A story appeared in The Clare Echo last Tuesday declaring that Davy Fitzgerald was about to be appointed Galway senior hurling manager, with a team of assistants lined up, a number of them with experience of working in the county as club coaches.
But a day later the picture had changed dramatically. Out of the blue came Henry Shefflin, catching everyone by surprise. One moment it was Sweepermacs, the next it was something very different. Like hurling, the game changed in an instant.
On the field Shefflin could be hard to track, accomplished at roaming about and picking up possession unmarked. Here he also played an elusive card. Amid the constant avalanche of social media information feeds, and in a country notoriously proficient at gossip and stunningly incapable of keeping secrets, this level of discretion was a staggering achievement in itself.
The Fitzgerald hoo-hah had certainly helped by attracting all the attention one way but Shefflin was not seen as a candidate and the story didn’t break until a few hours before the official announcement on Wednesday. Once Micheál Donoghue declared himself no longer interested, it left the selection committee hard pressed to find a suitable replacement for Shane O’Neill.
Fitzgerald wasn’t everyone’s idea of the perfect solution, but he has a track record in management and enough experience to make a decent pitch. Whether he was made an offer though is unclear and it seems he did not see the Shefflin challenge coming. No manager with that level of profile wants to enter a race and come out second best. Least of all one as fiercely competitive and proud as Davy Fitzgerald is.
It is believed that there was at least some player resistance to Fitzgerald being appointed, founded on past experiences while he was in charge of Wexford and even back to the time he was at the helm in Clare and Galway came into view. His confrontational manner might be dismissed as infectious passion by some, but for others on the receiving end it is not as easily forgotten or overlooked.
There were also misgivings about the style of play he might impose on Galway, where previous iterations were seen to curtail teams and reduce their attacking range and potential. Such guarded instincts made it impossible to develop teams beyond a certain point; it had finite possibilities. Despite some success with Wexford, and a long-awaited Leinster title, there was a familiar loss of momentum and a sharp downturn. The 2019 All-Ireland semi-final reversal to Tipperary brought home the limitations of the system of play when caution needed to be dispensed with and wasn’t.
Perhaps the movement from county to county, which has already seen Fitzgerald manage Waterford, Clare and Wexford in immediate succession, also influenced thinking.
He won’t be lost to hurling and will still attract a lot of counties but his options at the top end may have stalled for now after this set-back. Whereas Wexford might have had a certain amount of desperation and needed a serious prod and dynamic firebrand, the same mix does not necessarily work in Galway. That Rumpelstiltskin act may simply have had its day.
When Ger Loughnane brought Lear-like rage and chaos to Galway it didn’t work. The system Fitzgerald would have brought to Galway, the well-equipped backroom team and detailed organisation, would have been welcome and well received. But the personality and spiky attitude that went with it has become over-familiar for some of those weighing up decisions and, more importantly, for the players themselves. Far from being new, Davy Fitzgerald was a quantity all too well known.
Johnny Glynn, the former Galway hurler, was as flabbergasted as most when he heard the news in New York a few days ago. “I was just talking to a few of the lads, who retired in recent years,” he said of the Shefflin appointment. “Anyone I was talking to was excited for Galway hurling.”
The Galway chairman Pat Kearney, when asked if Fitzgerald had been offered the post, pointed to media reports being wide of the mark. One source said he “knew for a fact” that Fitzgerald was not offered the job even though the Clare man said on The Late Late Show on Friday night that “maybe I felt I was going to go (to Galway) at one stage.” Another source claimed to have been informed by a club delegate early on Tuesday morning that an offer had been made to Fitzgerald and when this was publicised it led to an adverse reaction within Galway club hurling circles that forced a retreat. It is all immaterial now.
For Shefflin, this is an interesting move, and one of the most intriguing ever in hurling, especially given his profile, origins and the fact that he is a novice in terms of inter-county management. There is also the not so irrelevant backdrop of Brian Cody’s long service which has seen ripples of discontent emerge in the county in recent years, with a lengthening absence from the All-Ireland winners’ podium and a growing constituency that feels change is due.
A Galway source said that Shefflin was close to taking over the Tribesmen before O’Neill’s appointment in 2019. At that time he might have been a candidate to take on Kilkenny but Cody was not for moving, and there has been no serious challenge to Cody’s position from within Kilkenny, and no appetite to consider it from the main administration. Those hankering for change, who feel he has been there too long, will see Shefflin’s move as a lost opportunity. They will argue that while Kilkenny sits still the rest of the world is moving on.
Galway and Shefflin make a fascinating partnership and while some caution is justified due to Galway’s recent regression, in evidence even before Shane O’Neill’s arrival, and the absence of fresh talent despite numerous minor wins, there is inevitable optimism about what someone with Shefflin’s status and respect can bring to the squad. After Joe Canning’s retirement, this is news that has given the county’s hurling community renewed hope.
“With the hurlers he has in Galway, the way they hurl and the potential they have, if there is anyone to bring it out in them I think he will bring it out,” says Glynn.
They may have struck gold.