Friday 23 March 2018

Home fires burning bright in mission to restore Clare pride

Getting Banner back to hurling's top table is Davy Fitzgerald's latest project, as he tells Damian Lawlor

Damian Lawlor

THERE are certain things in life that Davy Fitzgerald will always carry with him and last year's Munster final is one of them. Fitzgerald could only watch as his Waterford team endured a seven-goal mauling at the hands of Tipperary. "It was a dark hour. It haunted me for ages," he recalls.

"Certain things on the pitch drove me nuts that day but that will only drive me on as I start out with Clare. I couldn't get that sick feeling out of my stomach and don't ever want it back again no matter what team I'm in charge of. I remember every second of how I felt for the next 72 hours after that Munster final. Couldn't sleep. You'd question yourself."

As he weighs up a new challenge with Clare, he hopes experience will stand to him. It was a rare dark point in a generally well-received tenure with Waterford as he kept an ageing team in the top four while gently infusing youth into the ranks. He looked to the clubs and underage structures to find talent like Noel Connors, Darragh Fives, Páraic Mahony, Wayne Hutchinson, Brian O'Halloran and Brian O'Sullivan, turned them into championship hurlers as elder statesmen like Ken McGrath and Dan Shanahan wound down their careers.

And he delivered a provincial title in 2010, only two years after suffering a 25-point hammering at the hands of Kilkenny. His team played 18 championship games, won 10 and drew one.

Yet Fitzgerald frequently came under fire for his defensive tactics. "I have lots of critics," he accepts. "But let them off. I was reading stuff and people didn't have a clue what was going on inside the camp but it didn't stop them.

"Personally, I was really happy with how it went in Waterford. I managed to keep them in the top four when people reckoned they were dead and buried. Ger Loughnane guided a team to a Munster title but very few other Clare lads have. And no Waterford man has managed it for a while either, so I don't think we did too badly. They didn't go backwards under my watch anyway, but it's over now and come the summer I'll be going hell for leather against them because I have another job to do. Clare haven't won a Munster championship match since 2008 so and that's all I'm concerned with these days."

Under Fitzgerald, the Banner have reportedly pushed their bodies to the limit since the festive cheer faded, clocking up four and five sessions a week, including early-morning gatherings at University of Limerick.

His first priority is to physically develop the younger players, including Conor McGrath and Séadna Morey, while Tony Kelly, the brightest prospect in the county, will sit his Leaving Cert at St Flannan's this year. Peppered amongst the kids are experienced club hurlers like Pádraig Hickey and the long-serving Tony Carmody, who is back in the fold.

Their new manager's pre-season musings have centred on the need for patience but that's not a popular currency among supporters in these demanding times.

"We're probably 10th in the rankings but it's important to bring Clare back to the top table," Fitzgerald admits. "I've my own goals but one thing I will share is that I'd like to bring them back into the top four or five."

As he prepares to co-ordinate the support panels, from minor to intermediate, Fitzgerald will consider what template to adapt.

"The system depends on the players I have," he states. "You hear this rubbish about teams just going out to hurl but if you believe that you're a clown. Tactically, I work on a lot of stuff. Does it always come off? No, but you're better to have some system.

"The Limerick IT team I had last year wasn't the best ever to play for the college but we were 30 seconds away from winning a Fitzgibbon Cup. Why? Because we had a plan and the lads never budged away from it.

"All winning teams play to tactics. Look at what Brian Cody got Kilkenny to do in the first 10 minutes of the 2011 All-Ireland final -- don't tell me that they didn't have tactics. When I was with Waterford last year, we tried to crowd out the Tipp forwards in the Munster final but we stood off them too much further back, that was our mistake.

"But watch where the six Kilkenny backs were in the first 10 minutes of the All-Ireland and tell me I'm wrong if Brian Hogan wasn't corner-back at one stage with Tommy Walsh at full-back. They followed their men everywhere."

Two years ago, Fitzgerald bumped into Brian Cody who congratulated him on Waterford's Munster final replay defeat of Cork. Fitzgerald retorted that not everyone was happy that the team wasn't shooting the lights out anymore, but Cody responded flatly. "Davy, I'm sure that won't bother you," he said. It didn't.

It remains to be seen what game-plan will be used with his native county who boast plenty of mobility and exciting young talent in attack. Whatever tactics Fitzgerald employs, he'll most likely look on his wing-forwards as the keystone of the operation and demand that they track back, allowing the midfielders to block space for opposing forwards.

"That's the modern game anyway," he insists. "All the big teams set up like that now. Again, watch Kilkenny, when Eoin Larkin plays at wing-forward he's forever tracking back. Tipp bring Bonner Maher behind halfway all the time. The media just made a lot of it with Waterford because it doesn't always lead to this free-flowing hurling. Free-flowing my arse -- when the big teams can play tactically so can the rest of us."

These days, he readily admits management is the nearest he can get to matching the addiction of playing.

He got one final rush of on-field action last September when summoned from retirement at 39 to man the posts for Sixmilebridge in the Clare semi-final following an injury to Derek Fahy.

He thought it was too late in the day to be out there among them, plus he had a golfing trip to South Carolina booked and paid for, but without much thought he opted for a crack off Cratloe instead.

"Win or lose, I knew Derek would be back in for the final, but a part of me wanted to play the county final too," he admits. "Still, that semi-final was the game I most appreciated as a hurler. I didn't want to tog in because 'twas the last time I'll play."

With his goalkeeping days definitely over, a good start to a highly-charged Division 1B in the national hurling league, featuring the likes of Offaly and Wexford, is crucial, which makes last night's impressive win in Limerick all the more significant

Over the past 10 years, Clare have faded into respectable anonymity as a senior force. But while he pleads for patience, you sense Fitzgerald has waited long enough for the good times to roll again.

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