, what is this Munster allergy about fetching as a skill of hurling? Would coaching individuals to catch the ball not be easier in the long run? Kilkenny’s Eddie Brennan, in the early 2000s, started off poor under high balls and puckouts. By the late 2000s, Brennan had become a decent puckout outlet for both club and county. Would some version of this progress on a group level not be a more wholesome enterprise than tying 14 lads up in knots because three lads cannot catch the ball?

The bizarre side of mistaken leaves one question unavoidable: can Davy Fitzgerald credibly continue as Clare manager? Last weekend, he completed a fifth season in charge. Five years is ample time to sound the possibilities of a particular setup. Spool to another unavoidable question: can one All-Ireland swallow make five summers? You would think not, on balance.

Davy Fitzgerald’s recent illness was sympathetically noted in the media. His passion for winning, for hurling and for Clare cannot be doubted. His presence last Sunday evinced one man’s passion and determination. He received many good wishes for his future health, wishes to which I am happy to add. Yet there is nothing amiss in discussing his position. After all, journalists have weighed in this week with calls for him to stay. Those calls were discussion of his position.

All of us enthralled by hurling are grateful to those figures who give the most beautiful game its character. But there is a limit. Soap opera and tabloid antics are to character what sugar is to nutrition. Whatever about love being blind, enthrallment is different. Nobody credible could miss Davy Fitz on the sideline, tangling with linesmen and opposing managers, semaphoring to UFOs invisible to everyone else. The sweeper system stuff is part of the same risible syndrome, catnip for tabloids but arsenic for hurling properly conceived.

All the while, Davy Fitzgerald cannot have it both ways. Nobody credible can have missed a recent Newstalk interview. Before the All-Ireland quarter-final with Galway, he denigrated local journalists and even former colleagues on the great Clare team of the 1990s in that interview. The sentiments aired were peculiar in the extreme. Item: none of these figures, according to Fitzgerald, were entitled to an opinion on Clare’s progress, such was the obvious superiority of his own perspective. Even mild dissent massages the North Korean side of Davy Fitz.

Remarks that saucy make ganders of all geese. To refresh the obvious: management is a results game. How sound do Fitzgerald’s decisions now look? Item: what odds would you have got in late 2013 on the Clare footballers being in Croke Park before the Clare hurlers returned to that sward? However strange, this scenario is one over which Davy Fitzgerald, a manager at the highest level on his own account, has presided.

Questionable judgment far exceeds denigration as a mode of engagement. His judgement has repeatedly been found wanting, from isolating and excluding players as punishment to fielding injured players in the 2016 Munster semi final against Waterford. Fitzgerald wants the proverbial lion’s share of the credit after a win (emphasising his instruction that Tony Kelly take Clare’s last free against Waterford in the replayed NHL Final). Following any loss? A mouse’s portion.

The most piercing queries focus on the talent at his disposal. Clare won four U21 All-Irelands in six seasons between 2009 and 2014. The oldest of these players is still only 28. How capably has Davy Fitzgerald performed as regards the most important managerial challenge, player development? There is no ducking this facet. Capable and culpable rhyme into a verdict.

You would wonder. Item: Darach Honan, crucial to 2009’s U21 campaign, is 26 in 2016. He hurled at full-forward against Kilkenny in that All-Ireland Final. Jonjo Farrell was his counterpart in a number 14 jersey. As of 2009, Honan looked a far greater talent than Farrell.

Time’s whirligigs mean that Farrell is on course, as of July 2016, for an All Star and a possible Hurler of the Year nomination. He has improved out of all recognition. As of July 2016, Honan is lodged in the buffers. How did such an outcome transpire, given the starting point?

This capsule narrative could be expanded in many directions and for many names. Not just time’s whirligigs are agent. Davy Fitzgerald’s influence has been a kinetic force. Among the Clare players who featured that day in 2009 were Dónal Tuohy, Cian Dillon, Domhnall O’Donovan, Nicky O’Connell, Enda Barrett, John Conlon, Darach Honan, Colin Ryan, Conor McGrath and Pat O’Connor. Does one back door All-Ireland in 2013, after a campaign in which neither Kilkenny nor Tipperary were met, hove so remarkable in this context? And in what light do the fortunes of Cork hurling 2014 and onwards place their defeat in 2013?

Not just on the criterion of silverware is Davy Fitzgerald fathoms behind Brian Cody. The latter manager has been supreme in developing nascent talent, which is why Kilkenny are still so competitive even when the players to Cody’s hand strike some observers as functional journeymen. Nor does Fitzgerald compare at all well in player development stakes with Anthony Daly, Éamonn Fitzmaurice, Jim Gavin, Mickey Harte, Jim McGuinness, Éamon O’Shea and Liam Sheedy. Fitzgerald is not remotely in their league on this crucial front.

For the most beautiful game, there runs a broader point. Hurling needs Clare at their best. But will Clare, under Davy Fitzgerald, ever be at their best? Do the bulk of the current panel, deep down, want to win another All-Ireland under the current setup, when that victory would mean five more years training for Ironman Triathlons in guise of becoming All-Ireland Champions?

Is these players’ sense of unease too deeply grooved? Dónal Óg Cusack, 30 plus of a backroom team and 22nd century training facilities in Caherlohan is well and good. Fair enough. But can Davy Fitzgerald, given what has transpired over five seasons, ever get the best out of the current group? You would wonder.

If the man has any sense, he will step down as manager, having won a Senior title and an NHL title. He was a fine goalkeeper and won two All-Irelands between the posts. Placed against the wider Banner tradition, there is nothing shabby about that haul. Fitzgerald has definitely seen off Ger Loughnane’s assessment in a newspaper column of June 2009: “a little upstart with a big profile but a tiny record of achievement in management”. Yes, Davy Fitz could go at the moment with his head high.

Meanwhile Waterford’s U21s defeated Tipperary by ten points in Wednesday’s Munster Final. I was in Walsh Park and there was a terrific atmosphere. Waterford earned not just silverware but a much needed boost. The mother of a key Waterford player was sitting in front of me. At the final whistle, she was in tears.

The U21s set up without a sweeper, with Austin Gleeson magnificent at centre-back.

Wednesday evening, the alpha and omega of Déise tactical innovation was Shane Bennett, named at full-forward, being brought out around midfield, avid for work. By and large, Tipperary sent a marker after Bennett, leaving five on five at the back. Logic and common sense might not be entirely redundant.

Anyhow, this stirring win will make Waterford’s Seniors really dangerous against Kilkenny next weekend. The county is very much up and down, black and white, feast or famine. Their U21s might have restored a helpful bit of equilibrium to the seesaw.

Let us embrace truth. For Senior hurling in 2016, one co-ordinate is clear and burning bright. The best four teams are in the All Ireland semi finals.

Partisanship and agendas aside, what more could anyone want?


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