Fitzgerald playing down Banner hype
THESE are exciting times for Clare hurling, but at this week's launch of the Allianz Hurling League, Davy Fitzgerald was busy managing the growing expectation around his young side.
There's an inevitable buzz around the Banner that accompanies Munster minor titles in 2010 and 2011 that were sandwiched between the national U-21 crowns of 2009 and 2012.
Last year's U-21 team beat Kilkenny in the All-Ireland final and did it with some style. Classy hurlers with pace to burn prompted joint-manager Donal Maloney into some lofty praise when he described his side as "some of, potentially, the best hurlers in the history of Clare hurling."
Clare's fortunes at senior level have turned gradually too. On Sunday, they welcome Waterford to Ennis in what will be their first game back in the more compact top flight since 2009.
Last year's gutsy win over Dublin was their first in the championship since 2008. Fitzgerald describes it as a "block by block" building project, but warned there is no guarantee of success.
"It's great to see us achieve success at minor and U-21," Fitzgerald (pictured below) said. "But I'll also ask you the question. Did Limerick and Galway achieve a lot of success at minor and U-21 level? And did that mean they were guaranteed to win All-Irelands or go close to winning All-Irelands? I don't think it did.
"Winning them creates expectation, but that doesn't always mean you are going to do it. We won an U-21 All-Ireland in 2009, but we didn't win a senior championship game in 2010 or 2011. That's fact.
"When you win something like that, it's how you deal with success. You can get very carried away and get notions of yourself. When you win something like that, you have to work harder than you have ever worked."
Fitzgerald (right) will have to cut his cloth to suit. Some of the stars of last year's U-21 side had bundles of pace and skill, but were on the small side. Going around teams rather than through them, Fitzgerald agrees, might be the Banner's best option.
"Physicality, especially against the bigger teams, is massive. You have to be strong in the tackle. If you go up against Kilkenny, or Tipp, or Galway, or Cork, they are strong guys and you have to be good in that tackle.
"It probably doesn't suit Clare to go toe-to-toe with them on a 50-50 high ball from 90 yards. We have to be careful how we do things and get a good mix and match on how we play the game."
Cian Dillon, Darach Honan, Nicky O'Connell, Conor McGrath and Brian O'Connell are all ruled out of the weekend, while Fitzgerald will have to wait to see how his players come through this week's Fitzgibbon Cup action before picking his side.
With 14 U-21s on his Clare panel and as a Fitzgibbon Cup manager with Limerick IT, Fitzgerald is acutely aware of the pressures younger players face.
Along with a number of other high-profile GAA personalities, Fitzgerald sat on the burn-out task force that was established in 2007.
One of their more radical proposals included the merging of the minor and U-21 grades into an U-19 competition, but it never saw the light of day.
"We have a policy with the Clare senior team, you would train X amount of days a week and that is it, no matter what the story is. And if they play a college game, they've to miss Clare training.
"Collectively, we would probably do three to four days a week.
"I know one of our players was stuck in a book on the way down to the league semi-final last year. I shouldn't have played him. His head definitely wasn't in it.
"He was studying all hours and the more I thought of it, I realised he was thinking about his livelihood and that is so important. And here I was putting more pressure on him by playing this game.
"Maybe I should have realised that and gave him a breather.
"We have to appreciate things like that and what lads are doing outside of training."