Sunday 23 July 2017

Vincent Hogan: Fitzgerald reaps reward for courage of conviction

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Of all the meteorites that Clare's uprising tossed towards the earth, maybe none has blazed hotter than Davy Fitz. In Thurles on Saturday night, you could catch fire by grazing against the cuff of his tracksuit.

People laid hands on him as if touching a religious relic. They stared and grinned and bellowed their belief that here was a man to join all the invisible deities who passed this way before.

The mood hyperventilated between adoration and worship.

And Davy just quietly worked the moment. He reminded us of Waterford's All-Ireland final meltdown 22 months back and of the vitriol that that humiliation sent splashing his players' way. He recalled a time when some would happily have seen their manager parachuted into the South American rainforest and left to get by eating leaves for a year.

It sounded as if he was building to something. Maybe to a rebuke of the sneaks and the sly-mouths who lurk on the margins in every county. Yet, he stopped himself before the words could gather purchase.

And he smiled the gentlest lyric of a smile. "This is nice," said Davy Fitz to the gaping media and, just for a second, he was peaceable as a scholar fingering the spine of a fulfilling book.

Somebody asked him about tactics and a shine of mischief slid across his eyes. Davy said that Waterford had gone into battle with minds open as an ocean, that the game just followed an accidental narrative. They threw a pair of dice and came up double six.

FORENSIC

He grinned and we chuckled. We'd seen Cork neutralised by a forensic attention to detail that wouldn't have been out of place between the covers of an Arthur Conan Doyle plot.

It's not everyone's cup of tea, this business of pouring heavy traffic into the puck-out zone and, essentially, clogging channels. Yet, Davy slept under a pretty starless sky after that humiliation by Kilkenny in September 2008. And nobody has studied the champions more assiduously since.

Obsession was written into the hard drive of his personality as a player and management is no different. In his autobiography, 'Passion and Pride', he revealed a personal routine of twice-daily training sessions followed by midnight runs on Lahinch strand.

"When Clare are involved in the Championship," he wrote, "I might only go out socially once or twice in six months. My family don't talk to me for three days before a game. They realise it is a futile exercise because I am away in my own world."

That world now extends to endless study of patterns, systems and the subtle deceptions of the mind. Where once people saw him in wild-eyed, one-dimensional profile, they now glimpse depth and wisdom and, maybe above all, courage of conviction.

Reinventing Waterford was never going to be a Mills and Boon adventure. Through the decade, they've been so loose and beautiful in their hurling, it seemed sinful to consider change to a stoic philosophy. Davy was, essentially, taking a cudgel to stained glass and putting in double-glazing. Worse, he had to sell it to a team already decorated with three Munster crowns in six seasons.

There have been quarrelsome wrinkles along the way, little in-house eruptions of angst that were kept under lock and key. Yet, Saturday night felt like an arrival point. For the second game running, Waterford dictated the rules of engagement to Cork. History repudiated.

And in the brilliance of old soldiers like Tony Browne and John Mullane and, ultimately, Big Dan Shanahan, maybe we caught sight of the wisdom in Davy's decision to set a winter programme of rest and recovery for some of those with high mileage in their legs.

True, there remains a sense that all we are witnessing right now may be no more than the small-print of a hurling season fated to find definition in Kilkenny's five-in-a-row. You certainly suspect that nothing we saw in Thurles will have affected sleep patterns in the Cody household.

Yet, nobody looks to have downloaded more information from their meetings with the Cats than Waterford.

It's been a hard and deflating few weeks for a couple of Davy Fitz's old Clare comrades. 'Sparrow' O'Loughlin found with his beloved Banner that the space between U-21 tyros and hardened seniors is a small prairie. And Anthony Daly's remarkable work with Dublin met an unexpected trip-wire against Antrim.

There is no easy road here. Championship hurling requires a selflessness and intensity that even the smartest, most innovative managers can't always draw from their teams on demand.

Right now, maybe that's the miracle of Davy Fitz. Two years ago, he stepped into a dressing-room known in the trade as "difficult". A room populated by men who were in the process of being vilified for the kind of stance that, in Cork, drew a flood of odes. Most of us believed he was buying shares in a busted story.

Turns out we didn't know him and we didn't know Waterford. Together, they're still charging to the light.

Irish Independent

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