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Cody’s winning habit fits the bill for Davy

IN the run-up to this year's All-Ireland hurling final, Clare county secretary Pat Fitzgerald received a special request from his son, Davy.

The favour involved procuring a ticket for a seat in the Hogan Stand as close as possible to where Brian Cody would patrol the sideline as he oversaw Kilkenny's attempt to depose Tipperary.

Davy's Waterford adventure was behind him, but with his appointment to Clare imminent, he wanted to continue the learning process, something he believed would be helped by closely monitoring Cody on All-Ireland final day.

"I'd have great respect for Brian Cody and the way he does things. I wanted to see his mannerisms, where he was focused and how he interacted with his selectors. I also wanted to look at how he handled himself on the sideline. If I could pick up a small tip or two, it might be a help down the line," explains Fitzgerald.

And did he? "Yea, but I'm not going to say what they were."

It's typical Davy, always striving for extra knowledge as he works at taking his managerial career ever higher up the success chain. He has been coaching teams since his late teenage years and fast-tracked the process over his four seasons with Waterford, which ended this year.

Hoisted in to fight the bushfire which swept through Waterford after Justin McCarthy quit in June 2008, Fitzgerald did more than quench the flames, he also managed to keep damage to a minimum.

By the end of his term, Waterford had won a Munster title, appeared in their first All-Ireland final since 1963 and established themselves as a consistent No 3 behind Kilkenny and Tipperary, the unquestioned market leaders.

Predictions that Waterford would implode following McCarthy's departure proved so far off the mark that Davy chuckles at the version of events which many expected to unfold after his arrival.

"People thought that Waterford were gone at the time. There were a lot of big characters there who had won Munster titles and it was said that they would be hard to manage. They weren't. In fact, they were a smashing bunch to work with. I'm proud of what was achieved while I was there and how things were handled. I have a lot of friends in Waterford who wished me well when I left and I know they meant it," says Fitzgerald who, with Liam Sheedy, will manage the All Star teams in tomorrow's exhibition game in San Francisco.

He left with a sense that Waterford were in better shape than when he arrived ("we brought in around 20 new players who now have championship experience behind them") but also with a deep regret that the All-Ireland barrier remained unbroken.

Waterford's attempt to crash through it in 2008 ended in a crushing defeat by Kilkenny, but even that was bearable by comparison with the humiliation visited in this year's Munster final.

Tipperary hit them for seven goals while inflicting a defeat that left Fitzgerald shattered.

"It still haunts me and I won't let it go for a long time. Certain things that happened on the field that day drove me nuts and still play on my mind.

"They'll drive me on for the next few years. You can't get that sickening feeling out of your stomach. I can still remember every second and how I felt for the next 72 hours or more and it was not nice.

"I didn't sleep at all that Sunday night with the pain I had in my stomach over what happened earlier on. I knew we were way better than what we looked that day. You feel so bad -- you would question yourself.

"I remember ringing every one of the Waterford lads on the Tuesday -- I must have spent 14 hours on the phone. It was a question of getting up and battling like never before," he reveals.

The response was quite remarkable as Waterford walloped Galway in the All-Ireland quarter-final before losing to Kilkenny in the semi-final, a defeat which niggles with him.

"We really let go against Galway, throwing everything into the battle and producing a fantastic performance. We weren't bad against Kilkenny, but I still felt we were playing within ourselves. There was a bit more in us, I thought," he reflects.

It was his last game as Waterford manager and, while he was happy they had redeemed themselves after the Munster final trouncing, it was still a frustrating way to depart.

"And you know what? Brian Cody's gameplan for the final was the exact same one we tried in the Munster final. The difference was that Kilkenny executed it well and we didn't. The Kilkenny backs sat very far back (in the final) and were so tight it was unreal. We had that in our heads for the Munster final, but it didn't work. We weren't getting tight enough and if you don't do that against Tipperary, they'll destroy you."

Kilkenny were the only top team Waterford didn't beat in the championship under Fitzgerald, a fact which he's genuinely proud of. He was surprised then to hear new Waterford manager Michael Ryan saying that they needed to be more consistent.

"I found it a bit funny. The only way Waterford could have been any more consistent was if we had won the All-Ireland. The same goes for the next few years. They only way they can do any better is to win the All-Ireland. Fair play to them if they do and I'll be the first to congratulate them, but I still would have thought we were fairly consistent over the last few years."

A few months later, as he returns home for what was always going to be an inevitable term with Clare, he believes that lessons learned with Waterford will be hugely beneficial.

He says he's a different manager now to the inter-county newcomer who was thrown in at the deepest of ends in 2008.

"I had been managing teams for a long time and I suppose I thought I knew it all. But the last three or four years taught me an awful lot, especially about man management and delegation. It's very important to be able to able to delegate.

"I suppose one of the faults I had was that I wanted to do everything myself. I thought no one could do it better but that's never the way. I have learned a lot of things with Waterford and I don't know whether that will make things more successful in Clare, but I hope it will," he says.

He's heading into a different scenario with Clare than was the case with Waterford, as his native county have slipped right down the championship ratings. Fitzgerald ranks them at No 10 behind this year's six All-Ireland quarter-finalists, plus Cork, Offaly and Wexford.

"I'm being realistic. This is a huge challenge because Clare are well off the pace at the moment. There's a big job ahead, but from what I've seen, we have the lads with the right attitude to work as hard as it takes to make things work. They know, and I know, how much has to be done. There's no quick-fix here where Clare come straight up and get at it. We have an idea of where we want to go over the next two or three years and how we're going to get there, but there's so much to be done," he says.

A top-four ranking is the target over the next few years, but the Clare public will have to be patient as 85pc of the current panel are under 25 years of age so Fitzgerald is in for the long haul.

"If we get back to top four or five, it means we're competing and have a chance to win something. We haven't had that chance for a while. Things won't happen overnight, but we'll work on them," he explains.

He intends to consult his predecessor and former colleague, Ger 'Sparrow' O'Loughlin, and also plans to involve the U-21 and minor managements in the overall rebuilding work.

"I'll definitely talk to 'Sparrow' before Christmas. He knows an awful lot about the lads who played under him, so why would I waste a few months finding it out when he already knows it? It's the same with the U-21 and minor managements."

Returning home increases the pressure on Fitzgerald, but it's a challenge he will relish. A first-round Allianz League clash with Limerick is already exciting Fitzgerald and his head is buzzing with ideas for that game and others ahead.

"I went on a month's holiday and spent a lot of time working on plans for next year. You always have to keep coming up with different ideas.

"I can't wait to get started properly with the lads on January 1. I'll give it 100pc as I did with Waterford and, hopefully, we can get things moving in the right direction. There will be plenty of pressure around, but I'll live with that. In fact, I'll love it," he declares.

Irish Independent