'If I wanted to stay, I could have': Davy Fitz reveals why he left Clare - and how he ended up in Wexford
Late November in Lahinch, the Atlantic's complexion ominously black with the tint of descending winter.
The village has its back turned, yet - occasionally - a rogue wave comes rising up over the promenade, hissing its reminder that when oceans call attention to themselves, it's best to listen. Davy Fitzgerald has a place down here that he likes to come to, an apartment badly damaged in the storm of January 2014 when the sea reared up like an enraged creature.
He says he finds some kind of peace in Lahinch's self-possession.
It can feel oddly independent of the outside world and, when that world is full of noise, it softens the din just to be down here looking out to sea. We have been chatting for maybe half an hour, his excitement palpable as he talks about the strange arc of destiny that re-routed him to an evangelist's task in Wexford.
His head is already a babel of planning when I stop him in mid-sentence.
The week of his last game as Clare manager this summer, Fitzgerald travelled from Galway to Dublin in the back of an ambulance for a minor heart procedure in St Vincent's Hospital. Seven years ago, he underwent a similar procedure whilst in charge of Waterford.
Yet, Davy Fitz is just 45 and now committing to a virtual six-hour round-trip, likely to be required three times a week for the foreseeable future.
When does he plan on prioritising his own well-being?
He pauses. When Wexford came calling, family and friends advised him against making the commitment. He was just a fortnight out of the Clare job, emotions still a whirlpool. In his own mind, a clean, two-year break from the inter-county game was probably now preferable.
But then Wexford came with a passion that disarmed.
"I know I like to organise other people, but I don't organise myself at all," Fitzgerald acknowledges quietly. "You're investing so much energy in the 35 players and the backroom staff, your thoughts are totally consumed with them. I enjoy that, but the last few months have been a bit of a reality check to me.
"I've discovered that I'm maybe not as invincible as I thought. People hear about my health issues and say, 'Sure he goes mad on the sideline!' But that's got nothing to do with it. It's just my family history. It's hereditary on my mother's side.
"I am more conscious of it. I'd like to be around for a long time to come.
"What I would say is that hurling isn't the stress in my life. Hurling is a release. Other people are in dire straits, so we're blessed that we can get out and do something we love to do.
"Look, I'm still here. If I can stay healthy - and that's very important to me - I'd like to stay involved. I'd love to make a difference for Wexford because I know what it would mean to them. I'll certainly give them everything I've got, but I'd ask them to be patient.
"They're passionate people and I just hope they're as nice to me in six months' time as they are at the moment!"
He grins as he says that. Nobody needs to educate Davy Fitz on the challenge of holding an audience.
* * * * *
He had just touched down in Myrtle Beach for a golf holiday last September when Cian Dillon rang Fitzgerald with news of a split in the Clare camp.
Before leaving for America, Davy had asked Dillon and Tony Kelly to convene a players' meeting, having openly indicated in the Thurles dressing-room immediately after July's defeat to Galway that he recognised a possibility their journey together might be over. He remembers specifically using the expression "change of voice".
Two months later, he was now requesting clarity on the mood within that dressing-room.
After a couple of days in Las Vegas, he was scarcely an hour on the ground in South Carolina when Dillon called. There'd been a small splintering within the group.
"Once I knew there was a split, that was enough for me," he reflects now. "Five years is a long time and I'd felt in my own head after the Galway game that, maybe, that was it. There was a lot of talk afterwards about the players having meetings, but they only had a meeting when I asked them to.
"And, when I heard of the split, it was easy to make the decision. And, being honest, once I did I kind of got a sense of relief.
"You know I just had enough of other people constantly taking shots at me for different things. I'm actually very happy with what we achieved in Clare. If you look at our history in general, the last four years were incredible. Yes, you probably had some die-hards who hated the style of our hurling, even after winning the All-Ireland in 2013.
"They were still only waiting to knock you."
For the record, Clare lost just two of 17 games played in 2016. But those defeats, championship losses to Waterford and Galway, found soaring purchase in the eyes of Fitzgerald's critics. And the county's first National League title in 38 years, thus, offered little protection from that local vitriol.
He is keen, though, not to over-play the breadth of the judiciary that pulled against him in Clare.
Fitzgerald says that the vast bulk of his county men and women were supportive. Yet, there is no doubting a sense that his face just did not fit for certain people. Even the season that immediately followed delivery of only the county's fourth senior All-Ireland crown, he recalls club delegates agitating to a degree that translated into Clare "nearly pressing the self-destruct button".
He remembers: "There was a lot going on that I had nothing to do with. You'd have one or two fellas going into county board meetings and they weren't there to help Clare hurling in any way. They were there with agendas. It might have been someone who'd had a run-in with my dad (Pat Fitzgerald is county board secretary). He might have suspended them. Now they were there to pick at whatever they could pick at.
"And it was just niggling, niggling away the whole time.
"Then you had a few fellas I played with who, for whatever reason, never supported me. To say I'm disappointed with those people would be to put it mildly.
"I'll say this, maybe against myself as a former pundit. I would be massively loyal to the people I played with. I just wouldn't knock them, I'd never make it personal. I know these fellas will tell you they have a job to do as pundits now but, when they go on about the style of hurling that Clare have been playing, a lot of them clearly don't actually know what they're talking about.
"Derek McGrath has been putting up with the same thing in Waterford. He hasn't got half the credit he deserves. Waterford are right back up there again because of his vision.
"What he's done is identified a system that suits the Waterford players. And a lot of analysts plainly don't understand that system."
A large proportion of the players who delivered Clare's three consecutive All-Ireland U-21 crowns (2012, '13 and '14) trained almost exclusively with Fitzgerald's senior panel throughout those seasons and he believes that that exposure to competition with senior players stood to Waterford's U-21s just as decisively en route to this year's All-Ireland title.
Fitzgerald's affection for the Clare players remains utterly undimmed.
"I might have been personally gutted with the behaviour of maybe two or three who I think lost their way a small bit, having been led by their dads," he says flatly. "But the vast majority are phenomenal people. I will say it took us a while to deal with winning the All-Ireland, but look at Tipp in 2010?
"It took them a while to deal with winning that All-Ireland too. Some would say it maybe took them six years!
"Listen, I think Clare will win another All-Ireland very soon. And I'd love to see it. But, if you take Clare over the last 140 years, the last five are right up there. If I wanted to stay, basically I could have. Would two or three players have chosen not to play for me? Quite possible. There was a lot of interference coming from their parents.
"Personally, I think they should leave these guys alone and allow them grow up themselves."
He has a view that Clare's players might have been trying too hard this summer. And split-second decisions, he believes, ultimately cost them against Galway.
Maybe his own medical predicament distracted some as well, albeit Fitzgerald did his utmost to separate it from the team's preparations. He'd taken ill whilst directing the car-parking for the funeral of a near-neighbour in Sixmilebridge, Geraldine Crehan, and - under instruction from his own GP - presented himself immediately to the Galway Clinic.
There an angiogram detected a 98% blockage in the main right artery and, after a sleepless night, he was transferred to Dublin.
The insertion of the necessary stent proved troublesome, taking in excess of 90 minutes, roughly twice that of his previous experience. "I was very sore after," he concedes. "There'd been a lot of rooting around and that night I couldn't sleep. If felt as if there was a cement block on my chest all night."
The theory is that a tough, 45-kilometre cycle the morning of the funeral might have contributed to Fitzgerald's problem, specifically an uphill finish causing his blood pressure to soar and dislodge plaque to block the artery.
He admits to being "a bit weak" on the line that Sunday in Semple Stadium, yet is adamant that his health issues had no impact either on his or his team's performance against Galway.
No matter, two months later, Fitzgerald was working on a resignation statement and it surprised him just how liberating that felt.
"The lads I was on holiday with would probably tell you I played better golf than I had in a long, long time," he chuckles. "I was more chilled out. Like when I do stuff, I do it 110pc. I don't stop thinking about it. So finally, for the first time in a long, long, long time, I was finished. I had nothing. That was it.
"I'd had a health scare and I'm thinking, 'Right, it's over now, time to relax!'"
* * * * *
Wexford's courtship came out of nowhere but, instantly, acquired an urgency that took him by surprise.
There had been an initial call to his father while Davy was still away but, on touchdown, the process all but became a crusade. Home on a Friday, he met their chairman - Dermot Devereaux - in Clonmel the following Monday. Within 24 hours, Devereaux was unequivocal. "I want you to be our next Wexford manager," he told Fitzgerald.
"Will you agree to meet a few people with me?"
So he found himself sitting before a committee in Portlaoise, their enthusiasm for the idea of Davy Fitz as their next manager audible in every contribution. He'd made it clear that he had no intention of entering any kind of contest, specifically outlining a refusal to contest the position against the incumbent of five years, Liam Dunne.
"I said, 'If Liam Dunne is still interested, I'm not interested,'" reflects Fitzgerald now. "But the chairman was adamant that they wanted a change and that Liam wasn't going to be considered.
"I felt Liam had done a really good job and, to be honest, there's a lot of county teams out there that should be more than happy to have that man as their manager."
Leaving Portlaoise that day, Fitzgerald remained hesitant. He was headed for a weekend in Dunloy and, on the journey north, took it upon himself to seek the counsel of those he trusted most. "Am I mad?" he kept asking. By Dunloy, his gut was telling him to give it a shot.
Before retiring to bed that evening, he rang Devereaux. "I'll do it!"
Davy made a point of having his new management team present for the first meeting with Wexford's players in Gorey's Seafield Hotel - JJ Doyle, PJ Ryan, Seoirse Bulfin and Páraic Fanning all sitting at the top table. He confirmed that Keith Rossiter would have a part-time coaching role too and that Wexford would have access to three strength and conditioning coaches.
Everyone was already in place for that first meeting, coaches, physios, stats team, Fitzgerald pointedly communicating an impatience to get started.
"They seem a good bunch and I think if you talk to Liam Dunne he'd say the same," he says. "I suppose the thing about them over the last few years was they could play a good game but, next day out, anyone could catch them. We have to see can we get rid of that inconsistency.
"Like I'll take JJ's word about players, but I've got to find out exactly for myself too. You've to figure out what type of characters you're dealing with. Who can I get more out of? It's a big, big task but I'm genuinely excited by it. We have to get up into the top four or five counties. If you do that, you've a chance of winning."
Jack Guiney is among those included in an initial 41-man winter training squad and will, he insists, be "treated the exact same as everyone else". If Guiney summons the requisite commitment, the feeling is that he can still become an important player for Wexford.
The possibiilty of recruiting Dónal óg Cusack to his backroom staff did cross Fitzgerald's mind but on receiving a call from Donal Moloney, Davy did not equivocate.
"If I pushed Dónal óg, I think he would have come with me," he suggests. "Our bond would be pretty strong.
"We talked when I got the Wexford job but, when Donal Moloney rang me, I thought to myself, 'That's fair enough!' The reason I first brought Dónal óg to Clare was (1) I think he's so good at reading the game and (2) I felt the dressing-room needed that fresh voice.
"We still chat all the time but, going to Wexford, I didn't need that fresh voice. He has only one year done in Clare and I know he'd like to stay. I think he knows he has a chance of winning an All-Ireland with them."
The short-term targets in Wexford are somewhat less grand with Fitzgerald admitting that securing promotion from Division 1B will be "very hard". He has spoken out previously against the current league structure, arguing vehemently that counties like Wexford, Offaly and Laois would benefit from a ten-team top division with games commencing the second last week in January at the expense of the Walsh Cup and Munster League.
"These teams will survive better against the big guns in February and March than they will in July and August," he argues. "And even if they get beaten, they'll learn from them.
"It has to change. What bothers me in this is that strictly football counties have a vote on how and when hurling is played. It shouldn't be that way."
* * * * *
If he's to mount a Wexford revolution now, Fitzgerald already senses the public yearning that could become its soundtrack.
He retains a vivid memory of Wexford Park in 2014 and the July day that Clare formally acquiesced as All-Ireland champions after a replay that went to extra-time. The Wexford public were raucous and suitably hostile that day, yet many waited afterwards to applaud Clare from dressing-room to bus.
"I'll never forget that," he reflects now. "They were never bad to us. Don't get me wrong, the atmosphere was pretty unreal that day and that passion is one of the reasons I'm going there."
This week, the journey officially commences. Wexford will train three nights weekly, the players expected to supplement that training with two evenings in the gym. They will also play a small multiple of challenge matches between now and February.
"They definitely have talent, but they've got to find another level," explains Wexford's new manager. "I don't know if they can do that but, certainly, they seem to have the appetite to try. There don't seem to be any big heads in the group and that's very important.
"I've got a few tests up my sleeve for them now. Let's just see how far we can take this."