Monday 17 December 2018

Old friends slip into Davy's sights

Wexford manager Davy Fitzgerald Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Wexford manager Davy Fitzgerald Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Nobody will be in much doubt about what lies beneath the gauze of conviviality in Wexford Park tomorrow.

Davy Fitz will want to beat Clare; they will want to beat him, human nature imparting a subtle, intimate frisson to this early-season collision between the two teams who look to have come to the new hurling season with most coherent early intent. The energy around Wexford is more positive than it's been for a generation and, it's true, that won't have cause to deviate too wildly on the evidence of anything that unspools here.

Davy Fitzgerald celebrates Clare's 2013 All-Ireland final success with Tony Kelly Photo: Paul Mohan / SPORTSFILE
Davy Fitzgerald celebrates Clare's 2013 All-Ireland final success with Tony Kelly Photo: Paul Mohan / SPORTSFILE

But some GAA days incubate sub-plots running deeper than the protagonists let on.

For Fitzgerald, squaring up to his native county will never be an entirely comfortable exercise, especially given that familiar sight on the line of his own father, Pat, still doing the job of Clare county board secretary. But so many players now in the care of joint-managers, Donal Moloney and Gerry O'Connor, were first schooled in senior inter-county by the Sixmilebridge man too that, for many, tomorrow will - at best - feel strange.

Dignity

Davy's departure from Clare in September of 2016 was conducted with dignity from the moment he became aware of "divided opinions" within the broader panel. But there can be no doubting it stung him too, finding himself compelled to step down after a season in which they'd won their first National League title since 1978 and lost just two of 16 games played.

He'd also wrestled with health issues that summer and, when it ended with Clare, many close to him counselled a complete break from the game. But he could not resist the challenge of Wexford and a squad that, for a mixed bag of reasons, had hit a flat-spot after their epochal summer of 2014 when, under Liam Dunne's stewardship, they'd taken the scalp of the then All-Ireland champions, Davy Fitz's Clare.

And since?

Clare's 2017 was underwhelming; Wexford's felt like a novelty story growing, potentially, into a parable.

Yet, both managements understand implicitly how this week's revolution is next week's disappointment, so nobody's been beating drums too loud on either side about what's likely to happen next. Clare are three from three in this League so far, Wexford two from three, plus a close call in Thurles last weekend against Tipperary. For both, that's probably above the watermark predicted.

But tangled relationships give tomorrow's game an independent pulse.

Fitzgerald's been here before, of course. As Waterford manager, he went to Ennis for a League game in February 2009 (winning by seven points) less than 12 months after his playing career with Clare appeared to have been ended by Tony Considine.

More tumultuously, he led Waterford into Munster Championship battle against Clare in 2010 at a time his native county was managed by Ger 'Sparrow' O'Loughlin, brother of his long-time partner Sharon, as well as a former county team-mate and business partner. That Clare management team also included another former county team-mate, Liam Doyle, as well as one of Fitzgerald's closest friends in Sixmilebridge Danny Chaplin.

Waterford won that game too (by four points), Davy Fitz admitting afterwards that - emotionally - it had been one of his most conflicted days in hurling.

None of that was ever communicated to his players mind. Waterford's goalkeeper that day, Clinton Hennessy, recalled this week: "It was only afterwards, when we thought about it, that most of us would have realised just how hard that day must have been for Davy.

"I suppose he shielded us from that side of things, because he didn't want any distractions. I mean we all knew that going up against Clare would be tough for him. Personally, I couldn't even imagine what it must feel like going into battle against your own county. Emotionally, it had to be difficult."

Tomorrow, it's true, could have a mild element of bluff given its regrettable proximity to this evening's Fitzgibbon Cup final. Wexford will have the likes of Paudie Foley and Aaron Maddock on duty with DCU in Mallow in the college's first-ever final while Clare have already indicated that their UL contingent - Tony Kelly, Conor Cleary, David Fitzgerald and Ian Galvin - will not now be asked to tog out in Wexford, given the county has already secured a quarter-final berth.

No matter, Davy Fitz indicated this week that he expects Clare to arrive in Wexford Park with "all guns blazing", believing their inclination will be to "lift it incrediblye playing against me."

Pat Donnellan, his now retired All-Ireland winning captain in 2013, agrees there will "definitely be an element of competitiveness" to the exchanges, but plays down any sense of that competitiveness taking fuel from anything bleaker than healthy rivalry.

Fallout

"There's absolutely no bad blood there," he says emphatically. "Like when Fitzy left in 2016, you wouldn't even call what followed a fallout. To be fair, Fitzy would maybe tell you himself that it was probably coming to an end anyway. You know, he may have stayed on another season, but he had done his few (five) years.

"Everyone can see that Fitzy was good for us. We won an All-Ireland and a League with him and now he seems to be getting the best out of Wexford so far. This game will be interesting because Clare and Wexford look like the two teams who have the most work done early on. They both look very fit, very hungry.

"So there'll definitely be that element of competitiveness now from the Clare lads, trying to do their best to beat Fitzy. And have no doubt he'll have it too for them."

The players' testimony of Fitzgerald's time as Clare manager has been almost universally effusive, calling into question the routinely unsympathetic and distrustful soundtrack of certain critics - among them former team-mates - that he always declared audible during his time at the helm.

In Wexford, thus far anyway, he says he has encountered no such equivocation.

After promotion from Division 1B last year and the recording of a first Championship win over Kilkenny since '04, their recent Walsh Cup victory brought the county's first silverware in 14 seasons.

And with 1A victories already recorded against Waterford and Cork, Wexford already look well set to keep their top-flight status.

Yet, Fitzgerald will be keenly aware too of how quickly such momentum could taper, given tomorrow's encounter will be followed by a trip to Nowlan Park where they have now won their last three meetings against Brian Cody's men. Lose to Clare and Kilkenny and it isn't entirely inconceivable that Wexford could find themselves sucked into an unwelcome relegation play-off.

Hence, if anything, Wexford's need tomorrow is more urgent than Clare's.

Hennessy believes that Fitzgerald's deep knowledge of the Clare players is sure to play on the minds of his old charges as they prepare for a day of re-acquaintance.

"I'd say it has to," the ex-Waterford goalkeeper suggests. "No matter how hard a player tries to block that stuff, it's going to be in the back of your head that this man knows you inside out."

That said, both managements will already be plotting deeper into a hurling year that, for now, demands an inordinate amount of guessing. The new calendar, essentially, requires two separate physical peaks, the most important - naturally - running into summer.

As Donnellan sees it: "This year of all years, it's hard to know where anyone stands. Everyone's trying to make sure they're getting what they want out of the League without over investing in it. So it'll be intriguing to see how they're all getting on in a month or two and how training will be tapered to help them keep their form.

"Clare and Wexford both probably want to make up for the last few years and, to do that, they'll need to be peaking in May, June and July. So it's all a guessing game for now, nobody really sure how it's going to pan out.

"Everyone will have planned things as much as possible with their strength and conditioning coaches, and I suppose the key now is that managers keep faith in that and nobody starts getting trigger-happy."

Still, all of that is sure to seem an abstract notion for 70-plus minutes in Wexford Park tomorrow, Davy Fitz's new army gunning for another win, his old one determined to deny them it.

Irish Independent

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