Davy's grand designs
Labelled a stop-gap solution when he took over in dramatic circumstances in 2008, Fitzgerald has made his case for the long haul by reshaping Waterford hurling and delivering results
WHEN it was announced in early June 2008 that Davy Fitzgerald would replace Justin McCarthy as Waterford manager following the squad's messy revolt, the words 'stop' and 'gap' saw their stock rise across the hurling world.
Waterford, who face Limerick tomorrow, were trapped somewhere between chaos and confusion after losing their manager in mid-season, while also being under intense time pressure to stabilise the situation ahead of the All-Ireland qualifiers.
Even if there had been several experienced managers -- which there weren't -- unattached at that particular time, it's unlikely they would have been interested in taking on a job which arose in such toxic circumstances.
The Waterford County Board understood that, but they also knew they needed to deliver a big name. They were facing a tricky situation, dealing on one side with an experienced squad who had forced the departure of a man who had led them to three Munster titles since 2002 and, on the other side, with the reality that unless they made a smart appointment, an already bad situation could spin out of control completely.
So, they looked to Clare and Davy Fitzgerald. When he first arrived in Waterford, accompanied by a thousand ideas all trying to out-do each other in the race for his attention, nobody knew what to make of him.
Even the players, many of whom had played against him in many feisty battles over the years, were unsure how it would turn out. Crucially, though, they liked the idea of a fresh, young manager with a dynamic outlook taking charge.
"It was a bit of a surprise when we were told that Davy was coming in, but we heard that he had a lot of new ideas and, in fairness, that turned out to be the case," recalled Ken McGrath.
Still, many assumed it was a quick-fix solution which wouldn't yield any short-term dividend and would end as soon as Waterford were despatched from the championship, which, on the basis of their capitulation against Clare, looked imminent. Three years later, Fitzgerald is still there and priming the squad for their attempt to retain the Munster title, a landmark never previously reached by Waterford.
It has been an eventful period and, in terms of achievement, is beyond what even the most optimistic Deise fans could have expected when Waterford hurling convulsed in June 2008.
Three months later, Waterford were appearing in their first All-Ireland final for 45 years and while it ended in misery somewhere under a Kilkenny-driven steamroller, it had energised the county in a way nobody would have thought possible some weeks earlier.
The downside was that it left an experienced squad with serious collateral damage. Losing an All-Ireland final is always disappointing, but to be so roundly humiliated was shattering. Could Waterford recover? And would Davy be with them for the salvage operation?
While others mistakenly thought that he was a short-term appointment, the County Board power brokers saw it differently. So did Fitzgerald. He had taken criticism for the tactics deployed in the All-Ireland final, but he could rightly point out that he was only three months into the job and, besides, he had led Waterford to their first final since 1963.
Fitzgerald stayed and looked to the future. The general view was that while Waterford had done extremely well to reach the All-Ireland final, it would be followed by a decline, the rate of which was uncertain.
On 2008 All-Ireland final day, the age profile of several key figures who had done so much to lift Waterford's boat from the gloomy days was quite high: Tony Browne (35), Clinton Hennessy and Dan Shanahan (both 31), Ken McGrath (30), Eoin Murphy (29).
With Waterford having won no Munster minor title since 1992 and no U-21 title since 1994, where was fresh talent going to come from?
It wasn't the only consideration facing Fitzgerald. Waterford had a reputation for playing open, free-flowing hurling. Great to watch, it was high-risk and, like all such adventures, had the potential to yield gold or grime.
Fitzgerald, expanding his managerial skills beyond Clare U-21s and Limerick IT, had a different strategy in mind, one where Waterford would be less spectacular, but also less vulnerable.
There's little comparison between the current Waterford game and the pre-Fitzgerald version. Nowadays, it's all about possession and control, whereas it was previously based on instinct and flamboyance. Not all Waterford supporters have warmed to the new style, believing that it's alien to the Waterford culture. However, Fitzgerald can point to the results for justification. The post-2008 All-Ireland prognosis that Waterford were set to slip down the rankings has proved wrong.
They haven't been able to overtake Tipperary or Kilkenny but nobody can dispute that they have remained a solid third. That's no bad achievement among contenders like Cork, Galway, Limerick, Clare, Dublin, Offaly and Wexford.
What's more, Waterford have achieved it while undergoing a fundamental overhaul of their approach. Nor has the conveyor belt proved as slow as was forecast. Fitzgerald has found, nurtured and shown confidence in several youngsters, a policy which will continue tomorrow when three U-21 newcomers, Darragh Fives (right full-back), Paraic Mahony (right half-forward) and Brian O'Sullivan (left full-forward), start their first senior championship game. Noel Connors (left full-back) and Maurice Shanahan (left half-forward) are also U-21, but have previous senior experience.
It's a clear signal of intent by Fitzgerald to trust youngsters while showing no prejudice against age either, since the remarkable Tony Browne continues to fend off all challengers for the No 5 jersey at the age of 38.
Of the 20 players who lined out at various stages in the 2008 All-Ireland final, only seven are in tomorrow's starting line-up. That's quite a turnover, but, significantly, has come without any loss of stature within the hurling hierarchy.
It has also been achieved at the same time as Waterford have undergone a radical change of style and emphasis.
Nowhere was that more pronounced than in last year's two Munster final clashes where Waterford smothered Cork for long periods. Cork scored just six points (four from open play) in the first half of the drawn game and managed just 0-4 (one from open play) in the same period of the replay.
Waterford flooded the main action areas with willing bodies and it worked well enough in the replay to bring them the title. It wasn't pretty, but the end justified the means. Waterford found it much more difficult to inflict their game plan on Tipperary in the All-Ireland semi-final, but then they were in good company, as even the great Kilkenny team were well beaten by Eoin Kelly and Co in the final.
Now, as Waterford head into a new championship campaign, it remains to be seen if further refinements have taken place, although it's highly likely we can expect some variations on a theme from Davy's restless tactical mind.
His sojourn in Waterford started out as part of an emergency package, but it has long since settled into something completely different. He may not have won over everybody in Waterford with the style of play he employs, but it's proving effective.
And as he continues to slot in more youngsters, all of whom are buying fully into his approach, Waterford appear to be building on a very solid platform.
Steering Waterford to a first All-Ireland final for decades, restructuring their style, locating and developing talent and winning a Munster title is an impressive achievement haul for Fitzgerald in three years. He arrived in Waterford in unusual circumstances, but nobody can deny that it was one smart piece of business by those who judged that he was very much the right man arriving at the right time.