Vincent Hogan: Silence of Clare players speaks louder than words
One of the more remarkable aspects of the so-called Clare hurling controversy has been the steely silence from within.
For all the outside allusions to an unhappy camp, there has been nothing from the group itself. No breaking of ranks, no leakage of gossip, no un-named sources offering snapshots of a modern tyranny. Through a whole month of having their story held up for public X-ray, players and management have confined themselves to a single terse statement of togetherness.
It has been impressive in the tightness conveyed, the sense of a group propelled forward by one powerful common energy.
Clare train in Clarecastle this evening and Nicky O’Connell will be back among them. It is less likely that there will be any reconciliation with Davy O’Halloran, in the short term at least, and speculation in the county yesterday was that he may be about to join the Banner football squad.
What is undeniable is that O’Halloran looks an islanded figure now, a lone voice railing against the imposition of a players’ charter in the county that, as the title implies, was drawn up by the Clare players themselves. They are a serious bunch, self-driven, earnest and determined to get back to the glories of 2013 when, it seemed, they had re-calibrated the game to a setting other counties might struggle to follow.
Davy Fitzgerald predicted immediately after their All-Ireland final replay defeat of Cork that year that coping with success would present Clare with one of their greatest challenges. The history of the game is knee-deep in stories of young men corrupted by early success who never again reclaimed the appetite for self-sacrifice that all great teams must summon.
And Clare struggled last year. They looked an imitation of themselves, still hungry no doubt, but maybe no longer quite ravenous for the big days.
Fitzgerald’s management isn’t coded or especially nuanced. He places a high value on loyalty, believing it to be the glue that will hold a team together under stress. His style is largely holistic then, framed by a desire to know as much as is reasonable about the lives of his players beyond their ability on a hurling field.
Over the years, he has given some of them beds to sleep in, often helping resolve a small multiple of off-field issues other managers might not even know exist.
But he can be too heart-on-the-sleeve for certain tastes too and it is clear that, despite delivering only the county’s fourth senior All-Ireland, there are influential voices in Clare just now set to a quarrelsome frequency On occasion, he gives them ammunition by playing to caricature.
In his autobiography, ‘Passion and Pride’, he wrote “People look at me and think I must be some kind of nutcase. But there is always method behind my madness.”
Put a microphone in front of Fitzgerald and you don’t get the smirky, cute hoor evasion that some modern managers seem to regard as cleverness. Instead, you get a man always bristling with energy and opinion. One whose candour lights uncomfortable fires.
Yet, talk to those who have played for him, be it with Limerick IT (who he guided to a first Fitzgibbon Cup win in '05 and another in '07) or Waterford (who he managed to a rare Munster title in 2010) and the affection is palpable. So too the respect. He is seen as modern, innovative, a manager who demands cutting-edge technical back-up for his players.
I understand the GPA canvassed the opinions of a number of the Clare panel as part of their investigation into allegations about “humiliating” treatment and came to the conclusion that there was simply no case for the Clare management to answer.
The county has won the last three All-Ireland U-21 titles, mirroring the achievement of Limerick between 2000 and '02. Yet that Limerick team never matured into a serious force at senior level, the great promised harvest left arid amid grumblings of social lives supplanting sporting ambition.
Fitzgerald is determined a similar fate does not befall Clare. He has left the door open to both Podge Collins and Colm Galvin, but his view appears to be that the only commitment worth making at this level is total.
The evidence suggests he now leads a group of similar mind.