'Am I a lunatic? Maybe TV hasn't helped the cause' - Clare manager Davy Fitzgerald
Controversial Clare manager Davy Fitzgerald plotting return to top table after two seasons of struggle for 2013 All-Ireland champions
Published 30/01/2016 | 02:30
The world and its mother will tell you stuff about him; give it to you as gospel. Davy Fitzgerald activates the storyteller in people he has never even met.
Reading him is easy, you see. It always is with a cartoon. He is that walking stick of dynamite fizzing down a tramline, right? That plaintive voice, coursed endlessly by injustice? He is, the world and its mother knows, pure parody gold. On Waterford's coach journey to Croke Park for the '08 All-Ireland final, one of the tapes played was of a comedian's impersonation of Fitzgerald.
He chose it himself to lighten the mood.
Of current inter-county managers, his hurling CV is second only to Brian Cody's. Yet, to the game's self-styled intelligentsia, this seems a mystery. Because Davy is one-dimensional in their eyes. Some kind of real-life offspring of a D'unbelievables character, never far from wild, over-heating rhetoric delivered to a soundtrack of splintering timber.
What on earth could a sophisticate like Donal Og Cusack see in him?
Clare will be the marketeers' dream of the looming Allianz National Hurling League. A Division 1B team with Hollywood beneath its skin. Paul Kinnerk, one of the country's brightest, most innovative coaches, is also back in place after taking a year out to travel. Alongside Louis Mulqueen and Aonghus O'Brien and Mike Browne and Seoirse Bulfin and Fergal Lynch, Davy Fitz believes he has the best backroom team in hurling now.
Clare, he says, can have "no excuses".
Of course, Cusack's recruitment is the one that has the chattering classes giddy. As rival goalkeepers, he and Fizgerald were never especially close and in his autobiography, Come What May, the Corkman recalls a Railway Cup trip to Boston in '05 during which, as Munster team-mates, their relationship was openly hostile.
Yet, within weeks of Clare's Championship defeat to Cork last summer, Fitzgerald had Cusack on his mind. Why?
"We might not have been close as goalkeepers, but I respected him big-time," he explained in Clare this week. "If you're a really competitive animal, you're not going to click with fellas you're playing against.
"The mentality is that you're going to war and I totally relate to that. But there'd still be opponents you'd have massive respect for, fellas you can recognise as driven. I saw Donal Og as someone who would do whatever it took to be the best and I've always admired that in people.
"But more than any other analyst that I've come across, he's been the smartest. By that, I mean someone who can read a game. I felt he could read certain things that we were doing which other analysts couldn't. But it also struck me that when he spoke, he spoke from the heart.
"People talk about his lack of coaching experience, but I think anything that man puts his mind to, he'll give it a fair shot. He brings an awful lot to the table."
Fitzgerald first put his idea on the table at a meeting in Mulqueen's house maybe four weeks after the Cork defeat. He subsequently met Cusack in Portlaoise where they "threw out different things" over a chat stretching to maybe a couple of hours. A second meeting in Charleville convinced both that their thoughts on the game were largely compatible.
So they took the plunge and, thus far, neither has felt the need for a backward glance.
"I suppose people are wondering how the two of us will get on," admits Davy. "We're seen as these two very strong personalities, will we be going head to head at times? That did enter my head, but it's why we sat down and talked at length. And I really enjoyed those talks.
"I just felt that he'd fit into our set-up brilliantly, that he'd be a great new voice and that the lads would have tremendous respect for him. Now I couldn't say anything against the coaching staff I had, they were brilliant. I just felt that we could do with that bit of freshness."
The recent return of Kinnerk too - "an absolutely fantastic coach who owes Clare nothing" - amplifies that freshness at a time Fitzgerald might easily be feeling somewhat besieged.
Within minutes of victory in the 2013 All-Ireland final replay, he foretold the slump that Clare have experienced since. Yet two empty seasons decanted remarkable vitriol within the county, not to mention the public disgruntlement of old comrades. In July, former county full-back Brian Lohan called for an independent review of Clare's performances.
He sought the review to be chaired by Ger Loughnane, their old manager whose media observations on Fitzgerald's stewardship of Clare have often carried an acerbic sting.
"Listen, Ger will be Ger," Davy sighs gently. "He'll be giving out about you one day and be praising you the next. I've nothing bad to say about him."
Yet does he not feel a cut of disloyalty here from men with whom he shared some of the most tumultuous days that hurling has ever known?
"There is that perception out there that former colleagues are having a go, calling for reviews and that," he acknowledges. "I suppose there is only one word I could use in relation to that. Disappointment. I think my record is what it is. People can see where we brought Clare back from.
"I think one of the best periods in Clare's hurling history has been the last five or so years, between U-21 and senior. And the U-21 management would be the first to acknowledge that we worked in tandem with a lot of their players, so that stuff would be disappointing.
"But there's no point carrying it with us. . ."
Clare's sole Championship victory since September 2013 has been a destruction of Offaly last summer. Yet, of their four defeats in that time, three have been by a single score. It tends to be overlooked too that they topped Division 1A of the National League in 2014 and that their relegation last spring was confirmed only on the back of a single-point loss to Kilkenny in Nowlan Park.
This may not be a team riding the arc of high achievement, but neither is it one in abject free-fall.
Fitzgerald believes they have simply fallen the wrong side of fine lines in big games. Why? His suspicion is that the modern fundamentals of tackling and blocking have not been deployed with the same "savage energy" that franked their play two summers ago.
"I just don't think it's been up to the level it needed to be," he says flatly. "Would I say it's back now? I don't know. We won't know until the games start. And maybe at times you can try too hard too. But the question I keep asking myself is 'When it came to it, was that absolute drive to win a dirty ball there last year? I'm not sure it was. Things did slip.
"Teams have passed us, there's no doubt about it. But I'm not frightened. We have the capability of matching any of them. I just think we'll get that extra five per cent we need out of the players this year.
"That might seem a small thing. But we've lost games by a point and two points over the last two years. That's what five per cent is!"
Impatience is palpable in the county. The accumulation of three successive All-Ireland U-21 titles between 2012-14 has fuelled a sense that Clare's hurling resources have never been so bountiful. Yet, the experiences of Limerick and Galway confirm that underage success is no guarantor of senior glory.
Clare also won the '09 U-21 crown, yet their only senior Championship victory over the next three seasons was a narrow qualifier defeat of Dublin in 2012. Fitzgerald's view is that "coping" with underage success can be every bit as tricky as dealing with the dark days.
Clare, he says, simply need to start winning more games now. Their "number one objective" from the National League is to be in the quarter-finals which, given the top four in 1B secure that status, is surely within their scope. Beyond that? They play Waterford in the Munster Championship on June 5, a date he believes might as well be scorched into the thinking of both camps with a branding iron.
"Knowing Derek McGrath as well as I do, the only thing on his mind. . . and if he tells you anything different, he's not telling the truth. . . will be June 5," suggests Fitzgerald. "It's going to be a massive game. The way Waterford have handled themselves in the last year has been phenomenal. Derek took incredible stick in 2014 and I felt he was very manly in how he dealt with that.
"He was rewarded with some great performances last year. I know a lot of their players from my time there and I'd have a real soft spot and affection for them too. But, on June 5, they won't have it for me. And, for an hour, I won't have it for them."
How Fitzgerald conducts himself on the line will inevitably come under scrutiny. He says he has made a point of trying to suppress the more excessive sides to his game-day personality, but will not be decommissioning the furious competitor within.
Having berated James Owens during Clare's first National League tie against Kilkenny last season, Fitzgerald sought the Wexford referee out at a subsequent game to apologise.
He explains: "When I looked at the tape afterwards, I realised that he'd been right. He was doing linesman one day after and I went up to him and asked him to accept my apology.
"Look, I think a lot of the referees know the story. There might have been two or three who wouldn't have been happy that I was being vocal with them, but I think they know in the their heart of hearts that there's no badness in me. If I see something wrong, I'll say it. I'm just trying the best for my team.
"But maybe two or three got it into their heads that I had a bit of an attitude. Listen I'm fighting for my players. I probably don't appreciate the pressure I put referees under at times, I'll admit that. But I don't mean to do it. It's just in the heat of battle. I have big respect for the job they do. To be fair, it's massive.
"They won't always get it right and you've got to understand that and forgive it. Referees are going to make mistakes. I make mistakes every day of the week. It's true, a referee's mistake might cost you a game, but you have to get over it and accept that it's fair across the board. They'll make those mistakes for both sides.
"I've accepted that a lot more, I like to think it's something I've improved on. It doesn't mean I won't give out to them this year, I probably will. But it's not out of a bad place, I can honestly say that.
"It's just, if you see something, you have to fight for it. And look, I get given out to from the sideline all the time."
You ask if maybe that anger spilling towards him through the wire just feeds the furnace of Fitzgerald's own demeanour. But he is indifferent to the notion.
"No, people can say whatever they want to me," he declares emphatically. "I've been listening to it my whole career. If it helps some people to shout abuse non-stop at me, fine. It doesn't faze me.
"Listen, the way people see me seems to vary from the lunatic on the sideline who can't shut up to a fella who nearly over-thinks his hurling. They're contradictory images, so I just try to stay away from analysing what other people think.
"Am I a lunatic? Maybe TV hasn't helped the cause. They get you for three or four minutes straight after a game that lasts maybe 73. Look, I'm not giving out about it. But I know there are other managers who are just as vocal on the line. But I think if you ask any of the players of the time we won the All-Ireland, they'd say I'd have been one of the calmest people there. The way I'm talking now would be the way I'd be for 99pc of my team-talks.
"And they're the only people who really know me - the players and backroom staff. They know there's a hell of a lot of thought put into everything we do."
The scale of that backroom staff comes in for regular carping, and he can detect a view in certain quarters that his father Pat's position as county secretary must make life easier for Davy Fitz. The notion entertains him.
"People would think I get an easy ride because my dad is secretary, but I'd say I've got the toughest ride of any recent Clare manager," he suggests. "We'd row a lot. He's the type of man who doesn't want to be seen to give me anything. He's a brilliant dad, a great man. But he's tough, he has his ways and he would hate anyone to think that I got anything extra.
"He'll always say to me 'If ye get this, the footballers have to get it too. . .' Everything has to be 50-50 and he'll make you fair aware of that. Ask him for new sliotars and he'll ask you have you the old ones to return? That's the way he is. He really, really watches out for Clare GAA. Listen, I think he does a phenomenal job and if you look at his period as secretary, it's been Clare's most successful. But he'd be the first to tell you he's had good people around him too."
Kilkenny still cast the shadow that everyone else in hurling must strive to emerge from and Davy's respect for the man who leads them is complete.
He says: "Brian Cody is tough out, a ruthless man. The best GAA manager unequivocally in my opinion. I remember when we won in 2013, some people saying that Cody was finished. I couldn't believe it. I was laughing to myself, thinking 'Are they for real?'
"He comes back then, wins the next two All-Irelands and now they're on again for three in a row! Personally, I love coming up against him. I'm not afraid of them, that's for sure. None of the players are. But they're a phenomenal team and that's down to the way they're led.
"Has Cody dropped his enthusiasm even a fraction as manager? One hundred per cent not. The team from '07 to '12 was the greatest team I've ever seen. The characters they had were incredible, people like JJ Delaney, Tommy Walsh, Brian Hogan and Henry Shefflin. . .
"Now they're still going strong, which is a fantastic achievement. But we all want to beat them and that's our challenge. I'm very proud of the fact that we're one of only two teams outside of Kilkenny that have won an All-Ireland in the last ten years. But our objective now is to try and get another one."
To do so, Davy believes that Clare's power will have to be in the collective. "It's nice to be able to go in training and have good people around you," he says. "We've always had that in Clare during my time as manager, not negative people.
"Life is too short for those."