Wednesday 11 December 2019

Vincent Hogan: Old friends keep their distance as fierce rivals return for battle

No-one will be more passionate in support of Waterford tomorrow than Pat Bennett, but - whatever the outcome - his friendship with Davy Fitzgerald will endure

Pat Bennett served as a selector with Waterford under Davy Fitzgerald. Picture credit: Patrick Browne
Pat Bennett served as a selector with Waterford under Davy Fitzgerald. Picture credit: Patrick Browne
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

The silence between them has felt unnatural, but there's been no workable alternative.

Their friendship straddles the two sides of a hurling rivalry now building into something epochal, so the fairest thing was to suspend it, to erect an invisible wall. Pat Bennett says that "whatever way it goes" he and Davy Fitzgerald will talk tomorrow evening. But not before.

For now, his only wish is that Waterford come through. Two sons, Shane and Stephen, will be part of Derek McGrath's army and a third, Kieran, has been released to hurl for the intermediates. There is no ambiguity in what he wants for them. What he wants for the county.

His own career coincided with a time in which Waterford seemed to be shaking off endless bouts of frustration and regret. He hurled senior inter-county from 1979 to '88, winning nothing. Once they even dipped into Division 3 of the National League, losing a game to Roscommon for "a long bus journey home".

And, back then, championship offered no safety net either.

You lost a game and you got on with the rest of summer. Often, he reminds his boys of the brutality of that schedule. "When men were men and hurlers were hurlers," he tells them, laughing. That game was truly pitiless on the oppressed in his time. In three years as a county minor, Pat Bennett got to play three games. Two of those were lost by a single score.


"You got beaten and you were out the gap," he reflects now. "It was brutal. And there was no planning back then, everything was just hit and miss basically. How were you going to improve? You mightn't hurl again for six months."

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It is Wednesday in Lismore, the countryside tingling under a canopy of perfect blue. Championship weather. For a life so saturated in hurling, maybe his own calloused history just intensifies the vibrancy of what Pat Bennett feels today. He loves what McGrath has given Waterford, reminding you that - two short years back - they were no better than ninth in the national rankings.

Their progress since hasn't simply been a triumph of system over individuality as some routinely choose to imply. It has been something more nuanced and organic. McGrath isn't pushing a fleeting rebellion here, he is cultivating revolution.

Bennett points to a recent Thursday in Tramore and the Waterford senior manager's coaching of the county's U-13s, U-14s and U-15s for an entire day. "He was there from 10am to 3pm, I don't know of any other senior manager who would do that," says Bennett. "And Derek doesn't have to.

"But, at the end of the day, he's a Waterford man. He's looking to make sure that things will still be good in ten years' time. That, when he finishes as manager, he's going to leave things in a better way than how he got them."

Maybe the story of Davy Fitz and Waterford needs retelling here.

Why? Because, on some level, it has been corrupted and blurred by time, distorted by an illusion that things never quite worked out between them. Davy took charge in mid-championship of '08, the players having jettisoned Justin McCarthy. And for his four seasons at the helm, Waterford always got to hurl into August.

Bennett served as a selector for the last two, during which they secured only the ninth senior Munster crown of Waterford's history. When Davy then stepped away in '11, he asked Pat to join his management set-up with LIT. And Bennett has remained a part of that set-up since, a comrade to Fitzgerald and firm friend.

They'd never spoken until a chance meeting on the stairwell of Lawlors' Hotel in '09, Bennett training the county's intermediates at the time. "How many are you going to give us for Sunday?" he asked Davy with a grin.

One year later, the county chairman was on the phone to Bennett, telling him that Davy was keen to have him on board as a senior selector. "I met him in his jeep below in the car park of The Park Hotel and we probably spoke for two hours," Pat remembers now.

"And it went from there."

Padraig Fanning was on board too and Bennett's memories of their time together utterly contradict the populist view of what Davy Fitzgerald is as a manager. "He's very quiet, very articulate," stresses Bennett. "He knows what he's on about. While he would always have the last say, one thing I found with him is that - if Padraig and myself disagreed with him over a player - Davy went with the majority.

"He'd say, 'I don't agree with ye, but...' I liked that about him immediately. He'd never dismiss something you might say. If he disagreed with you, he'd always explain why. But he'd never dismiss you."

Bennett recalls that time as a challenging period for Waterford hurling, largely because they were looking to recalibrate the broad philosophy. The team that won Munster Championships in '02, '04 and '07 had a compellingly individualistic streak that earned them the nation's affection, yet never delivered the All-Ireland they all craved.

As the iconic figures of that dressing-room began to fade, Fitzgerald recognised a need for Waterford to rein in their trademark flamboyancy. To play more as a team. And the transition required was not broadly welcomed.

"Davy was pushing the whole time towards a greater team ethic," recalls Bennett. "We knew you weren't going to win an All-Ireland just with individuals. You had to have a team. Look at Kilkenny. They are always, first and foremost, a team. Davy was trying to get that across to people, that we needed to get to that level. You know he got some bad press at the end of his time with Waterford and that was just plain stupid. He had us competing at the top even though he was trying to change so much. And the drive he had to make to get to training every night... Getting home at one in the morning. Like he was putting his heart and soul into it.

"And if he saw you putting in that kind of commitment too, he'd be 200pc behind you. He's hugely loyal like that."

That 2010 Munster title win decanted great jollity under the lights of Semple Stadium, but never quite stole the hearts of Waterford people. They missed the extravagance of the Gerald and Justin years. The sense of bravura, of a team programmed to just go toe-to-toe and roll with the consequences.

Bennett could understand that having seen how the charisma of those men so energised the imaginations of his own boys. Because the Bennett sons grew up in thrall to men like Ken McGrath, Paul Flynn and John Mullane. From the moment they were old enough to hurl, he brought them everywhere.

He has a particularly personal memory of the '04 Munster final. It relates to Shane, thus far, one of the stand-out young hurlers of this season.

Shane would have only been seven then and, at half-time, wanted to go down to the shop. So the three Bennett boys descended with their father into the gloom under the Kinane Stand, but only two of them returned. "I thought Shane had gone back up ahead of us, but he was nowhere to be seen," recalls Pat.

"So I'm telling the other two 'Stay there...' as I go back down looking for him. The second half has started now and people are shouting at me, 'Will ya sit down!' I'm in a real panic. He's somewhere in the middle of 50,000 people and I'm going, 'Holy Mother, where is he?' Next thing, he arrives back with a steward.

"He'd been missing for maybe four minutes, but it seemed like an hour. 'Twas was only when we sat back down in our seats, I heard Mullane has been sent off!"

There's a fourth Bennett boy hurling now, Ryan having captained Waterford's Sonny Walsh Cup (U-14) squad against Kilkenny last week. With so much hurling around him, Ryan only took to the game at 11. "We kind of said we'd sit back and see what took his interest," says Pat.

"And he's into the horse-riding and football too. But, all of a sudden, he's really taken to the hurling."

The circle stays unbroken.

A father wants only good things for his children, but which way does he turn when happiness for one becomes irreconcilable with that for another?

In last year's Fitzgibbon Cup, LIT hosted a semi-final against city rivals UL and, with maybe 20 minutes remaining, Stephen Bennett - just returning from injury - was sent into the fray for UL. And where should he position himself but in the corner of his brother, Kieran.

Imagine Pat Bennett's emotions. Standing on the line as an LIT selector, watching one son mark the other. Davy Fitz decided to intervene.

He moved Kieran into another precinct and, with the game in its death throes, Stephen then scored a clinching goal.

"Davy said afterwards it was a mistake to move Kieran off him," smiles Bennett.

The boys made history as the first triumvirate of brothers to hurl minor for Waterford and maybe the day will come when they're all on the field together as seniors. Kieran, the eldest, hurled with the U-21s last year and has "come on a ton since Davy's got hold of him" for Fitzgibbon.

Pat describes him as "very chilled out" whilst Stephen is "the most intense of them all". And Shane? To get an idea of his personality it might help to know that he will be working till 11pm tonight, delivering Chinese meals for a local takeaway. He also recently started part-time work at Faithlegg Golf Club.

"He'll want the money for winter when he's back in college," smiles Pat. "He's so laid-back, it's unreal. Sometimes you're watching him on the pitch and you'd wonder, 'Is this guy switched on at all?' But soon as the game starts, he comes alive."

As a father, Pat's instinct is to never suffocate them with praise. His wife, Anne, sometimes scolds him for this rationing of kindness. Often, it seems, the better one of them plays, the less likely Pat Bennett is to applaud. The boys themselves joke that he is more likely to recycle positives from their bad days.

He is in little doubt now about the ferocious edge that Clare will bring to Thurles tomorrow, all old friendships suspended as they must be.

Yet, he hopes that Waterford people can see beyond that ferocity too. Some time ago, when Maurice Shanahan was wrestling with some wretched personal demons, Davy Fitz rang Pat Bennett offering whatever help he could give. Davy has spoken publicly of enduring his own psychological turmoil in the past and instinctively empathises with anyone in a similar predicament now.

Pat subsequently drove Maurice to Cahir where he spoke to Davy Fitz for two hours. "To be fair, the man was unbelievable to me," Maurice recently recalled. "And he still is to this day. I told him everything that went on like and why I was suffering from it. He still gets in contact with me."

That was the context for their warm embrace after the drawn National League final. For all the fury hurling men routinely bring to battle, there is always a broader canvas, always a bigger story.

Bennett believes that Derek McGrath and Davy Fitz, though polar opposites in how they express themselves, are actually linked by more than they are divided now.

He says: "I believe they are the two most imaginative coaches in hurling today. They've both brought their teams to new levels and they've done it by getting the absolute best out of the players at their disposal. And, even more importantly, by man-managing them really well.

"You can see how happy the Clare camp is and you can see how happy the Waterford camp is. I mean I meet the Jamie Barrons, the Tadhg de Burcas and the Aussie Gleesons all the time and there's always a smile on their faces.

"You can talk about sweepers or whatever but, at the end of the day, it's not about that. It's about really good hurlers working hard. If you go back, not even to my era as a player, but only as far back as the early 2000s, those teams would be destroyed by Waterford or Clare today.

"The fitness, the on-field communication, the intelligence, it's all gone to another level."

Tomorrow, Waterford and Clare return to Thurles, both determined to set a course for the sun. Defeat won't kill off either one, of course, but it will hurt wretchedly. Pat Bennett hopes that hurt is Clare's.

Whether it is or not, he'll seek out Davy Fitz when it's over and happily end their silence.

"Everybody talks about how passionate Davy is," he says. "But he's also a true gentleman. Davy will do anything for you. If you're 100pc with Davy, he's 100pc with you.

"That's the way it works with him. There are no agendas."

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