Vincent Hogan: Donal Óg Cusack's brand of analysis appealed to Davy Fitzgerald
Published 31/10/2015 | 02:30
On a recent holiday with friends in America, Davy Fitzgerald twice skipped dinner so that he might watch a two-part football documentary on TV.
'A Football Life' chronicled a season with Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots, the longest-serving active head coach in the NFL. The documentary offered access-all-areas intimacy, filming virtually every strand of Belichick's day-to-day existence, the cameras allowed into his home, into team meetings, into game-day locker-rooms and, maybe most fascinatingly, even into debriefs with Patriots' owner, Robert Kraft.
For Fitzgerald, a keen follower of the NFL, this fly-on-the-wall access to someone with five Super Bowl rings to their name was simply irresistible.
He is naturally inquisitive of coaching styles, endlessly curious of the small, sometimes nuanced, energies that distinguish winning teams from those pursuing them. Before travelling to America, Fitzgerald had already made initial contact with Dónal óg Cusack. He was in the process of revitalising Clare's backroom staff, but Cusack would be his shot from left-field.
At the time, Fitzgerald had no real idea if the Corkman would be open to his approach.
The two were never friends and, at times, their playing careers had drawn them into open conflict. But of all the media pundits picking games apart now, Cusack's forensic eye seemed easily the keenest to Fitzgerald. He could be as bruisingly critical of Davy and Clare as anyone, but that criticism never felt gratuitous or opportunistic.
To Davy Fitz, Dónal óg got it.
In other words, he understood the tactical side of hurling in a way that made his analysis of big games routinely interesting to the Clare manager. Whilst others simply read failure into the efforts of a beaten team, Cusack's scrutiny ran deeper.
If the broad reaction to this week's announcement that Dónal óg will be in the Clare dugout next season has been a little giddy and disbelieving (hurling's own union of fire and brimstone almost), there is no doubting a sense too that the game itself may find fresh energy from the simple colour of two uniquely intense personalities working the one corner.
Kilkenny's enduring greatness through the past decade and a half has, surely, already secured their place in history as the greatest GAA force of all time. But the game needs more people to take offence at their relentlessness, more opponents to come out swinging. And Clare are now among the best positioned to, ultimately, do that.
Cusack has given a lot up to go join their crusade, most significantly, perhaps, a still vibrant playing career with his beloved Cloyne. He has given up the easy celebrity of being a 'Sunday Game' panellist too and, in time, he will step away from his chairmanship of the Gaelic Players' Association. It would be wrong to presume upon his private opinions but, given the GPA undertook an investigation into the controversy that blew up last spring over Davy O'Halloran's allegations of bullying in the Clare camp, their findings can't have been too damning of Fitzgerald in Cusack's eyes.
What can be said with certainty (and this appointment surely proves it) is that the Clare manager is a more multi-dimensional character than his famously volatile sideline persona tends to imply.
Cusack is an innately more guarded figure, so there will be obvious fascination in seeing how one man's personality is reconciled with the other's.
Dónal óg wrote in his autobiography of a somewhat sulphurous Railway Cup trip to Boston in '05 when he and Fitzgerald were the Munster goalkeepers. There was palpable tension between them and, in the pre-game warm-up, Dónal óg chose to bring that tension to a head.
Believing Fitzgerald's attitude to be disrespectful, he writes in his autobiography 'Come What May', "So we were stewing in this surly silence when I caught a ball and moved straight towards him and drove it as furiously as I could straight past him and into a forest behind."
A brief stare-off ensued, Cusack implying that Fitzgerald subsequently feigned injury to avoid any indignity implied by his pre-agreed substitution at half-time.
He admits there was "a lot of bad feeling" on that trip, most of it fizzing between Cork and Kilkenny players and almost resulting - at one point - in two groups going to war in a hotel lift.
As a journalist covering that Railway Cup, I wrote a story afterwards of how Cork's players (back-to-back All-Ireland champions at the time) had not mixed, even with their own Munster team-mates.
Cusack was incensed by the article and when, months later, I travelled to Ringaskiddy to interview him, he did not spare me that anger. I would estimate it took 25 minutes to clear the air, the argument swinging over and forth. Finally, the tape was turned on and, for maybe an hour and a half after, he spoke with remarkable candour, depth and humour about life as a Cork hurler.
That is the Corkman's style. You front up, then turn the page.
There is a quote in Christy O'Connor's 'Last Man Standing', where he talks about the Cork strikes and the single-mindedness required for a conflict of that intensity.
"If you ever want to achieve anything of significance," says Cusack, "you have to go beyond the call of duty."
In this, he finds himself shoulder-to-shoulder with a kindred spirit now.
Like Cusack, Fitzgerald endured often wretchedly personal abuse from the terraces during his playing career and, like the Corkman, he used it to fuel the furnace of an uncommon inner resolve. To some degree, both are outsiders in their own counties now.
Despite high regard nationally for his coaching qualities, Cusack understands that his picket-line history will almost certainly preclude him from ever managing his own. And Fitzgerald, in spite of leading Clare to only their fourth senior All-Ireland in 2013, has come under extraordinary attack from former comrades because of recent struggles.
There is no knowing how the partnership might flame, and the view of many is that the dynamics of Clare's sideline will be the virtual throw of a dice now.
Both, undoubtedly, have gambled and neither will find much difficulty prophesying the genesis of vitriol if Clare's 2016 season turns sour.
But hurling will be the better for their cojones in trying.