Sunday 23 July 2017

'I've trained a team every year since I was 17' - Davy Fitz accepts sideline ban and is determined to move on

Davy Fitzgerald has accepted his sideline ban and is determined to move on with Wexford

Wexford manager Davy Fitzgerald. Photo: Sportsfile
Wexford manager Davy Fitzgerald. Photo: Sportsfile
Marie Crowe

Marie Crowe

There's a sense of excitement around Wexford. Something good is happening and the hurling fans of the county can't contain themselves. It's the pre-championship open night for fans, a chance for them to watch training, ask for autographs and take pictures.

The Wexford Centre of Excellence in Ferns is buzzing. The dust from the stream of cars filing down the dirt track swirls around the edges of the pitch, adding to the atmosphere of the evening.

Kids clamber out of their seats dressed in purple and gold jerseys and filled with excitement as they head straight for the group of hurlers warming up on the pitch.

It's like being transported back in time, to the heady days of 1996 when Wexford won the Liam MacCarthy in remarkable style, sending people to dance at the crossroads and inspiring the next generation of hurlers.

Those days live on in many people's memories. Wexford haven't won anything since but this season they have hope again and the return of that belief has coincided with the arrival of Davy Fitzgerald.

Unlike his presence on the sideline during games, the Sixmilebridge man cuts a much more low-key figure in Ferns. He's dressed in jeans and a navy jacket, no puffy gilet or heightened emotion. He strolls around the pitch, hands behind his back, surveying the scene as the crowd watches him with a sense of pride and respect. He looks well too, slimmer and fresher, he is clearly taking much more care of his health since his heart scare a few months ago.

The footballers train on the pitch below the hurlers. They too have a new manager in Seamus McEnaney but the same interest isn't there for the county's other senior team. The fans are only there to see one group of players and they swarm around them, taking in their every move, hurleys in hand.

Davy Fitz has been in charge of the Wexford hurlers since late last year. He was very much a wanted man; the powers that be in Wexford believed he was the perfect candidate to rejuvenate hurling in the county. When it comes to management and coaching, Fitzgerald has been on a journey that started long before he hung up his hurley.

"I've trained a team every year since I was 17," he explains. "Sometimes I've trained three or four teams in a year. I was pretty average at the start but I improved as I went along. And I love what I do."

Fitzgerald is one of the lucky ones, he's landed in a role within sport, he's in a place where he thrives. Recently, people like AP McCoy and Eamon McGee detailed their struggles replacing the buzz of the action and outlined the difficulties in finding an identity after retirement. But Fitzgerald made a pretty quick transition from player to coach.

Of course he had tunnel vision, knowing that a spot on the sideline was exactly what he wanted when his playing days were behind him. So he learned as much as he could from the people he came into contact with. Luckily, he had some pretty exceptional coaches to glean from, Ger Loughnane being one.

Twenty years have passed since Clare won their second All-Ireland title and reflecting on that time Fitzgerald reckons they were more motivated than ever in 1997 after losing to Limerick in the Munster Championship the previous year.

"I could just tell by Ger (Loughnane) that he really wanted to win again. At training he'd always say you are no good until you win a second one. I don't agree with that philosophy but that was his thing at the time. There are so many teams who would give anything to win one Munster final or one All-Ireland but that was his thing at the time, the drive was for that and the players were still hungry too."

It was during that time Fitzgerald learned about how important it is to have balance on a team. To have guys with various different talents, players who will work and tackle, others who can finish, some great hurlers along with even better athletes. Although when we think of the great Clare players of that era, we recall those in the spine of the team like Seánie McMahon and Brian Lohan but Fitzgerald insists it was the guys on the fringes who lifted the team. The lads who were fighting for spots at training, the ones always working hard, the unsung heroes,

The 1990s are known as the revolutionary years and back then Clare brought a whole new dimension to hurling. They had a superior level of fitness, a work rate that was phenomenal, they brought a physicality that hadn't been seen before and they were able to hurl. It's an era that catapulted the game into the eyes and minds of the nation and captured the imagination of all who were lucky enough to see it.

Even now traditionalists still long for a return to the style of play that was exhibited in the past. They want to go back to a game that was free-flowing, direct and man to man. There were no sweepers or systems but Fitzgerald firmly believes that times must change and that hurling will keep evolving.

"If we sit back and look at the tapes, I do it every now and again, I watch games from 20 years ago and it changes all the time. Is the game faster now? It is. Will things change again in the next 10 years? They will. I don't think that's a bad thing. People often say to me you need to hit the ball long, you need to do this or that like the old days. But the game changes, you can't keep doing the same thing every year or it will get boring. It needs to change. I'm one of these fellas who likes to see what's coming in the game and what's new."

However, not everyone shares his point of view. There have been plenty of suggestions of late that certain teams should return to the style that the county practised in the past. Limerick are one side that have been under the spotlight after a disappointing league campaign.

"You can say that about Limerick but I don't know if I agree. The last time Limerick won the All-Ireland was in 1973. Limerick need to win more than a Munster title, they need to win an All-Ireland. I don't think they need to go back to what they used to do; I don't think anyone needs to. I always say it depends on the team you have and the players you have. You can only play the structure that suits the team. Would Davy Fitz have a structure that suits Clare, Wexford and Waterford? No. It depends on the players I have, you work with who you have."

As well as the game changing, so has the preparation. The commitment levels are rising every year as teams strive to make marginal gains. But during Fitzgerald's time as a player they worked hard too. He recalls training 23 out of 25 days under Loughnane.

Remembering those sessions unearths the feelings of dread, the knot in the stomach as he headed to St Flannan's College in Ennis for another night of flogging under the watchful eyes of physical trainer Mike McNamara. With every passing night the team strengthened mentally and physically. Interestingly, several tales of similar practices under Fitzgerald's management have surfaced in recent years but he puts them down as just rumours.

"If I was to say to the lads now we are doing 23 out of 25 nights, the GPA and Croke Park would have a problem with me and I'd be locked up. I often hear these rumours about the teams I'm training; we train hard and we space it out."

Sports science was very much in its infancy back in the 1990s but McNamara could pretty accurately gauge how far he could push his Clare players before they needed rest and recovery. Now we live in a time where GPS monitoring is standard practice, along with other branches of sports science, and Fitzgerald has totally embraced it.

"I really enjoy the science part of it, sometimes people say that you can get bogged down by information and statistics but I love it. It's so advanced you'd nearly know now that a player is going to get injured before he gets injured."

Over the last decade the popularity of hurling has diminished. With many of the traditional counties like Offaly, Limerick and Wexford struggling to consistently compete with the top teams, the interest is waning. He believes it wouldn't take much to bring the game back into focus again.

"I think the home and away Munster and Leinster Championship would make hurling, if you get two games whether it be in Wexford Park or Cusack Park. Bring it back to the people, make it accessible to the people. If they make one or two small tweaks then I think it will ignite hurling. I'm a small bit disappointed that when they were doing the football Super 8s they didn't do the hurling. I just think it needs a small lift up but I don't think it's too far away."

While Fitzgerald is a divisive character many would argue that he is exactly what the GAA needs. He's set to be in the stand for Wexford's next two games after receiving a ban for encroaching on the field and getting involved in an altercation during the league semi-final against Tipperary.

"The ban is the ban and I've accepted it," he says.

A bit like Fitzgerald really . . . he is who he is and maybe it's time to just accept him because one thing's for sure: he won't change for anyone.

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