Iron faith and nerves of steel make strong case for Davy's young guns
WHEN Davy Fitzgerald looks at the world, he finds himself facing out to a sea of sceptics. People fret that, maybe, he is over-reaching with this co-operative of gawky Clare kids.
Because Davy's building not just a team, but a state of mind. He wants them to covet possession, steeling them for the kicks in the teeth that will, inevitably, come from being faithful to a system. They won't meet Kilkenny every day, but he wants them to play always as if they do.
So Clare eschew the high, showboating clearances that tickle a big-day crowd but torture any forward sent in against monsters of the sky like Tommy Walsh, Brian Hogan and JJ Delaney.
Davy (below) wants to create a team that might eventually meet Kilkenny on their own terms rather than Brian Cody's. He considers Cody a fascination, remaining firm in his belief that the team which eventually overthrows the stripey kingdom will be one that refuses to be drawn into their lust for individual combat. One, in other words, that masters the creation of space.
While Munster and its manic rhythms might be a treacherous classroom in which to educate, Davy's nerve is firmer than some of those peering in from the school- yard.
When eight minutes into this compelling battle, his captain – Patrick Donnellan – spooned a short hospital pass that was hungrily devoured by Jake Dillon for a Waterford goal, Fitzgerald stood motionless on the line. These moments are the collateral damage he accepts will come from players trying to work the ball out of defence rather than just hosing it for a roar.
Davy trusts that, in time, the aggregate of such errors will diminish and Clare will benefit.
For Donnellan, the goal was patently sickening. Clare had opened with a firestorm of Killinan End points and looked to have Waterford's heads spinning until Dillon found the net. In that single moment, the heat of the contest palpably changed.
"Yeah, it was very big (setback) to be honest, for me personally especially for giving away a stupid ball," reflected the captain.
"We were probably trying to be too perfect at the start, trying to hit the 100pc ball every time rather than just giving the 70/75pc ball. You'll get setbacks, goals against you, points against you – as long as you don't drop the head, keep going, there'll be no problem.
"Even the day you're playing brilliantly, things are going to go wrong, teams are so even now, so much talent out there in the Munster championship, the All-Ireland championship, that you're going to get things going against you all the time.
"It's a case of not dropping the head, not throwing in the towel straight away, you have to keep plugging away and be confident that you'll be there or thereabouts at the end of the game."
The goal seemed to short-circuit something in the Clare psyche. They would not raise a flag between the 17th and 36th minutes, Waterford's half-back line especially beginning to thrive in the certainty that Clare would not be hitting ball in ovcr their heads.
Jamie Nagle, particularly, was hurling wonderfully, while Waterford's own preference for a direct delivery looked to be threatening further goals, with Maurice Shanahan, especially, giving David McInerney a difficult senior championship debut.
At times, Clare looked splintery and coltish next to seasoned championship hurlers like Shane O'Sullivan, Kevin Moran and Seamus Prendergast. And while Darach Honan carried a palpable threat on the edge of the Waterford square, he was becoming an increasingly islanded figure.
Fitzgerald wheeled straight down the tunnel at the mid-point, his team four points down and – arguably – suffering for their faith.
People who don't really know him imagine Davy in such moments as some kind of lurid manifestation of d'Unbelieveables' legendary Timmy Ryan character when, in fact, he has always favoured analysis over fury.
Afterwards, he assured media that he was "very relaxed" at half-time.
His team captain corroborated that verdict. Asked what was said in the dressing-room, Donnellan reflected: "Very little, to be honest.
"There's been an awful lot of talking but we know what we're doing, we've been playing the same way all year and I suppose we'd be confident we can perform, that we can turn things right on the field if needs be.
"There wasn't a whole pile said. It was just 'keep playing away, try to give the percentage ball and stop trying to be perfect all the time'."
A great irony in ways. For Clare were close to perfect in the second half, well at least once they caught an even breath.
John Conlon fluffed an immediate goal chance by hand-passing too high for Honan but, after a telling necklace of three Waterford wides, Davy's boys began to hurl.
They scored six of the next eight points, then mined a debut goal for young Shane O'Donnell.
The 18-year-old Ennis kid was hauled ashore immediately after pulling first-time on a ball that went to ground after Peter Duggan blocked Kevin Moran's attempted clearance. It seemed he felt no pain at the verdict.
"This is unbelievable," he would gasp later. "The stuff of dreams. It's why you play hurling. You dream of your first championship goal and I've got mine at 18.
"But this win is a tribute to everything we've been doing all year long. We don't die away in the second half."
Waterford certainly didn't die either at that juncture but, when Conor McGrath broke onto a long Patrick Kelly free to snipe home a second Clare goal in the 62nd minute, Michael Ryan's team found themselves at the foot of a mountain.
For Davy, this story had its own private arc then. In his four seasons with Waterford, they won a Munster title and got to their first All-Ireland final since 1963.
They never failed to get to the last four of the championship on his watch. Yet, it is a moot point if that body of work has ever been truly appreciated, and he was roundly abused by one voice when visiting their dressing-room after last year's championship defeat.
That abuse, in fairness, did not come from Ryan or his management and they were uniformly dignified here in the face of Clare's first Munster victory since 2008.
"Well done to Clare, they fully deserved their victory, no qualms about it," said Ryan.
Asked if it would be hard now to pick Waterford back up, he was refreshingly candid.
"It will be," he reflected. "It was a massive game today but that's our job, to get on with it.
"In fairness, every fella has worked very hard all year, and we'll still be a force in this championship. There are lessons to be learned today, and hopefully we'll take them on board."
For Fitzgerald, there was no grand-standing in victory.
His team had been vindicated in the end but, win or lose, they would not have been abandoning their process.
"We probably looked nervous in that patch when we lost the goal," said Davy quietly.
"We still kept trying, but we just lost our way a small bit. But what would you expect with that young bunch we have? That's what I was trying to tell people today.
"It will happen for them. This is a good bunch. It might not be this year but it will come for them. They are the real deal – they will work very hard and they're as honest as they come.
"They just need to mature and I hope people give them that time to mature."
Faith will be the key and Davy Fitz's won't break any time soon.