Friday 30 September 2016

Davy brings down his Banner era

Fitzgerald's parting gift to Clare is to walk away without a dragging the county into a divisive row

Published 22/09/2016 | 02:30

Fitzgerald’s parting gift to Clare is to walk away without a dragging the county into a divisive row. Photo by Paul Mohan / Sportsfile
Fitzgerald’s parting gift to Clare is to walk away without a dragging the county into a divisive row. Photo by Paul Mohan / Sportsfile

On paper it looks strange - to move on from the manager who brings you success more often than anyone else.

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Davy Fitzgerald, Clare hurling and success have long been bedfellows. The Banner have won four All-Ireland titles in their history, and Fitzgerald played in two and managed them to another. When he's involved, Clare win more than when he isn't. In that sense his contribution is unparalleled.

So on paper, dispensing with that sort of experience and know-how looks careless. But last night, Fitzgerald made it official and walked away from Clare. And somehow, despite the success, it seemed like the right thing for all involved.

His statement had been expected all day and it eventually landed just before 8.0 last night. In the end, his farewell amounted to just 343 words where he outlined his pride at the success of the team, the thinking behind his departure and the "confidence" he had that great days lay ahead for the county.

And that was it.

Revolution

You'd be forgiven for wondering how it ever came to this. It's only three years ago that a whiff of revolution hung over the hurling landscape. Clare swashbuckled their way to an All-Ireland title with a team packed with skill and pace and baby faces that looked like they could shape the game for years to come.

Not long after, the county secured a second All-Ireland U-21 title in a row. (They'd eventually win three on the bounce). All seemed well. Clare were kings and Fitzgerald sat on the throne.

Fast forward three years and the same baby faces have become a little more grizzled now. They gathered in Ennis on Monday night and, at the manager's request, tossed and turned over their 2016 campaign and what had been three forgettable seasons since that All-Ireland win. When they emerged, the room was split. Some wanted change, some wanted the status quo to remain. Either way, Fitzgerald's race was run.

"I asked the Joint Captains to ascertain the opinions of the wider panel on whether they would like a change of voice," read the statement. 

"In light of the ensuing meeting and the divided opinions expressed by players, I have decided that it would be in the best interests of Clare hurling that I step down."

With hindsight, 2016 looked like a last roll of the dice. With the spectacular recruitment of Donal Og Cusack to the management team along with some other highly regarded appointments, Fitzgerald looked to reclaim some of the lost momentum since '13.

The year started brightly enough. Kilkenny were dismantled in the league semi-final and they'd outdo Waterford in a spectacular final replay. That was the county's first league title in 38 years.

But expectation in Clare has shifted greatly since Fitzgerald took charge for the 2012 campaign. Once in a generation wins, like that league success, aren't enough for a county who have produced their most talented bunch yet.

The horizon for Clare hurling folk has shifted and when they fell in Munster at the first hurdle again this term, it raised questions as to whether the team were in the right hands.

The rest of the summer came and went and eventually ended with defeat to Galway in the All-Ireland quarter-final and suddenly Clare's record looked underwhelming.

In five seasons under Fitzgerald, Clare never managed to win more than a single game in the Munster championship in a given season. That record rankled with many. And he also took flak in the row that saw Davy O'Halloran and Nicky O'Connell suspended from the squad.

The incident that saw Podge Collins forced to choose between the Banner football team managed by his father and the hurling squad also didn't sit well.

So he has his detractors in the county. Some will be glad to see him move on. But no one doubted his commitment to the cause. The famous 'MiWadi and biscuits' meeting that is credited with turning their 2013 season around took place in Fitzgerald's home rather than some hotel function room. The Clare job was nothing if not personal to him.

And this year too, he patrolled the sideline against Galway despite having undergone heart surgery that week.

But when it emerged that a part of the dressing-room was lost, he realised it was all lost. Instead of making things ugly, he made them swift. Clare wouldn't endure the 'will he, won't he' saga that Galway had last year. There would be no more damage to the squad than there needed to be.

And that is Fitzgerald's parting gift to Clare.

The Fitzgerald statement in full

"One of the greatest privileges of my life has been to manage the Clare senior hurling team and I am immensely proud of the success achieved during my time at the helm.

"After this year's All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Galway, I was undecided about my future and I indicated as much to the players in the dressing-room post-match. In the weeks that followed, I asked the joint-captains to ascertain the opinions of the wider panel on whether they would like a change of voice.

"In light of the ensuing meeting and the divided opinions expressed by players, I have decided that it would be in the best interests of Clare hurling that I step down. "I will cherish the memory of seeing so many happy Clare faces when in 2013 we won what was only the county's fourth All-Ireland title and again in Thurles last May when we were crowned National League champions for the first time in 38 years.

"The Clare players were heroes on both days and it is my belief they will lift Liam MacCarthy again in the near future.

"I was not asked to step down. The decision is entirely my own. In taking this decision, however, I wish to reaffirm my absolute love and passion for Clare hurling. "I want to express my sincere thanks to the backroom teams which have served alongside me for the past five seasons. It was a real pleasure to work with people of the highest calibre.

"I want to thank the Clare County Board for their tremendous support, Pat O'Donnell for his constant and generous sponsorship and support, and the players for being a key part of my life over the past five years.

"I want to thank the supporters and acknowledge the many people who travelled great distances to support their county. "I leave the Clare job with a heavy heart but full of confidence that there will be further great hurling days for the Banner County."

Irish Independent

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