Tuesday 20 February 2018

Season of 'failure' beckons for one of the game's true winners

Despite achievements, defeat for either Fitzgerald or Barry-Murphy will increase pressure

Davy Fitzgerald and Jimmy Barry-Murphy are polar opposites on the sideline SPORTSFILE
Davy Fitzgerald and Jimmy Barry-Murphy are polar opposites on the sideline SPORTSFILE
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

The contrast in demeanour could scarcely be any greater if it were carefully constructed for effect.

Jimmy Barry-Murphy, arms folded, serene and almost detached as he surveys the action in front of him like a horse-trainer watching his prize charges cantering on the early morning gallops

Davy Fitzgerald, arms waving, animated and fully engaged with every shot, tackle and block, looking as if he would love to grab a hurley and sprint into the game.

And yet, when they take their places on the Semple Stadium sideline this evening, they will be bonded in a manner that no-one in the stadium - or watching the game on TV - can possibly understand.

A win won't define the season for either Clare or Cork, but defeat will. And since so much responsibility is loaded onto the manager nowadays, the stewardship of either JBM or Davy will come under intense scrutiny if their county is not in the All-Ireland quarter-final draw on Monday.

Cork have reached one All-Ireland final and two semi-finals in JBM's second coming. They won one Munster title and came within seconds of being crowned All-Ireland champions in 2013.

Given the available resources, it's a decent haul, but the Cork public find that hard to accept. Raised on stories about how an All-Ireland winning team can mushroom overnight on Leeside, second and third-placed finishes are not enough.

Yet, given Cork's failure at underage level for so long - they didn't even reach the Munster minor or U-21 finals this year - it's hardly surprising that the senior squad is short of quality in some departments.

Yet JBM is expected to transform it into an All-Ireland winning unit. And when it doesn't happen, the search light for a scapegoat shines on him.


Of course, there are sensible people in Cork who accept, perhaps reluctantly, the reality of the situation. However, there are a great many others who trade in the nonsense that it would be all very different if more sophisticated tactics were applied.

It's an easy case to make, even if there's no evidence whatsoever to substantiate it. JBM's critics argue that his approach is old-fashioned and no longer remotely fit for purpose.

But then, he has never over-complicated the game, but it seems that's not the way to impress any more. TV gizmos and gadgets can make fools or kings of us all as they reproduce the images with hindsight's unerring eye.

Curiously, the winners always get it right in that wonderful world of post-match certainty, so even if a team edges to victory by a point or two, the manager is deemed to be a much shrewder operator than his rival.

In Cork's instance, this squad are not good enough to win the All-Ireland - although they came mighty close in a volatile 2013 Championship - so JBM will continue to be hit by accusations that he lacks tactical savvy and sticks too closely to traditional methods and values.

In fairness to the decision-makers in Cork, they have never allowed themselves to be swayed by misguided public opinion when it comes to dealing with managers.

And since JBM is one of the county's great icons, he will come under no pressure to resign if Cork are beaten this evening.

He will be cut far more slack than Fitzgerald, who has shipped lots of criticism since the defence of the 2013 All-Ireland title went so badly wrong last year.

Relegation to Division 1B, followed by defeat by Limerick in the Munster quarter-final this year, has further raised the temperature. The whispering classes in Clare refer to the golden generation, a group of players whom, it is assumed, should be winning All-Ireland titles every year.

Davy's critics claim that he's squandering the boom, which could be rescued by another voice(s) in the dressing-room.

Now, if underage success was a guarantee of anything at senior level, Galway would not be waiting so long for an All-Ireland title. And Limerick people still recall ruefully that three successive All-Ireland U-21 title wins from 2000-02 made no impression whatsoever on the seniors' stock over subsequent seasons.

Counties like Clare, who are not use to consistent glory, tend to lose perspective when a big success visits them. There's an assumption that the glory days will last indefinitely, despite the lessons of history.

Clare's 2013 All-Ireland win was only their fourth in history, yet it's already being seen in a somewhat devalued light because of the failure to make it two-in-a-row last year.

Davy, as the ringmaster, is carrying much of the blame. He's an easy target, since he wears he wears his emotions as proudly as he carried the Clare jersey for 18 years.

His post-match interviews mirror his personality: straight-talking, passionate, obsessed. Naturally, he will spin the tale to suit his version of events, but it's always interesting.

Not noted for a love of referees, his critics claim that he's alienating the whistling classes with his approach and that it's impacting on the Clare players.

If that's the case, it's a shocking indictment of referees. The rules don't change because of reactions by a manager, so how could there possibly be a justification for punishing Clare players because the referee might have an issue with the manager?

It must be said that there have been times when Clare have fared badly in close refereeing calls in recent seasons. That, in turn, has fuelled Davy's strong reaction and so the pattern continues.

Still, whatever referees think of Davy, they should never allow it to cloud their judgement.

Fitzgerald will love this evening's challenge since he knows that if Clare win, they are back on the All-Ireland road as big-time contenders.

He will have run through dozens of plans and strategies, discarding them as he goes, before settling on the final blueprint. It will, no doubt, be high on structure and detail as he seeks to get his players to work off a game-plan in which he will have 100pc confidence.

Down the line, JBM will be relying on more traditional values, just as he always has.

Out on the pitch, the manifestation of the contrasting philosophies will be fascinating to watch.

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