Tuesday 28 January 2020

Davy Fitzgerald: 'I might as well not be here if I'm not involved in hurling'

Clare boss recalls his life-changing heart scare in 2009 and reveals what it took to bring Clare back to the promised land

Clare Manager Davy Fitzgerald
Clare Manager Davy Fitzgerald
Davy Fitzgerald lifts the Liam MacCarthy cup
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

On the night of the Clare homecoming, Davy Fitzgerald knew that he was looking at different people. He had agreed to step off the bus in Cratloe, where a young man waited in a wheelchair.

The toll of his illness was instantly discernible through the windows on one side of the bus and, as Davy stepped off with the Cup, he was unaware of a supporting delegation.

But maybe nine of his players were out of their seats, following their manager down the steps. Fitzgerald said nothing as he watched them reach out with quiet respect to a stranger for whom the noise and energy of their All-Ireland win had, maybe, offered some fleeting sense of escape.

The clock tends to tyrannise a homecoming schedule, but there was no great haste to escape Cratloe that Monday. Climbing back on board eventually, Davy felt a tingle of affection for his players that flew far beyond a response to the winning or losing of big hurling games.

At that moment, it struck him that glory had a small galaxy of different meanings.

He would slip quietly out of the West County Hotel that evening, making it home to be in his own bed before midnight.

All those wild emotions that flap and swirl around great hurling coronations have never quite engaged him like the journey itself. Drink doesn't interest Fitzgerald and he wasn't now about to stand, sentry-like, observing the relationship others might have with it.

The players were entitled to the space to make mistakes now and he had little doubt that some would take it. But Clare's hurling year had been predicated upon a standard of self-respect that, on his watch at least, will never be compromised.

"I'd be very proud of how they've held themselves and I want them to continue to do that," he says now. "I don't want them to turn into social animals. I'm happy for them to go out, have a few drinks and enjoy themselves, but they know there's a line. Hopefully, they realise that.

"If they don't, it could take me a while to bring them back down to earth. But I will do it. Of course, it's a small worry. Will some of them get ideas about themselves? And, if I go leaving them off next year, will the whole family spirit we have go out the door? Will they start thinking about themselves, with the team no longer being number one?

"I hope not. I hope what we have now doesn't change. Because if it does and if they start focusing on themselves, we're in trouble."

It feels, he says, as if a light has been switched on in the county. Winning an All-Ireland doesn't cure illness or pay any bills, but it can change a community's psyche. The recession has been writing itself across people in stark, black lettering and, sometimes, hope gets swallowed up in a recriminatory din.

Fitzgerald has taken a share of financial blows himself, yet a life-changing episode in '09 persuaded him to turn his back on negativity.

He had been feeling poorly for some time that summer and, shortly after Waterford's All-Ireland semi-final defeat by Kilkenny, reported to the Beacon Hospital in Dublin for an angiogram. Fitzgerald had found himself sweating profusely and experiencing tightness in his chest during Waterford's games.

The angiogram revealed a 95pc blockage in an artery. One week later, Fitzgerald was back in Dublin to have a stent inserted.

"I remember I didn't get a wink of sleep that week with the worry," he remembers. "Listen, it isn't a massive procedure, but it frightened the life out of me to hear of a 95pc blockage. The specialist, Dr Niall Mulvihill, said I was in real heart attack territory at that stage and my family history wouldn't be great in that regard.

"Would I have died if I had a heart attack? I don't know. Should I still be involved in sport at the level I am now? Probably not."

Asked if he has been advised against such involvement, Fitzgerald is remarkably candid. "Well I told him (Dr Mulvihill) straight out that if I wasn't involved in it, I might as well just be dead myself," he reveals. "He's been unbelievable towards me. Like he checks me out thoroughly once a year now. If I have a problem, I can ring him.

"He's a fella who cares about me, but he knows I might as well not be here if I'm not involved in hurling."

So, in an ideal world, he'd prefer you were not manager of Clare?

"I'd say he probably would, yeah!"

For a man of just 42, Davy has had his share of medical scrapes. In 2004, having been taken ill after a National League game against Galway, a 3cm cyst was identified on the wall of his brain. Mercifully, tests revealed the cyst to be benign, but it took three and a half harrowing months for him to get the all-clear.

If hurling frequently devours his concentration now, it will – thus – never blind him to the dramas that truly matter.

Some time ago, he made the decision not to read doom-laden stories in newspapers or watch TV programmes with a negative spin. He tried pulling the shutters down on the toxins of bad news.

"We can't bury our heads in the sand, I know that," he says. "But I think more and more people just feel it doesn't serve anyone well to be listening to that stuff every two seconds. You look at certain political programmes now and all they're doing is looking to tear holes in people.

"To me, the most important thing in life is life. I have a lot of flaws in me that I'd rather not have. It's up to me to deal with them and try to be better. But I wake up most days saying 'This is a good day ... '

"Because any day you wake up healthy is a good day. There are people out there in desperate straits health-wise. Those of us who aren't, I don't think appreciate that enough."

People have long seen Davy as the human equivalent of a bubbling tureen. His sideline eruptions bring him into frequent conflict with referees, and some like to depict this as the irrational flapping of a hysterical bird. They bristle at such volatility. Davy's own view holds that there are those in authority who simply do not like him.

Yet, to people who truly know him, Fitzgerald inspires profound loyalty. Clare captain Pat Donnellan touched on this with his acceptance speech in Croke Park, insisting that, if need be, the players would fight "to the death" for their manager.

They see in him someone who goes to war on their behalf, without ever countenancing a backward step. The glorious belligerence of Clare's hurling, thus, remains a faithful reflection of Davy Fitz's personality.

In the week after the replay victory, an interview on RTE radio with Miriam O'Callaghan hinted at its genesis.

Fitzgerald spoke with remarkable openness about his experience of bullying as a child, his words generating a great tsunami of recognition from listeners. It was as if he had broken some vague code of omerta, a great raft of victims suddenly finding their voices.

The reaction startled and delighted Davy in equal measure.

He reflects now: "Bullying had a massive effect on my life. I always realised that. Like I can remember an All Star do in '98/99 in the Burlington Hotel. I went talking to these two or three lads from a particular county and they were trying to take the piss out of my voice, trying to be funny fellas.

"I can still hear the sniggering and laughing as I walked away and that really hurt. I went back over to them and said 'Ye're funny men, aren't ye?' They just disgusted me. That incident wouldn't have left a great taste in my mouth, because it brought back a lot of what I put up with as a kid. I just don't believe in that kind of behaviour.

"When I go to train teams now or give talks, I make reference to that. I always refer to how you treat people. Maybe people are only listening to me more since we won the All-Ireland, but I've always said this. I do always watch for that in a group now, for the smart guys.

"Like, some people will never accept that their son could be a bully. They'll have their head in the clouds or start jumping up and down, saying it isn't true.

"Listen, I've no problem with having the craic. That's okay, but hurting someone's feelings is not okay. I'm all for having fun. Trust me, the boys take the piss out of me on the team bus, they'll talk to me about 'Gift Grub' and stuff like that.

"They have a bit of fun, but I know it's not to hurt me that they're doing it. I know that. If I thought it was someone being nasty, then they'd see the nasty side of me as well."

That incident in the Burlington lit old, depressing fires in his head.

"It did yeah, without a shadow of a doubt," he says. "It made me angry. Like I just don't buy into that. Why would you make fun of someone? Why would you want to? To me, there's a flaw in your character if that's what you're doing, a weakness even.

"It's like the fella at a game who'd be standing up at the wire, roaring out at me, giving me savage abuse. Like the day of the Laois game this year. It was hardly two minutes in and this lad's screaming 'You've Clare hurling ruined you f***er you!'.

"And I'm saying to myself 'Maybe these guys have issues at home and they feel they've to come to a match and take it out on me'."

The game, he admits, can take irrational swings at his emotions. He tends to be an open book on the line, railing furiously against any perceived injustices inflicted on his team.

Yet, Fitzgerald is an inherent optimist too. His time in Waterford delivered only the ninth Munster title of their history and, in '08, his introductory three months of involvement with them brought the county's first All-Ireland final appearance since 1963.

That they met annihilation by Kilkenny that day left a considerable scar. Fitzgerald was verbally abused on the field afterwards by a pocket of Waterford supporters and when, three summers later, Tipperary knifed seven goals past them in a freakish Munster final, he again found himself in the line of fire.

"That was tough," he acknowledges of the Tipp slaughter. "Two or three people tried to bust in the dressing-room door to have a go at me."

That night, he sat up until 4.30am in Castlemartyr, barely able to speak to a great, trusted friend, Liam O'Dowd. When Liam eventually left for Dublin, Davy went up to his room, knowing sleep would be impossible. So he just sat waiting for the light of dawn to come bleeding from the night sky before getting in his car and driving to Dungarvan for a crisis team meeting.

Two weeks later, Waterford would devour Galway in an All-Ireland quarter-final.

Fitzgerald remains extremely friendly with many of those he soldiered with in Waterford, reflecting: "I know myself we were not a hundred miles away with that team. I mean it's horrendous how you'd feel on days like those, you'd be wrecking your head thinking of things you might have done differently.

"But I met some of the best people anyone could ever meet in Waterford. I have great affection for an awful lot of people still. A number of the players still text me. The texts Stephen Molumphy sends just shows me that I made the right decision in giving him the Waterford captaincy.

"If there was a transfer market in the morning and I was asked players I'd love to have, Stephen Molumphy would be top of my list. I have such a high regard for him, not only as a hurler but as a person. Like, I know we could be playing Waterford tomorrow and he'll fight tooth and nail to beat me.

"But I know too that I can look him in the eye afterwards and there'll still be a connection. He is one of the great guys."

Four days after the All-Ireland final he was sitting in Lahinch Golf Club, his back turned to a TV set as RTE broadcast the draw for the 2014 Championship.

People imagined he might be absorbed by the detail, but his only instinct was to push it away. Four days? It seemed faintly comical that minds should already be recalibrating for next summer. Davy isn't ready yet to become lost again in the labyrinth of paternal worries that shape the life of a county manager.

Clare reached the end of the rainbow quicker than he thought they might and he knows the road ahead is now heavily mined.

It seems only weeks since he was asking Louis Mulqueen and Mike Deegan to climb aboard or sitting in the Limerick Radisson with Paul Kinnerck, teasing out systems. When Fitzgerald gets talking about his management team, he becomes effusive.

He mentions the sports science of Joe O'Connor "a guy ahead of his time", the sports psychology skills of goalkeeping coach Seoirse Bulfin. He finds it funny that people suspect an antipathy towards referees when three of his back-room team, Seanie McMahon, Fergie McDonagh and Tom Stackpoole, are of that very caste.

He mentions 'Gazzy', Michael Collins the kit-man, and 'Hego', Tommy Hegarty, who looks after the hurleys. Then he stops himself, fearful of upsetting anyone by omission.

Then, under prompting, Davy mentions his father. Pat Fitzgerald has been county secretary now for three of the four senior All-Ireland victories in Clare's history. A quiet, undemonstrative man, he faced the spite of some lazy minds when his son became Clare manager.

"The job he does is incredible," says Davy Fitz. "But we have been fodder since I went in, both of us in a no-win situation. I don't think he gets the respect or credit that he deserves. Integrity is very important to him. You'll never see Dad too emotional, but we did have one moment after the final where he said something that meant a lot to me. It was nice, but it will stay private."

The fairytale dimension to what they've done is maybe best encapsulated in the matinee idol features of young Shane O'Donnell. When a kid scores 3-3 in the biggest game there is, you know lives are changing irrevocably.

As Davy called him aside in St Patrick's College to tell him he was starting the replay, it was the manager, not the kid who felt his eyes sting.

"I actually got a bit emotional telling him because I felt I was pitching this 19-year-old into something huge and I just have unreal time for the kid. I remember seeing him at minor last year and some of the lads thought I was crazy when I suggested bringing him onto the panel. Did I think he'd have the impact he had? No.

"I just wanted to get my hands on some of the younger players, so that we could control their training loads.

"What I liked about Shane was, when he got the ball, he only knew one thing. That was to turn and go for goal. From the first time I saw him, I could see that he was brave and seemed to have a very good head on him. Then when I got to meet him, I actually liked him way more.

"Because he's just one of these no bulls**t kids. He's a good fella and I think he's handling himself well. It's going to be tough for him over the next two or three years to live up to what he's just done. But I think he can do it."

The emotional gradient for Clare, generally, will be steep these next 12 months. Fitzgerald travels to America for a golf holiday this week with his son, Colm, and some friends. Only after that will he allow the future to settle into view.

"Look," he says, "Kilkenny is the best team I've ever seen. Tipperary had a stretch there where they played great stuff. Cork in the early 2000s were unreal. So let's not read into this rubbish that Clare are going to be dominant for the next four or five years.

"Every team is going to get bad beatings and Clare will be no different. It's great that there's such goodwill out there for us right now, but I'm a realist. I know that's going to change. That said, I'd like to think we'll win more than we're beaten in. And I'd certainly hope that, in the next four or five years, we can get back to another All-Ireland final and win it.

"Will we be trying hard next year to defend our title? You can write it down we will. But there'll be seven or eight teams nipping at our tails.

"The important thing is that no one can ever take away that we are the 2013 All-Ireland champions. That's an unreal feeling."

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