Thursday 27 June 2019

Davy Fitzgerald: 'I'll never forgive Brian Lohan and Jamesie O'Connor for how they treated me as Clare manager'

In exclusive extracts from his new autobiography, Davy Fitzgerald reveals the breakdown of friendships with old Clare team-mates and how health issues have plunged him into depression

Brian Lohan checks on David Fitzgerald during the Allianz NHL game against Cork at Cusack Park in 2005. Photo: Sportsfile
Brian Lohan checks on David Fitzgerald during the Allianz NHL game against Cork at Cusack Park in 2005. Photo: Sportsfile

Early in November 2017, Frank Lohan emailed me about a coming golf day in Lahinch for the Clare squad of '95 and '97.

I didn't reply. I should have, and on some bizarre level I think I made a mental note to do so at a later date. A date that never materialised. I regret that now, because my silence probably seemed ignorant and I'd never intended to communicate that towards Frank, someone I've always liked.

Davy Fitzgerald with Jamesie O’Connor in 1999
Davy Fitzgerald with Jamesie O’Connor in 1999

But it's as if this psychological barrier just comes down the minute anybody comes to me these days with talk of another Clare reunion. Why? I don't want confrontation. I hate it. But, increasingly, I find it hard to see how it could be avoided, given how some of my old Clare comrades have become so openly unsupportive of me in recent years.

One of them was Brian Lohan. It'd be fair to say we'd fallen out big time, Brian having made the unprecedented call for "an independent review" of Clare hurling after our 2015 championship exit to Cork. He wanted the review conducted under the chairmanship of Ger Loughnane and, essentially, sought to have the county board excluded from the process, as it was "not independent enough".

This I took as an obvious dig at my dad, albeit Loughnane had been on the warpath that summer too, declaring the position of the board chairman, Michael McDonagh, to be "utterly untenable".

This I found incredible given my own experience of Michael, someone I considered exceptional in his job and a man utterly committed to the Clare cause. And he will surely be judged kindly by history given the success Clare had on his watch.

Anyway, I was at home when I got the call from a close friend, wondering had I heard "what Lohan's after coming out with?" I was absolutely disgusted and texted Lohan straight away. I mean, these are the guys you played with, and it feels as if they're setting you up. I just couldn't understand it. How could he be looking for a review?

Bandwagon

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"What are you at?" I asked in the text. "Do you not think I'm getting enough stick without you jumping on the bandwagon?"

His response was incredible. "The Review will help you," he said.

My reply to that was pretty strong, and I won't repeat it. But I basically told Brian what I thought of him. To me, I should have been getting more loyalty from these guys, but I was getting none. On the contrary, I just got the impression they were determined to undermine me.

It's hard enough to beat other counties without feeling that your own are on your back. Think about it. We'd spent 16 years in Clare winning nothing before I took over. Now, two years after collecting only our fourth ever senior All-Ireland, I was getting it from my own crowd. I found that incredibly hard to take.

My relationship with Lohan had never quite recovered from a row between us over a Fitzgibbon Cup game in 2014. There was a time he was as close to me as a brother. As Clare goalkeeper and full-back for the most momentous decade in the county's history, I think it's fair to say we had an almost telepathic relationship.

But, more than that, I believed we were really tight, regularly golfing together, doing business together, all the time bouncing ideas off one another about hurling and what it was that made a winning dressing-room.

Even in his role as University of Limerick's hurling manager I gave Brian loads of detail of what we did at lit in terms of fundraising and general organisation.

But it's fair to say Brian wasn't the only man I had no interest in meeting when Clare County Council honoured the '95 team with a twentieth-anniversary function in Ennis in 2015. Why? I just felt any polite courtesy between a few of us would be insincere, one of whom was Jamesie O'Connor.

In their very different ways, both Brian and Jamesie had been cutting the back off me since I took over Clare. Why Jamesie especially chose to do that I don't know. I actually phoned him a couple of times early on in my term as manager to ask him why he seemed so consistently negative towards my leadership of the team, given I was hardly a wet weekend in the job. No more than with Lohan, I felt I'd had a great relationship with Jamesie when we were team-mates. But he just never seemed to warm to the idea of me as the Clare hurling manager, and pretty soon I became used to friends ringing, asking me, "Lord God, what did you ever do to Jamesie?" To this day, I haven't got the answer.

Loughnane was a different kettle of fish. I wasn't long in the door of that function when he was straight across with that familiar beaming smile, chatting away as if nothing had changed from the '90s. Fair play to him, that's Ger's style. He fronts up every time. When I think of his greatness as a manager, I'd say that very strength of personality is the first thing that comes to mind. Ger could cut you to pieces one minute but talk away normally to you the next, all the time radiating complete indifference to any idea that what he's just said might have upset you. Maybe I'm a hopeless innocent in that regard. Maybe my natural instinct of loyalty to old friends and team-mates seems a little quaint and old-school now to the modern gaa pundit, whose main priority is to keep his gig.

When Ger was going through the worst of treatment for his leukaemia a few years back, I made a point of regularly texting him a message of support. A simple enough gesture, I know, but one I felt it important to make, given what the man had done for all of us as hurlers and people. And, you know, on some level I can take the digs Ger aims at me, because he'll always still do what he did that day in Ennis. That is, he'll always push out that big hand in whatever it is that his concept of friendship happens to be. But, hand on heart, I can't see the same thing happening with Brian Lohan any time soon.

The beginning of the end of our relationship was that Fitzgibbon Cup quarter-final of 2014 between my team, lit, who started 6/1 outsiders to beat Brian's team, UL. We were generally seen as having our weakest hand for a decade that year, while ul could call on county players like Jack Browne, Conor Ryan, Pádraig Walsh, Pádraic 'Podge' Collins, Jason Forde and Johnny Glynn. They even had inter-county players on the bench, so the odds being offered were realistic. I knew that.

But I had a plan, and that plan involved taking the gamble of setting up as a straight 15 - something I almost never do - in our final group game against GMIT, a game I knew would be closely watched by ul's management. And, as we fell over the line that day, everything they saw was a lie. As soon as the players came back into the dressing-room I went straight into quarter-final mode, going through the system and the match-ups I had in mind for ul.

Now, when you play ul at their place they put you in these tiny cramped dressing-rooms that would make the old Páirc Uí Chaoimh seem palatial. The idea, I suspect, is to split you up. So I knew this was coming and decided we'd only use the rooms at half-time, that we'd go straight from the bus into a warm-up on the pitch.

This involved stepping in through bushes at the top end of the field, and as we did so I noticed that, unusually, it was the end ul set out all their training cones on for a warm-up. Straight away, a light bulb went on in my head. We'd reached the field before them, so why not rattle a few cages here? So, sending down the hurley-carriers just to make sure the dressing-rooms would be accessible at half-time, I told everybody else to stay where they were. "Right, we're warming up here," I said. "We don't need any cones!"

I knew there'd be confrontation and, in many ways, maybe that was my intention. Next thing we had people roaring at us to "F**k off back down to the other end …" but I wouldn't let us take a backward step. I remember looking into the square at one stage, four goalies on the line, trying to stop shots in a scene of absolute chaos. I knew Brian was fuming but pointedly never made eye contact. That was my message to the whole group: ignore them, keep doing what you're doing, do not step back a single inch here.

Routine

In my head, they'd gone against their normal routine of warming up at the bottom end just to make the statement that this was their field, and on it we'd be expected to do what we were told. And I wouldn't countenance that. I couldn't.

I wanted us to show in everything we did that day that, however much we might end up outclassed on the field, we'd be standing up for ourselves. That we weren't going to lie down in front of anyone. There were a few jostles exchanged, and the language was fairly choice at times, but they got the message eventually, retreating to the bottom end of their own field. To me, that was our first victory that day. Incredibly, we won the game by six points with second-year Tony Kelly scoring 1-10.

Brian never came near me afterwards. I didn't need to be told he was absolutely bulling. When the dust had settled a couple of months later (we'd lost our semi-final to Waterford it by a point), I decided to ring Lohan. Had just pulled in to the Clare Abbey car park and was killing time before a meeting. The silence between us had been playing on my mind and I wanted to put an end to it.

But it soon became clear that Brian wasn't in any mood for a handshake and fresh start. He told me that he couldn't accept "some of the stuff" that had gone on in that quarter-final, suggesting that - in his eyes - I'd been personally responsible for the worst of it. My response was, "Brian, my job is to win for lit. I've to do what I have to do, just as you have to do what you have to do for ul. You know me long enough, you know I'd do anything for you. But when we're on opposite sides in a game, it's war. It has to be. You need to get over this"

It was at that point he made a comment to me I have no intention of ever repeating. Let's just say the comment was poor, that's as far as I'll go. The following year ul beat us in the Fitzgibbon semi-final and I just stood there at the end, waiting to see if he'd come over. Maybe I should have actively sought him out myself, but - again - the day passed without a handshake.

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