Sport Hurling

Saturday 20 September 2014

Vincent Hogan: Davy Fitzgerald - the man behind the mask

The dervish-like caricature of Davy Fitz is at odds with the loyal and compassionate man known to those closest to the Banner boss

Published 06/09/2013 | 05:00

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Davy Fitzgerald was particularly emotional after beating Limerick in the All-Ireland semi-final
Davy Fitzgerald encourages his Clare players against Limerick

IT was well past midnight after Cork's eviction of Clare from this year's Munster Championship when Pat Bennett finally got talking to Davy Fitzgerald.

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He knew how crestfallen the Clare manager would be, having witnessed in his two-year spell as a Waterford selector how the flipside of Fitzgerald's volcanic passion for hurling was a natural susceptibility to grief when beaten. Davy, it was obvious, would be devastated by the day's events in Limerick.

"Midnight is probably one of the better times to get him," chuckles Bennett now.

They chatted quietly for a while, the weight of the loss tugging at every syllable, Bennett accentuating what positives he could find. Clare had lost by eight points, yet spurned a small glut of goal chances and their primary ball-winning attacker had left the field concussed.

There were, he said, a thousand tiny fractions that might have tilted history in the other direction.

All gentle, restorative stuff, designed to rehabilitate a good friend. Fitzgerald would have known this and been grateful for the kindness. But then he signed off with a simple promise that told Bennett no sympathy was actually required.

"Mark my words Pat," said Davy Fitz in the early hours of June 24. "Clare are going to have a big shout in this championship yet!"

Not long after dawn on the morning of Clare's All-Ireland semi-final against Limerick, Fitzgerald took himself to Tulla graveyard.

The journey was a familiar one, for he has been making it at pivotal moments in his life since October of '98 when Sheila Considine lost her battle with spina bifida. The two became good friends in '95 after a wheelchair-bound Sheila turned up at a pre-All-Ireland final training session in Ennis.

The pitch was off-limits to supporters, but Davy's father Pat thought it appropriate – as county secretary – to make a single exception. Sheila's sister Ann-Marie was allowed position the wheelchair by the dressing-room tunnel.

Specific

As the session ended, Pat placed a sheet of paper bearing the players' profiles on Sheila's lap and asked if there might be anyone specific she would like to meet. A finger instantly landed on the name at the top of the page. Davy Fitz.

Biddy Considine remembers watching as the Clare goalkeeper stopped by the chair to pause, not simply for an autograph or picture, but to talk to her little girl. It was a moment that remains frozen in the mind's eye. Routinely, people would be kind around Sheila, but this was different.

This was someone making time.

But, as Clare's subsequent victory pitched the whole county into a dreamland, Sheila's condition deteriorated. Biddy remembers Davy calling to visit her in Limerick's Regional Hospital the day of a National League game that winter against Galway. Sheila's breathing was poor and the medics had grown pessimistic. They gave Biddy and her husband Pete the option of taking their daughter home to Dangan.

"Home to die really," as Biddy put it this week.

Fitzgerald travelled with them in the ambulance, all the time asserting only positives. For Biddy, his encouragement had a greater power than Davy himself could have understood. Because Sheila rallied out of that crisis and, for the next couple of years, Fitzgerald became a regular visitor to the Considine household, never failing to visit the weekend of a big game.

Because of her condition, Sheila could not attend Clare matches, having to depend upon television or radio to convey the story of the day. But her bedroom became a shrine to Clare's remarkable goalkeeper.

When Fitzgerald married in the summer of '97, Sheila was a guest of honour at the wedding. Her name for him was 'Baba's Man'.

This week, Biddy Considine spoke of the debt she feels her family still owes Davy Fitz. "When I hear anybody criticising him, I say to myself: 'Ye really don't know that man at all'," she said. "Because he has a heart of gold.

"It is my honest belief that Sheila definitely got more time because of Davy's friendship and encouragement. Just his love for her.

"We still have one of his hurleys from '95 in a display cabinet and his photographs are still everywhere in the house. Davy and his uncle John always keep in touch. They didn't disappear when Sheila died. I know Davy gets a lot of criticism, but I think he's wonderful for the game. And I'm so delighted that he's in the final now because I couldn't speak highly enough of him.

"I know he still prays at Sheila's grave, but, if it doesn't go right for him this Sunday, I just hope he doesn't blame her!"

By the autumn of '98, when Sheila's health was poorly and it had become clear that her time was short, Fitzgerald had to be talked out of cancelling a holiday booked in Spain. Pete and Biddy Considine insisted that he travel. "You've done all you can," they told him.

On arrival at Malaga airport, he rang immediately to check on her condition. Biddy handed Sheila the phone, watching her absorb yet another little pep-talk, yet barely having the strength to answer. Then it was done and Ann-Marie took the receiver.

Handing it back, Sheila uttered her final two words on this earth. "Baba's Man," she smiled.

Around 10 that night, she passed away.

The popular caricature is of a dervish-like creature, whirling in endless protest against every wrong visited upon his team, real or imagined.

As a player, nobody took hurling closer to the context of a prizefight. Ger Loughnane says that he used to judge Clare's readiness for battle "by Davy Fitz's face." In his time guarding the Clare goal, Fitzgerald openly challenged opposing forwards to take their chances against him.

As DJ Carey lined up a penalty in the '97 All-Ireland semi-final, Loughnane was standing behind the Clare goal and recalls Davy "defying" the Kilkenny man to hit the ball as hard as he could. DJ duly obliged, Fitzgerald duly saved.

His ability won him two All-Irelands, three All Star awards and a place in the pantheon of the greatest of modern goalkeepers. But always hidden behind the naked flame of Fitzgerald's hurling personality was a deeply inquisitive mind.

He cites the late Kevin 'Trixie' Twomey as his greatest influence, a former Clare minor manager who handed Fitzgerald his first inter-county break at the age of 15. Davy would hurl senior for Clare from 1990 to 2005, retiring one year after Trixie's death from a heart attack.

Through that time, he guided any number of underage teams for his beloved Sixmilebridge, always educating himself on the subtle marriage of coaching and man-management.

Limerick IT won their first two Fitzgibbon Cups under Fitzgerald's care and, having taken charge of Waterford in mid-season of '08, he took the county to its first All-Ireland senior final in 45 years. Of course, a terrible hiding followed from Kilkenny, but many believe the lessons Davy Fitz absorbed from that day could stand Clare in good stead this weekend.

Within Waterford, a quiet revisionism has taken hold now.

Under Fitzgerald, the county never failed (in four attempts) to reach the All-Ireland semi-finals. In 2010, they won only their ninth Munster senior crown. And Bennett, whose sons Shane and Stephen line out for Waterford's minors in this weekend's All-Ireland minor final, points to the fact that in his two years working with Davy Fitz, they lost just seven of 28 competitive games. He first met the Clare man on a stairway in Lawlor's Hotel some time in 2009 when Bennett was a selector with the county's intermediates. "I just said to him: 'How many are ye going to give us?'" he recalls now, chuckling.

One year later, Davy brought him on board with the seniors and he will forever remem-ber the man-ager's calm that remark-able night in Thurles when they beat Cork in extra-time to win the Munster championship.

"People think he shouts and roars in the dressing-room," reflects Bennett. "He doesn't. He doesn't do anything like that. It's all calculated stuff, meticulously planned. The guy you see on the line is totally different to the guy operating in the dressing-room.

"That night in Thurles, he was absolutely brilliant. We went back in at the end of normal time and he just left the lads to settle and talk among themselves for maybe four minutes. He left fellas like 'Brick' (Michael Walsh) to say what needed to be said.

"Then when it was time, he just took it from there. No roaring, no madness, but you could have heard a pin drop as he spoke. I remember walking back out afterwards thinking 'There's no way we're going to be beaten here!'"

Mauling

One year later, Waterford endured a terrible, seven-goal Munster final mauling against Tipperary. On the bus after that game, Fitzgerald instructed the team to meet up at 9.0 the next morning in Dungarvan. There could be no drinking, he insisted.

Bennett remembers a little grumbling around him, but the entire panel did reconvene that Monday as instructed. He counted 15 supporters gathered on the bank in Fraher Field and recalls going to each one to shake their hand in gratitude.

Bennett recalls, "We'd lost by 19 points, but it was a freakish game. That morning, Davy took the players into the sea at Clonea and spoke. We were getting slated left, right and centre. But he brought the whole group together.

"We were feeling horrible and getting a right backlash. It was just a horrible week, but for Davy to get the players back up the way he did was unbelievable."

Two weeks after their annihilation by Tipp, Waterford had 10 points to spare over Galway in an All-Ireland quarter-final.

This, though, is Davy Fitz's moment. To deliver the Liam MacCarthy back to Clare would trump anything else he has achieved in the game, bequeathing him almost messianic status among his own people. Can he do it?

"Davy has never seen a game he doesn't think he can win," says Bennett. "He genuinely believed there was an All-Ireland in Waterford when he was with us. Nothing and nobody intimidates that man.

"What you see on the line is him letting his players know that he will back them up, whatever rap comes with that. So the players understand that he will absolutely go to war for them. That's a massive thing."

And a gift, thus far, that has proved reciprocal.

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