Tuesday 23 May 2017

Vincent Hogan: Davy revolution still driving Deise

After years of floating like butterflies Fitz's Waterford now live in real world

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

The day of the All-Ireland hurling quarter-finals, Davy Fitzgerald bumped into Brian Cody at Croke Park. They exchanged pleasantries and a little small-talk, Cody congratulating Fitzgerald on Waterford's Munster final replay defeat of Cork. Davy chuckled that not everyone in the county was happy with the new style of Waterford's hurling.

Cody smiled. The idea that people might mistake hurling as some kind of preening fashion show would be anathema to everything that draws him to the game.

"Davy, I'm sure that won't bother you," said Cody.

"Write it down," grinned the Waterford manager.

MAYBE IN A TIME of crisis, the journey forward can only begin after a clear look back. It was from behind the heavy curtains of Kilkenny's slaughter of his team in '08, that Fitzgerald first considered this business of the butterfly and the caterpillar.

The Waterford he inherited, existed in a world of endless affection. They played hurling that was free-spirited as the wind and just about as predictable.

When they lost, they did so with epic grandeur. People loved them for it, this innocent purity of always playing a game that was high in operatic tenor.

Waterford, essentially, won three Munster titles without the embellishment of tactic. They just had wonderful, expressive hurlers and -- on the good days -- the breadth of that expression was enough.

Yet, they could look impossibly naïve too. Great fountains of scores weren't always sufficient, because they leaked calamitous totals. They approached big-days as random shoot-outs.

Those who knew Davy Fitz only as a player imagined that his gift to Waterford mid-Championship '08 might be a few, wild-eyed investments of brimstone and sulphur. They reckoned he might deposit some short-term electricity in their lives. But beyond that?

This was an old and famously head-strong team, long since set in their ways. The smart money was on Davy and Waterford to shake the habit of one another before long.

So, when Kilkenny tossed 3-30 past them that cruel September day, it was taken as the inscription on a mass card. Cody was typically understated and gracious afterwards as he reached out to a devastated Fitzgerald and the Clareman appreciated it.

But, as they leaned close in the maelstrom, Fitzgerald said: "Ye're a fantastic team, but I'd love another crack at ye!"

Eleven months later, Kilkenny would -- again -- get the better of Waterford en route to retaining the Liam McCarthy Cup. Yet, the margin between them had been compressed from 23 points to five. Davy's vision was beginning to take shape.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Cody can take some pleasure in the obstinacy of the new Waterford. For Kilkenny's is the template that fascinates Fitzgerald most and the one that has most informed the dramatic re-invention of his team.

He is captivated by their mastery of space, their ability to make a field feel cramped and suffocating, yet still hurl with perfect union and control. True, they are blessed with remarkable hurlers. But there is a careful science too to the Kilkenny of Brian Cody. And nobody studies them with quite the intensity of Davy Fitz.

So, Waterford may not be as easy on the eye these days, but they go to business with a plan.

After the drawn Munster final, Denis Walsh described Cork's miserly first-half tally of 0-6 as a "disaster."

Six days later, his team mined 0-4 in the first 35 minutes of the replay. Tactically, Waterford had Cork in a straitjacket.

They were setting the rules of engagement. Bossing things.

This was a bold reversion of tradition on two fronts. Firstly, Cork weren't accustomed to having others decide the tenor of battle. Secondly, the idea of Waterford as master strategists was a stark repudiation of history.

Under Justin McCarthy, they had often played with a beautiful freedom, yet -- always -- a sense too of trusting in higher spirits.

Justin had an aloof air. He rarely raised his voice and, routinely, invoked the memory of past battles as a kind of safety net for the present. Sometimes, he might walk down the aisle of the team-bus with individual cue cards for each player. But there was always a sense of radiating inner wisdom that required trust, not explanation.

Famously, he came up with the plan of Waterford flying to Dublin on the morning of the '04 All-Ireland semi-final against Kilkenny. When it was pointed out to him that Waterford airport was notoriously susceptible to fog, Justin scoffed, all but implying that he had a direct line to the deities.

Unknown to him, a contingency plan was put in place. The local railway station manager agreed to set aside an entire carriage just in case it was required. And that morning, Waterford airport was indeed hidden under a heavy shroud.

The team traveled to Dublin by train. It was this indifference to other voices, this seemingly bomb-proof self-regard that -- ultimately -- wore the Waterford players down. The first time they met Justin, that same sense of certainty had a glorious magnetism. Six years on, all they saw in him was austerity and distance.

Davy Fitz was probably the last man they would have identified as an antidote. He was openly disliked by many of the Waterford players. Despite an already decent CV in management, they knew him only as the mouthy, buck-lepping, over-emotional Clare goalkeeper against whom they'd had so many contrary battles.

Fitzgerald, remember, had only stopped playing the previous March. In an initial short-list that included Nicky English, Donal O'Grady and John Allen, he looked an incendiary option.

Yet, Davy palpably wanted the job and when Waterford officials met him, they encountered a man far removed from popular caricature. He outlined a plan so clear in detail and structure, it initially startled them. In terms of training gear and equipment, Waterford needed to go to a new place.

Davy believed that Waterford were neither fit enough, nor smart enough on the big days and there could be no short-cuts in how they dealt with that shortfall. Sweet-talking the dressing-room wouldn't be an option.

Yet, he had a humility they didn't expect of him.

Current captain, Stephen Molumphy, wasn't present at the players' meeting in Tramore after that heavy loss to Clare in the '08 Munster Championship that sealed McCarthy's fate. And he wasn't especially impressed when he heard of the coup against the Cork man.

McCarthy had introduced Molumphy to senior county hurling and invested a lot of faith in the army lieutenant. Some time after the dust had settled, he decided to drive to McCarthy's home in Passage West and personally thank the departed manager for nurturing him as a county player.

He admits to feeling a deep unease about all that had occurred.

Molumphy recalls a subsequent Waterford training session under Fitzgerald at Walsh Park. The place was electric with purpose and order when, out of the ether, a voice flew in derogatory recall of Justin's different pace to life. Davy Fitz immediately stopped the session.

Calling the players together, he told them that he would not tolerate hearing another negative word about his predecessor. Molumphy remembers the intervention as a key moment. "I thought it was brilliant that he said that," he recalls.

Typical of Fitzgerald, he wasn't exactly without prior commitment when Waterford called. For years, he had been training teams in virtual multitudes. In his autobiography, 'Passion And Pride', he recalls a typical Saturday in the midst of Clare's Championship build-up in '01.

At 6.20am, he left home for one of Ger Loughnane's famous morning sessions in Ennis. From there, he drove back to Sixmilebridge to train the local camogie team until midday. After that, it was on to Whitegate to put Sixmilebridge seniors through a lunchtime session. Then to Liscannor to train the ladies' football team and, finally, back to Ennis to train the Clare U-21s. That particular evening ended with Fitzgerald presenting medals in Shannon.

He was coaching Eire Og, Nenagh when the Waterford job became available and, to begin with, believed he could accommodate both in his diary. Nenagh were neither convinced nor, for that matter, especially impressed and the parting of the ways wasn't entirely amicable.

Yet, this is the essence of Fitzgerald. He would happily coach teams in the dead of night if only he could find a group with the stomach.

Loughnane wrote of this unique passion in his biography 'Raising The Banner'. The two men aren't close now, Davy having taken deep exception to his former manager's acerbic newspaper comments on Clare under Anthony Daly.

Yet, in '01, Loughnane wrote of Fitzgerald: "He has nerves of steel. He would never show the slightest fear in a competitive hurling situation. He would have faced a pride of starving lions. You never had to worry about his physical and mental preparation.

"The greatest saves he ever made were in training. We'd line up 20 players who would bombard him with shots. The saves he made were absolutely breathtaking. Often, the saves were so good that no goal would be scored out of the 20 shots."

Fitzgerald's routine at the time was borderline obsessive. The week of a championship game was, essentially, scrubbed clean of all outside commitments. Apart from group sessions, he would work in the gym with a personal trainer and organise lunchtime drills in Sixmilebridge with his great mentor and friend, Kevin 'Trixie' Twomey.

It had been Twomey who drafted him into the Clare minors as a 15-year-old and set in motion one of the great goalkeeping careers of the modern game.

Fitzgerald was devastated when Twomey died suddenly the week of Clare's All-Ireland quarter-final against Kilkenny in '04. He subsequently gave the graveside oration that Friday evening before taking himself straight to the gym in the Shannon Shamrock Hotel in Bunratty. Davy was determined, as he puts it, "to play better than I ever did" for his lost friend.

The heat generated by that kind of personality isn't to everyone's taste and Fitzgerald has the intuition to understand this. On the bus to Croke Park for that '08 All-Ireland final, the plan was to play a compilation of the players' favourite songs.

Yet, Fitzgerald arranged that the first piece played would be a famous 'Gift Grub' sketch, parodying himself. After Justin's slightly cold, school-master ways, it was the ultimate expression of humility to a still slightly sceptical team.

DAVY FITZ GOT MANY things wrong that calamitous day against Kilkenny.

He certainly underestimated the tug of hype on a county facing into its first All-Ireland final since 1963. Hindsight also suggests that he maybe sought things from some of his players that wouldn't have been in their nature to deliver. A few looked overexcited, squaring for a fight before the ball was even thrown in. Against Kilkenny, that is the equivalent of following a bear into the woods.

For a time after, there were those in Waterford who felt this experiment had run its course. Within the dressing-room, a little cabal of cynics was inclined to hold court too. Davy soon identified the ring-leaders and effectively retired them.

Gradually, he invested time and trust in men like Molumphy, Michael 'Brick' Walsh and -- latterly -- Noel Connors. Last winter, he wisely rested a block of the old guard, great men like Ken McGrath, John Mullane and Tony Browne, who had a lot more than 10 years of service on the clock.

The team they would return to was pared down to such an essence of selflessness and devotion to a singular entity, it was all but unrecognisable from anything they knew.

Through the course of the metamorphosis, there were bound to be little crises. Routinely, Fitzgerald found himself trying to placate the odd marquee player left bristling with resentment at what he perceived as a fall in the dressing-room hierarchy.

And he did so in a human way that was probably never in Justin's gift. The cheap shots will always be accessible.

When Waterford lost to Dublin in last year's National League, Davy's decision to keep them out until 1.30am at a Bernard Dunne world title fight was widely depicted as crass and self-serving.

Yet, he saw so much in the warrior that Dunne transformed into at fight-time that he believed any open-minded hurler might profitably process it to his advantage. Now, Dunne is a regular member of the Waterford backroom team.

They don't shoot the lights out anymore and nobody is swooning at the breadth of their ambition. But then the most beautiful butterflies are fragile as tissue paper. The caterpillar has more time on its side.

Irish Independent

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