Fitzgerald not afraid of his duty to tell it like it is
Who could dare criticise Banner boss for his honesty – even if they don't like the message?
Published 06/03/2014 | 02:30
It's nine years since Davy Fitzgerald told the world how he would like to be recalled when his hurling days were over.
"Instead of being remembered as a nutcase, I would like people to remember a down to earth person who didn't get too carried away. A person who had good people around him, people who cared and helped him. A man who enjoyed the simple things.
"People talk about me behind my back, but I won't engage in that sort of behaviour. I have regrets, everybody does, but doing things from the heart is important too.
"I have my faults, but you have to learn from experience and, by Christ, I have had plenty of experience. You can like me or dislike me, but I am not going away," he wrote in his autobiography.
The prospect of Davy slipping quietly from the hurling field to the golf course at the end of his playing days were about as remote as the likelihood that when he moved into management, he would morph into a dull, cautious presence.
Indeed, from the day he took over strife-torn Waterford after the players' revolt against Justin McCarthy in mid-summer 2008, Fitzgerald has been a technicolour presence on the sideline, the training ground, the interview room and just about everywhere else his devotion to hurling takes him.
On Tuesday, his achievements as a player and manager, coupled with his willingness to call things as he sees them, left him dealing with such difficult issues as drug-taking and bullying.
Naturally, his remarks that some Clare players were "taking harder stuff than drink" in the second half of the last decade became a major news item, conjuring up images of Banner boys merrily popping pills.
It left him open to criticism that by referring to "some of them" he was, in fact, smearing everybody. That may be partially true, but he had no choice if he wanted to make his point forcefully to a seminar on mental and physical health at Limerick IT. He was anxious to stress how sport could be used positively to fill the gaps which the temptations of drug-taking and drinking were happy to exploit in their own pernicious way.
No doubt, some former Clare players will be unhappy with his comments, but they wouldn't want to be too thin-skinned about it. If they have no case to answer – as is most definitely the case for the vast majority – they have no need to worry.
Fitzgerald devoted much more time to addressing the evils of bullying, recounting personal experiences from his childhood days, but, for obvious reasons, it was his references to "harder stuff than drink" that made the headlines.
Not that it matters. Fitzgerald opted to take his audience down a road which society had blocked off for far too long. The image of Davy Fitzgerald, All-Ireland winner as player and manager and a man anchored in deep conviction about who he is and what he's about, being tormented by bullies as a school kid may be difficult to comprehend until you reflect on him as a small boy growing up in Sixmilebridge.
There are other young Davy Fitzgeralds out there right now, suffering similar pain and isolation, so if recounting his days with such honesty helps them in any way, then he has done a great service.
As for his reference to drug-taking, he talked only of some Clare players when, in fact, he could probably have broadened it right across the country.
That's not to depict GAA players – and certainly not the elite – as regular pill-poppers, but it would be equally naïve not to assume that, from a cast of more than 2,000 who make up senior inter-county panels, a small percentage don't dabble from time to time.
As the largest sporting organisation in the country, the GAA is more representative than any other sport across all walks of life, so it's obvious that it is also more exposed to the many challenges facing modern-day society.
Fitzgerald's critics will, no doubt, claim that he has betrayed his native Clare and, indeed, the wider GAA by referring to drug-taking among county players, but they are missing the crucial point. He was using a past experience to inform the present so that the future might be different. Recreational drug-taking is an issue all over the country, so for Fitzgerald to talk about it in the context of its potential impact on sportspeople is perfectly valid.
He could easily have pitched up at LIT and delivered a platitude-filled speech which left the audience yawning and the rest of the country unaware he had spoken. He wouldn't be the first well-known sportsperson to trade on the name and the achievements without saying anything remotely interesting.
Instead, he bared his soul, delving into deeply personal memories, including the horrible days when he was a victim of bullying. Clearly, he believes that he has a duty to do that and was not afraid to honour the responsibility.
An All-Ireland winner, whether as a player or manager, is an influential figure in Irish life, so it's important that he uses that status for the greater good. Fitzgerald did that on Tuesday.
He will be blamed in some quarters for being alarmist, but so what? Better that than remaining silent when he had things to say and an audience to hear them. He wouldn't have expected his speech to receive such widespread coverage – and probably regrets that it has – but the truth is that by highlighting areas that need to be constantly addressed he has performed an important public duty.
"I am getting better at sitting down and relaxing these days, but I don't necessarily like it. I feel that I'm wasting my time sitting around. My mind doesn't switch off from one end of the day to the other – it's always scheming," he wrote in 2005.
Nine years on, Davy is manager of the All-Ireland champions and working day and night towards retaining the title later this year. Hurling consumes him, but there's a lot more to him than that, as he showed on Tuesday when he spoke with such honesty and courage. Who could dare criticise him for that, even if they didn't like part of his message?