Saturday 24 February 2018

Davy Fitzgerald's jousts with Brian Cody have rarely ended in triumph


Wexford manager Davy Fitzgerald. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
Wexford manager Davy Fitzgerald. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

Where will we begin? Maybe the first year of Brian Cody's reign as Kilkenny manager, a slow rewind to 1999, when Clare, in the hunt for another All-Ireland final appearance, provided the opposition in the semi-finals. That day, with Davy Fitzgerald in goal, the relationship wasn't what it is now, a managerial rivalry reiterated this afternoon in a National League quarter-final meeting at Nowlan Park. And Cody then wasn't the Cody we know now; he was only beginning, a novice.

Over the many seasons since, with all the changes that time entails, Cody is the great abiding constant, still holding the same position 18 years on. Fitzgerald has never gone away though, never stopped, having always been part of the hurling league and championship in some guise, even if his career has gone through various reincarnations. He didn't retire from inter-county hurling until 2008, and bolted straight into management with Waterford. Already he is in his third senior county management job, one following seamlessly into the next.

Kilkenny manager Brian Cody. Picture: Sportsfile
Kilkenny manager Brian Cody. Picture: Sportsfile

This will be their second meeting on the sidelines since Fitzgerald took over Wexford, having already met in the Walsh Cup in January when Kilkenny won by a point. They are due to meet again in the Leinster Championship semi-final on June 10, provided Wexford can defeat the team that emerges from the round-robin preliminaries.

Fitzgerald's most recent success encountering Cody was in last year's National League semi-final in Thurles when he enjoyed a rare victory, Clare triumphing by nine points, and scoring four goals, in an exhibition of attacking play.

That was Fitzgerald's finest moment in Cody's company but it did not prove a reliable indicator of what was to follow. Clare went on to win a league title, but Kilkenny were playing on the first Sunday in September, Clare having a poor championship, defeated by Waterford in Munster and Galway in the All-Ireland quarter-finals.

Fitzgerald's worst day in management was also his first encounter with Cody on the sidelines, the 2008 All-Ireland final, when his Waterford side was destroyed by 3-30 to 1-13. He denied claims that he sent his players out to try and ruffle Kilkenny before the throw-in, a tactic which backfired badly and betrayed a naivety in thinking that Kilkenny would be intimidated physically or psychologically. This was Cody's team at the absolute height of their powers, and the fact that Fitzgerald managed to guide Waterford into their first All-Ireland final in 45 years, following a succession of near-misses, was lost in the slaughter that followed. For Cody, it was probably his finest hour, recognised when he was given the man of the match award for his team's brilliance on the day.

Davy Fitzgerald has met Brian Cody on 12 occasions as a manager of Clare and Waterford, after losing two All-Ireland semi-finals, one quarter-final and a final, as well as a National League final, to him while a county player. Over those 12 games he has been victorious three times, but never in the championship. The list of defeats includes two All-Ireland semi-finals in 2009 and 2011 while Waterford manager, though the team performed respectably on both days. The one victory as Waterford manager against Cody was in early March, 2009, a hugely welcome win after the previous year's All-Ireland final nightmare. Waterford won by four points in Walsh Park before a crowd of 7,500.

With new disciplinary regulations being trialled at the time, four players were sent off on yellow cards after just 25 minutes, with two more dismissed on red cards in the second half. Kilkenny were not at full strength and lost three All-Stars to dismissals - Eddie Brennan, Jackie Tyrrell and Tommy Walsh. But it served its purpose in raising Waterford spirits, and also helped start rebuild Fitzgerald's own confidence and self-belief from the ruins of the previous September.

His observations immediately after are worth revisiting. "Does it help after the All-Ireland last year? It does because if Kilkenny could beat us 10 points today they'd have beaten us 10 points today and they didn't. I think you could see there was good spirit in the lads. They hooked and blocked and chased very honestly."

Later that year the counties met in the All-Ireland semi finals, with Kilkenny on offer at 1/10 and Waterford 7/1. Waterford lost but they were a different side to the one which fell apart in the previous year's All-Ireland, scoring 3-15 before succumbing by five points.

When he took over Galway as manager, Ger Loughnane noted that he had "never beaten" Cody in direct clashes. Loughnane enjoyed victory over Kilkenny in the All-Ireland semi-final 20 years ago but Cody was not in charge. When Loughnane left Clare and became a pundit, Cody, his old college contemporary, went on to build an empire unrivalled in the past and that may never be equalled in the future. Loughnane hadn't any luck beating Cody while managing Galway either.

Nor have many, it needs to be said. It is not a deficiency to have a poor record against Brian Cody, just the norm for most of the last 18 seasons. Much like any county aspiring to win an All-Ireland needs to be ready to beat Kilkenny, any manager knows more likely than not that he will have to shake hands with Cody at the final whistle and offer his condolences if the ultimate is to be achieved.

Fitzgerald spoke of observing Cody at the All-Ireland final of 2011, in an interview with The Irish Times last year, taking a seat close to the sideline. "I wanted to see what makes this guy tick, what is he. Kilkenny were attacking in the first few minutes but he wasn't looking at that. He was looking down at the defensive match-up, one-on-ones. It was unreal that day - I remember Tommy Walsh in at full-back at one stage. And he gave one or two messages and it was fairly vocal."

There seems to be a mutual appreciation between them and an element of warmth. Fitzgerald claimed their only confrontation happened while he was a Clare player in 2004, not long after Kilkenny had destroyed Galway in Thurles in the qualifiers and Cody had given his most volcanic performance on the sideline of his entire managerial career.

"I said, 'This f**kin' lad isn't going to do that to us now'. So after the parade I ran over to him and I gave it to him. Left, right and centre," Fitzgerald told The Irish Times. "Before the match even started - 'You try any of that shit today . . . whatever.' And a few months later we both found ourselves at a dinner dance up in Derry. He was there and I was there. And he told the whole dinner dance what I'd done. Sure, he'd only be laughing."

Fitzgerald is famously combustible on the sideline, although he argues that others get away with it more. Cody can equally blow a fuse but he is not the constant powder-keg personality of his now Wexford counterpart. Cody's rivalry with Wexford, though, is longer and more deeply embedded than any rivalry that has developed with an opposing manager.

When Waterford met Kilkenny at Nowlan Park in late March, 2011, they lost by six points and Fitzgerald was serving a four-week suspension, having initially been faced with the threat of a three-month ban. The suspension was imposed for "abusive language towards a referee" in the first-round tie against Tipperary. It meant he could not patrol the sideline for two league matches, including the meeting with Kilkenny.

It was another defeat at Cody's hands that ended Fitzgerald's management days with Waterford, when they were beaten in the 2011 All-Ireland semi-final by six points. Earlier in the summer they were hammered by seven goals in the Munster final by Tipperary. After a slow start, conceding an early 1-2, Waterford recovered but were unable to claw back the full deficit.

The following year Fitzgerald, now leading Clare, again found Cody's Kilkenny a step too far. In the league semi-finals, they were within a point of Kilkenny at half-time but ended up losing 1-20 to 0-14. They blew a great chance to defeat Kilkenny in the league the following year and finally got one over on them in the first round at Ennis in 2014, which was a meeting of the reigning All-Ireland champions and the league champions. Still, Kilkenny ended up winning the league that year and the All-Ireland and Clare failed to build on their success from 2013. In 2015, Kilkenny relegated Clare in a play-off at Nowlan Park.

Which made the victory over Kilkenny in last year's league semi-final a welcome event for Fitzgerald. "It's a nice victory, thoroughly deserved," he said afterwards. "Our work-rate today was savage, our hooks, blocks, and tackles were way up. The lads played with savage pride and heart, I couldn't say enough about them."

What will he be saying after, or indeed during, today?

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