Apprentice v master
Upstart Davy Fitz goes up against Brian Cody, the colossus of the modern era, for the ultimate prize
IF Brian Cody had been told at the start of this season that come the first Sunday in September he would be stalking the Croke Park sidelines in direct opposition to a Clare man, instinct would have told him that it was going to be a Kilkenny-Galway All-Ireland final.
Cody v Ger Loughnane in a battle of wits and wills on All-Ireland final day has box-office appeal that would put the frizzy hair standing ever more upright on Don King's head. It was mooted early on in the year as a distinct possibility but that was before Galway returned to their summer slumbers for the second successive season.
Cody would have assumed that if Galway folded, the only other possibility of clashing with a Clare manager was if Mike McNamara electrified Bannerland to such a degree that they forced their way through the pack and into the All-Ireland final. Mike Mac certainly re-energised Clare but ultimately they came up short against Tipperary and Cork.
But then Waterford didn't just come up short against Clare in the first round of the Munster championship, they produced very little of anything in one of their most abject failures for years. As the Waterford players left the dressing-room afterwards with vacant stares in their eyes, they left Justin McCarthy to explain the mess and look ahead.
"We'll re-group and re-organise and hopefully the injuries will be cleared up for the qualifiers. It's not going to be an easy road back but we're experienced so we'll give it our best shot," said McCarthy.
It was to be his last comment as Waterford manager. Four days later, his seven-season spell was over, having been the victim of a quick, concerted heave by the squad. Having made their controversial stance, they needed a quick solution to a crisis that was threatening to undermine several years of good work to the point of total collapse.
A few months earlier, Davy Fitzgerald had sat on the Clare's subs' bench for a few National League games. He had returned to the squad at Mike Mac's invitation but both probably knew that it was more a symbolic gesture than anything else.
Fitzgerald hadn't been involved in 2007 after falling out with Tony Considine in a bitter feud that was as unfortunate as it was avoidable.
Philip Brennan had fitted comfortably into the No 1 jersey and when Fitzgerald suffered a serious finger injury it was always unlikely that he would return as the driven dynamo that the hurling world had come to know over many years. Still, it was important for him to return to the Clare panel this year and when he finally announced his retirement he felt it brought proper closure to his career as opposed to drifting away after the rancour of 2007.
Fitzgerald wrote in his autobiography 'Passion and Pride' that he would cry when his playing career ended and that after wiping away the tears he would think of ways of filling the gaping void.
"I will spend more time with my son Colm, I can pursue my business interests further and I might give the golf a serious lash. But nothing will compare to running out in that Clare jersey, hitting the crossbar a lash and hearing the roar of the crowd at my back," he wrote.
Nothing, until now, that is.
When Mick O'Dwyer retired from playing with Kerry in 1974, he planned to take up fishing on a serious basis but within months he was appointed Kerry manager, much to the relief of the herring and mackerel population who had one less enemy to cope with. Those who knew O'Dwyer always reckoned that he was a certainty to head into team management at the first available opportunity.
It was the same with Fitzgerald. He has, of course, managed Clare U-21s as well as Limerick IT but he was always going to make the progression to senior inter-county. However, nobody, least of all Fitzgerald himself, could have anticipated that the call would come in mid-season just a few months after he retired as a player. And from one of the All-Ireland favourites too.
In fairness to Waterford, it was an inspired choice. They had three requirements to fulfil as they scanned the horizon for McCarthy's successor.
They needed a high-profile figure; he had to be someone whom the players respected and, given the tensions which existed at such a fraught time, he had to be from outside the county. Fitzgerald fitted the description perfectly.
Four wins later, Waterford are preparing for an All-Ireland final, a prize that has eluded every manager and coach from the county extending back to 1963. It really would be a truly remarkable story if just three months into his first senior managerial role Fitzgerald presided over the ultimate triumph.
Of course it wouldn't be the first time that a mid-season replacement haunted Kilkenny in the All-Ireland final. Galway's Michael Bond did it 10 years ago when, after coming in to replace 'Babs' Keating, he plotted the route to glory for an Offaly team that beat Kilkenny in the decider.
Indeed, the fall-out from that season led to Brian Cody's appointment as Kilkenny manager, a role he has filled with consistent success.
Cody wouldn't be noted for regarding coincidence as a serious influence on the sporting world which is just as well because otherwise he might see the similarity between Offaly 1998 and Waterford 2008 as worryingly familiar.
It will be fascinating to watch the two managers in action next Sunday. Cody has a big, imposing presence as he prowls the sideline, almost as a 16th man on an already ultra-formidable team.
Fitzgerald is a more slight figure but he too has enormous presence and, like Cody, radiates an energy that the Waterford players can sense.
Both are on the verge of history. Kilkenny are not only seeking their first All-Ireland three-in-a-row since 1913, they are striving to move to the top of the honours table with 31 titles.
Also, they are chasing their sixth All-Ireland crown title since the start of the decade, a haul never previously won by any county.
That's the triple incentive for Cody and Kilkenny where as the motivation for Fitzgerald and Waterford is different.
For Waterford this is all about ending the long, barren spell while for Fitzgerald, winning an All-Ireland title in only his fifth game in charge would be something quite remarkable.
It really is an All-Ireland final of great contrast, not just between the counties but also between the two managers who will have such an important role to play in shaping the destiny of their respective teams.