Tuesday 12 December 2017

'F**k off Davy. You have Clare ruined'

In this extract from his forthcoming book, Damian Lawlor relives the pivotal moments in Clare's All-Ireland journey

Davy Fitzgerald
Davy Fitzgerald

Damian Lawlor

When Davy Fitzgerald's term with Waterford ended in late 2011 he was always going to walk straight into the Clare job, and with it a set-up that was the pride of the county and envy of the country.

Fitzgerald had started coaching at 17 but this was the role he had always dreamed of. "For the first eight or ten years I thought I was a savage coach," he laughed. "But I wasn't."

Over the next 15 years, he coached teams to 24 titles, not just at club, college and inter-county hurling, but also camogie and Gaelic football. He took on an ageing Waterford side, changed their style and led them to an All-Ireland final. In 2010, they won a Munster title. It was a good innings and he was the best qualified to get the Clare senior gig when it arose.

In 2012, his first year, he used six of the under 21s. In 2013, there were 20 kids on the extended panel. Very soon Fitzgerald's senior team started looking like a Fitzgibbon Cup side, its average age 22. Only Brendan Bugler and Pat Donnellan were older than that average but those two were ravenous for success.

It looked like a dream ticket from the start. The retention of Paul Kinnerk from the underage set-up ensured continuity and was perhaps Fitzgerald's smartest move. A top coach in his own right, he deferred to the Limerick man, whose effectiveness with the youngsters he had witnessed.

The 2012 season was full of ups and downs, and fate pitted him against Waterford. Clare lost by two points, dropped to the qualifiers and beat Dublin at home before losing to Limerick in phase three. "There was unrest at that stage," admitted Louis Mulqueen, one of Fitzgerald's selectors. "Most of it was on our own doorstep too. People questioned us and the way we played. A few even wanted us gone out the road after just a year. Can you believe that?"

Fitzgerald thinks of one league game that year. His young team were losing and seemed caught between two game plans. There was short passing – and shorter passing. The crowd were roaring at the manager to press the reset button: "Fuck off, Fitzgerald! You have Clare ruined!"

But apart from letting up slightly on the short-passing game, Fitzgerald wasn't for changing. Mulqueen and the rest of the backroom reassured him he was doing the right thing.

Fitzgerald and Mulqueen have always been competitive but close. They hop off each other. One Christmas Eve, Mulqueen beat his old rival in a game of squash. On Christmas Day, Fitzgerald knocked at Mulqueen's door looking to level the score over a game of racquetball. And he wouldn't take no for an answer.

"Davy just needed time to get the new style going at senior level," said Mulqueen. "We had guys like Brendan Bugler who had been used to different tactics – and 17-point hammerings against the likes of Tipp – so we had to try and combine the older lads with a group of youngsters who knew nothing but close control and success and had no fear of anyone: Kilkenny, Tipp, no one. That process took time."

It wasn't until the middle of the 2013 championship that they took off. An average league saw them just about avoid relegation and weeks later they were beaten by Cork in the Munster semi-final.

Once more the pressure came on Fitzgerald, who called a meeting in his home on the day after that game. Much was made of the chat they had over MiWadi and Goldgrain biscuits. Again, like the videos of players training at 5.0am on Christmas Eve, that house session is one of the propaganda snapshots that has become part of the popular narrative.

But Fitzgerald is adamant it was the turning point in their season: "I just knew from them coming to my house and the attitude they left with that we would drive on. Like, we were creating huge chances in games and we weren't as bad as we were made out to be. I told them we were being flaked to the hilt by people, but we would drive on."

They met Wexford in the qualifiers and led by five points with five minutes remaining, but somehow were left feeling for a faint championship heartbeat as Wexford got a surge of oxygen and almost stole the game. The whistle sounded to signal a draw and extra-time. The notoriously excitable Fitzgerald had worked hard during the season on controlling his emotions and paying close attention to the heart monitor he wears, but he was stunned not to have won: "I was rattled but I never felt out of control. I had a lot of work done on myself over the year and worked on staying calm.

"The way it is, over a 75-minute game I'm seen on RTÉ for maybe two minutes and I'm judged as being a lunatic. But look, I have to accept that for what it is. The heart monitor tells where I am and that night against Wexford I just needed to show the lads we were still in control even though Wexford had the wind in their sails."

He took a few moments to compose himself before entering the dressing room. Clare had been showboating, going for goals instead of taking their points, and in a few skelps of the hurley Wexford had almost made them pay.

But Fitzgerald reckoned this was no time for smashing the furniture: "I just went in and challenged them. I had an idea what was in them but now I wanted to find out. Wexford had finished with 1-1 and had all the momentum; we were in shock. I needed something to get our focus back. I told them that if we overcame Wexford, with all the momentum they had, and turned around a situation like that, we would win the All-Ireland." The players dusted themselves down, went back out, got two early goals and buried the game for once and for all. First part of the plan achieved.

Louis Mulqueen reckoned their season took off from there: "We were not as free-flowing as we would have liked until the midsummer. Suddenly we got a run of games: Laois, Wexford, Galway. Beating Galway was a massive shot in the arm – they had taken Kilkenny to an All-Ireland final replay just ten months earlier. It was huge."

Ahead of their All-Ireland semi-final clash with Limerick, Ger Canning of RTÉ remarked to Mulqueen on the "huge crowd" Limerick had brought – as the Croke Park attendance swelled, the green and white outnumbered the saffron and blue three to one. But Mulqueen was undaunted. "A huge crowd to go home disappointed, Ger," he replied.

It wasn't out of arrogance he said it, merely a rock-solid conviction that the team would not be beaten. Standing in the centre of the pitch, Mulqueen looked at his watch: six minutes till the teams would join the pre-match parade. He juggled two sliotars as he gazed around at the crowd of 62,000 that had turned up for this local derby.

Tony Kelly jogged past.

"They're all here to see you, Tony," said Mulqueen. Unruffled, Kelly paused, glanced up at the stands and replied, "I know. Give us a ball there, will you?"

The 19-year-old took three steps, curved the sliotar over the bar and went on to hit four points from play as the game unfolded. Mulqueen wasn't surprised: "Tony and the boys accepted they were there to perform and entertain. They were doing keepy-uppies in the middle of the field before the game. Sure he was full of jinks and sidesteps the same day. Pressure was just the norm."

Reaching the All-Ireland final, especially with Kilkenny out of the way, gave them a golden opportunity, one they might not see for a while again. Getting ready for Cork was all about one thing: surprising the opposition. They had played with a sweeper system all year, and Cork worked hard on counteracting that. But at the start of the year Fitzgerald had unveiled six game plans and the squad had worked diligently on each one, trying various tactics in challenge and league games.

By the end of the 2013 season, Fitzgerald had deployed four of those systems – the seventh defender; the out-and-out sweeper; the man marker; and all-out attack with the aim of three quickfire passes culminating in a shot at the posts – and in the All- Ireland final he was widely expected to pack his defence and batten down the hatches. But instead he sprang a surprise, a "shackles-off' style whereby the players were given licence to attack space. There would be no sweeper for the biggest game of the year.

He had trusted his men in extra-time against Wexford and they hadn't let him down. So now he would give them their heads from the start. They would go all-out. Cork arrived in Croke Park expecting an intense, compact, tactical arm-wrestle.

Instead, they got caught up in a shoot-out. To those outside the loop it was a massive risk to change tack so late in the day, but Fitzgerald didn't see it that way: "The lads are that comfortable they can play to any of the six plans at short notice because we have the work done. I knew we'd be grand.

"The backroom staff were brilliant in coming on board with that change too, but I surround myself with ambitious people who want to win. We challenged each other on it but we went with it."

Fitzgerald has a huge entourage and listens to them all, but he makes the ultimate call. Mulqueen has seen both the public Davy Fitz and the private one and would confirm there are vast differences. What is leaked into the public domain is often deliberate: "People saw videos and pictures of the cosmetic stuff we had done – running up Carrauntoohil and the like – and probably thought there was a lunatic doing caveman running.

"But it's so sophisticated and people don't see the half of it. We had lots more done than that, all with the ball and all involving mental toughness. We had been in the gym at five some mornings and we would be looking through the players' logs seeing if they had recorded what they ate for breakfast at 4.30, as they were supposed to.

"That was about mental toughness. We had Cork on the rack, for instance, but didn't put them away. When they came back and led by a point, that was where we had to demonstrate what we had learned during the year."

At the end of a thrilling finale Patrick Horgan had given Cork a one-point edge. Time was officially up. Fitzgerald was pleading for one more minute: "I just wanted one more chance, one more attack. I knew if we got that we would muster up another shot. I was so proud of how we didn't panic when we got the ball again. Three passes and a shot. Then I saw Dunny [Dómhnall O'Donovan] shooting, all the way up from corner-back, and I got weak at the knees. It flew over and I just thanked God. But Dunny is a cool customer – there's not much to rattle him."

In a deflated dressing room, Fitzgerald asked the team three questions about how they coped with the opposition and certain tactical demands. He hasn't revealed what they were but said the players' answers transformed their outlook. They had been almost inconsolable after losing the lead.

Within 30 minutes they were buoyant again. It prompted the manager to make yet another big call: "I let them have a few drinks that night. They had only one night of drinking all year long and it may have been a gamble to let them off the hook at that stage, but I wanted to show I trusted them. We went back to the Clyde Court Hotel, did the banquet, and then they went off to prepare for the under 21 final."

Aside from cruising past Antrim in that under 21 final, the players did nothing for the next three weeks except to stay limber and sharp. But Fitzgerald and his management had another huge move in the pipeline. From the first night he came in for trials against Waterford at UL in the winter of 2012 when he hit two goals, Shane O'Donnell had been earmarked for a likely role in any September showdown.

They remarked when they first saw him how goals won finals. For most of the 2013 league he played a lone ranger role up front and struggled to hold form. He slipped out of the first 15 after they beat Wexford, but two weeks before the All-Ireland final replay, in an A v B game, he grabbed two quickfire goals. So did Pat Donnellan, from centre-back. In fact, the A team had posted 8-9 after 21 minutes in what was supposed to be a 40-minute game. Fitzgerald, aware they might peak too early, called time.

That was the night they knew O'Donnell was ready. They decided Darach Honan would miss out for the replay. Cork had done well against Honan in the drawn game and Fitzgerald suspected they would be better prepared for him next time: "It was a hard thing to do, telling Darach he was out – and I'll be honest, he didn't take it great – but sure what would you expect?

"Still, we always say that one fella can pull the whole thing down, and to be fair to Darach he got on with it." By the 19th minute of the replay O'Donnell had three goals scored. And the manager knew what would follow: "Cork were going to come back at us. We had that drilled into the boys. And they did. They scored two goals in one half of an All-Ireland final. That's another reason why I'm so proud of those lads – there's not many teams could ship three goals in an All-Ireland final and still be standing at the end.'

Not until Honan came off the bench and nailed their fifth goal could Fitzgerald relax in the certainty they would win: "It was only when that goal went in – relief coursed through me. People had wondered why I dropped Darach but Shane scored 3-3 and Darach got the goal that won the All-Ireland. I knew in my heart I had made the right decision.

"Were we in control?' Fitzgerald asked. "Yeah. Were we the better team? I would say so. But they kept coming back. We just couldn't put them away.

"They took a lot of kicks along the way. I took a lot of kicks but it was fucking worth it to say that we stuck the long road. Fuck everyone else!

"Before the game we looked each other in the eye. We knew we'd be okay."

They were okay. And as an epoch-making season ended, they looked in better shape than anyone.

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