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Davy Fitzgerald is fighting the enemy within

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As long as that remains the status quo things will be fine. Beat Kilkenny this afternoon and the outlook is brighter than ever and the plight of O'Halloran and O'Connell will be consigned to the archives.

As long as that remains the status quo things will be fine. Beat Kilkenny this afternoon and the outlook is brighter than ever and the plight of O'Halloran and O'Connell will be consigned to the archives.

SPORTSFILE

Davy Fitzgerald

Davy Fitzgerald

SPORTSFILE

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As long as that remains the status quo things will be fine. Beat Kilkenny this afternoon and the outlook is brighter than ever and the plight of O'Halloran and O'Connell will be consigned to the archives.

Two weeks ago, having suffered a home defeat to Tipperary, Davy Fitzgerald emerged from beneath a grey cloud hanging over the Clare dressing-room. He declared that it wasn't all doom and gloom, even as the run of 12 months without a victory in league or championship continued.

Clare's last competitive win had been against Laois in O'Moore Park on March 30, 2014. For a side peppered with the best underage hurlers in the land, many of whom had graduated from possibly the best under 21 side in the history of the game, that was a damning statistic.

Over the past few months stories of unrest in Clare had been doing the rounds. Routine upsets occur in every squad, but when you're on a losing run they are magnified and multiplied.

Last Saturday week, Davy O'Halloran went public on his views of the Clare management, claiming he had been humiliated in front of the squad.

High-profile figures like RTE analyst Eddie Brennan took to Twitter and wondered how a manager who had spoken himself of being bullied in the past could be described by O'Halloran of having acted in such a way. He praised O'Halloran for coming out with his criticisms - and effectively writing himself out of the Clare set-up for the duration of Fitzgerald's tenure.

The following day, the Clare players made a statement of sorts when they beat Dublin in a poorly attended league encounter at Cusack Park. A few days later came a statement of a different kind when the players and management went public to say they felt the management had acted fairly. And if you are to pay heed to the "inaccuracies" to which the statement referred, it would seem that the panel helped draw up the disciplinary charter in conjunction with the manager.

A few questions need to be asked now. Firstly, will this be the end of the affair? Are there any more grievances likely to emerge? Also, to what standards should an inter-county hurler be judged? Are players being held to standards that are now well beyond the expectation of an amateur sphere? If the Clare players are happy with what happened, what use will a GPA investigation be?

O'Halloran and Nicky O'Connell both fell foul of the disciplinary code and so were told they faced three weeks of 'isolation' from the squad as per the charter. Both insist, however, that they were injured and weren't drinking on their night out; from the outside, it looks as if they were treated appallingly.

If Clare lose a couple of games in the summer, this episode will be brought back in the open, and we will be reminded too of how Podge and Sean Collins, and Cathal McInerney - all hurling panel members in 2013 - are now playing football.

In Clare, there is intense competition for places and maybe that's why management can be hard on players. You might not get away with it in other counties. The team dynamic will need to be settled. When they chased the underage three-in-a-row their mantra was, 'Stand up when it matters'. For now they just need to stand together.

Some of the young All-Ireland winners are not happy with game-time they've received in the league but Fitzgerald has handed the likes of Conor Cleary, Bobby Duggan, David Reidy, Shane Golden, Aaron Cunningham, Jack Browne and Paul Flanagan some sort of run.

Former Clare hurler and selector Danny Chaplin says that with so many quality players on the books, it actually brings its own problems. But he feels that even if Clare go down a division this year, they will still be challenging come September, saying: "I think they will avoid relegation but if they don't so what? Is relegation going to stop us from winning an All-Ireland? Give me a break."

Chaplin is a friend of Fitzgerald's and speaking in general terms, aside from the recent departure of the two players, he says a lot of people in the county are out to get the manager.

"A lot of this hysterical reaction to Clare's results thus far is because some people are anti-Davy," Chaplin insists. "They have been against him since he took the job. The same people handed him no credit when he won an All-Ireland - they put that down to the players. There is an anti-Davy thing out there and I'm saddened to say that it's mostly from within.

"People know I'm close to Davy and that we have been friends for years so I don't get a lot of it to my face. But at matches you'd want to hear the stuff that's been thrown out there. That's when I stand up and face them down. I'm not bickering with Galway people or Tipp people - you can have the banter with them. No, I'm fighting with my own. 'Tis pure bitterness, some of what is going on, and Davy doesn't deserve that. Where were we before he took over?

"I'm not one bit worried about the league, or the importance of the match with Kilkenny. We won four out of five league games last year and where did it get it us? In my view, the first important game of the season that they play is against Limerick in May."

Still, Division 1B is not easy to get out of and relegation would help no-one. If a drop was followed by a poor summer the clamour for change would start again, with so many serious coaches and managers working in the county right now.

Men of the calibre of 2015 Fitzgibbon Cup winning manager Brian Lohan, the under 21 maestros Donal Maloney and Gerry O'Connor, and Anthony Daly. For now, though, avoiding relegation and re-assessing the side ahead of the Championship seems fairest. Clare are a top of the ground side who relish flying into acres of open space and onto breaking ball at speed. They have a deft touch and are not blessed with physical players who thrive at this stage of the season.

"For sure there is an expectancy there for those lads to push on now again," acknowledges Chaplin. "And I think they will win at least one more All-Ireland title. I still genuinely believe it could be this year."

A few weeks ago, Fitzgerald felt his young side was "over-anxious" as they fell to a third defeat in the league. Since then they have beaten Dublin, he has given a measured response to the allegations of humiliation and the players have backed him.

"I think Davy already has the basis of his championship team in his head and there has been some experimentation to date," Chaplin adds. "They won't panic even if they lose today. Don't forget they have those under 21 and senior titles under their belts; they are not out there like other counties frantically searching for that championship.

"Our guys have medals won and they showed enough resolve to come in the back door when we last won the championship. Relegation pressure won't worry them. In the meantime I'd just ask Clare people to give them a break. We are a super county to knock and we always have been.

"When I was a selector with 'Sparrow' [Ger O'Loughlin], we were playing Galway in the qualifiers. I was on the sideline when a reporter from Clare passed me and, said, 'ye'd want to resign - ye haven't a clue what ye are doing!' Jesus, you don't expect such abuse from your own. But Davy's getting that now. At the end of the day we are still in Division 1 and still serious contenders for the All-Ireland title."

As long as that remains the status quo things will be fine. Beat Kilkenny this afternoon and the outlook is brighter than ever and the plight of O'Halloran and O'Connell will be consigned to the archives.

Modern-day sport doesn't have much time for personalities, characters or human issues and, increasingly, GAA players are being judged by professional standards. It's a results business. It's as simple, or as fickle as that.

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