Tuesday 24 October 2017

Fitzgerald fire still burning

But Ken McGrath's cavalier talent will be badly missed by all who love the game, writes Dermot Crowe

AN eventful week in Waterford hurling, that began with the regrettable news of Ken McGrath's retirement at 33, closed with a partial reprieve for manager Davy Fitzgerald late on Friday night. A three-month suspension proposed by the Central Competitions Control Committee (CCCC) after he was cited by referee James Owens in his report on the recent Waterford v Tipperary league match was reduced to one month by the Central Hearings Committee (CHC), in a hearing lasting three hours.

Fitzgerald was ready to vigorously fight his suspension and had the full backing of Waterford County Board. On Friday night, he had witnesses present at the hearing, and also witness statements, all of which supported his claim that he had not made threatening comments to the main match official. Ultimately, it appears his case was persuasive enough to have his ban reduced, although the four-week suspension indicates that the hearings committee remain satisfied that Fitzgerald had engaged in inappropriate behaviour towards at least one of the match officials.

The proposed suspension is the minimum allowed for a category four infraction. Offences in this category include using "threatening language" and "threatening or abusive conduct" towards a match official and minor physical interference. Shaving two months off the proposed suspension would suggest the infraction was downgraded on Friday night to a category two offence, a month being the minimum term required in that instance. Category two offences include the use of "abusive" language towards a match official which is deemed less serious than "threatening" language.

Two Waterford players, Clinton Hennessy and Shane O'Sullivan, were sent off during the league tie at Semple Stadium by Owens but Fitzgerald didn't criticise those decisions at the time. Both players have accepted their suspensions. "I hope the referee will see sense in his report," Fitzgerald remarked after the match. "I have not criticised him; I would be disappointed in a few different things but I'm not going to criticise anybody."

In his report, Owens, sources claim, stated that the Waterford manager had threatened to "sort him out" after the match. Fitzgerald intended to fiercely contest this, supported by witnesses, insisting this exchange had been misunderstood. According to sources, Fitzgerald asked Owens at one stage why he had made a decision, and was informed that they would "deal" with it after the match. "Fair enough; we'll deal with it after," Fitzgerald claims he said in response, but the match report submitted by Owens is said to have portrayed it as threatening.

Fitzgerald was also expected to contest a separate claim of abusive language in the referee's report. This was based on evidence provided by the fourth official, Alan Kissane. On Friday night, Fitzgerald also challenged the fourth official's entitlement to act as he did. This restriction on fourth officials alerting the referee to incidents may be lifted following a Congress motion but the rule still hasn't come into play.

It is understood that Kissane informed Owens that he had heard Fitzgerald shouting abuse at the referee and challenging his fitness to officiate. The Fitzgerald defence was to argue that this was not the Waterford manager, but a county board officer. "One of the officers shouted out in frustration that if that's the kind of refereeing they have in Wexford then it's no wonder they've won nothing for so long; it was a remark not really aimed at anyone. But Davy was wrongly accused," a source said.

Kissane and Fitzgerald had a heated exchange only a week before the Waterford-Tipperary league match. Kissane was in charge of a challenge game between the Kilkenny under 21s and a Waterford development side when Fitzgerald angrily took him to task for what he saw as excessive leniency when a Waterford player was struck. Kissane, who manages the Waterford minor football team, is a Tipperary native living in Waterford where he is on the refereeing panel.

Fitzgerald has had clashes with referees in the past and is a provocative figure on the sideline, often vocal and animated. In 2004, he was suspended for two months by the GAC (Games Administration Committee) for criticising referee Pat Horan and bringing the game into disrepute. He was still playing for Clare at the time but the comments were in the context of a Fitzgibbon Cup game in which the LIT team he managed was involved. He branded Horan an "absolute disgrace".

On hearing the evidence of this latest brush with authority on Friday, and seeking various rule clarifications, the CHC reduced the three-month ban to one month, not an exoneration, but a climbdown all the same. A three-month ban would have kept Fitzgerald off the sidelines until just before the Munster championship. Fitzgerald was not available for comment yesterday and referees are precluded from comment on disciplinary matters.

While Fitzgerald's suspension reduction was a victory of sorts, the prevailing mood in Waterford has been one of sadness and loss after the retirement of Ken McGrath from inter-county hurling. This is not confined to Waterford; hurling lovers of all shades and delectations will mourn the departure of an accomplished artist from the stage. As often happens, the end was prosaic. He started against Cork in the National League last Sunday at midfield, but was substituted early in the second half and after a couple of days announced his decision.

The last couple of years have been frustrating as he failed to reach the heights of splendour to which he had been accustomed, bedevilled by serious knees injuries which slowed his reactions to the point where he wasn't nearly the hurler he had been.

"I honestly feel my time has passed for inter-county hurling," he explained. "I know the standard of fitness I need to have and to be honest with you I don't think I have it any more. The last thing I wanted to do was get a roasting from a young fella in the summer in Croke Park. I was a proud hurler for 14 or 15 years and I felt I was close to the top of it and I feel it's time to move on. It's gone now."

Being taken off against Cork, and his struggle to keep up with the pace of the game, seems to have resolved an issue playing around in his head for some time.

McGrath was a Waterford hurler in the classic mould with an irreverent and cavalier style that can be traced back to the matinee idols of the 1950s. Like all the great practitioners, he perfected a style uniquely his own, capable of conjuring up tricks and memorable feats that stand the test of time. The epic catch -- to hold back the force of Cork in the last seconds of a thrilling 2004 Munster final -- is one of many heroic moments from a colourful career. Moments of wild and wasteful shooting were also to be seen from time to time, it came with the territory of being a player who played direct and instinctive hurling; he didn't play the percentages, especially in the first half of his career.

In the 2002 Munster final, in which he scored seven points from play, it took him a while to register the first point and before he did you could see the frustration getting to him in his body language. These composure quibbles cannot taint the majesty of his hurling for the most part. He had versatility, longevity, great technical range, and that delightful flamboyance which charmed audiences well beyond Waterford and Mount Sion.

His overhead striking, an old and once prized but now virtually extinct art, and a wonderful visual skill, looked anathema to the modern possession game where risk is reduced and less given to chance. Even his tendency to use that stroke seemed to fade as his career moved on, perhaps a sign that he had to bow to convention to some extent. But to see him strike a ball in flight like this illustrated how much a master he was of sweet harmonies and rhythms of eye and wrist in the most trying of battles and pressure situations. Like all the great players, he seemed to have more time than was apparent to the rest of us.

Fittingly, he made his debut in 1996 at Walsh Park, a place not far from his own beloved stomping ground. They lost to Tipperary and exited the championship but the tide was turning. A year earlier in Cork, they had been annihilated by Tipperary; 12 months later they were competitive and McGrath's debut gave them hope of a better future. Heavy beatings that went back to the Munster final calamities of the early 1980s were made a thing of the past. From 1996 that changed, with the exception of the 2008 All-Ireland final, and McGrath was a central part of that revolutionary change.

It will be said that he did not win an All-Ireland final, nor the team of players he shared the journey with, and that is undoubtedly a regret. Even the privilege of playing in an All-Ireland final was destroyed by Kilkenny's extraordinary performance. But the great hurling days when Waterford raised the hair with their play, often inspired by McGrath, have established the game at a level of prominence in the county undreamt of when he started playing at 17. He was a wonderful ambassador and hurling will be the emptier for his departure.

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