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Surviving winter of discontent

WINTER passed and as the chill of Clare's championship defeat to Cork slowly thawed, Davy Fitzgerald's heart warmed at the thought of fresh cut grass and brighter evenings: his time of year.

Last August, the final whistle blew on an epic All-Ireland semi-final but Fitzgerald left Croke Park distraught. It doesn't seem like eight months since we saw him self-destruct in front of the TV cameras after that gut-wrenching 0-16 to 0-15 surrender, but it's only now the red-raw wounds of that game are healing.

During the dormant months, people constantly reminded him how Clare self-destructed and it only infected the cut. Four days after the game, he walked through Ennis like a deer in hunting territory, wide open and exposed, and sensed the first shots were about to fly. After 15 years in goal, he knew better than to expect sympathy, even from his own.

As The Hurler on the Ditch approached, Fitzgerald made it clear that he was about as welcome as a salesman's spiel during dinnertime but it was too late. "Do you know who John Gardiner is?" he asked. "I do," Fitzgerald muttered through gritted teeth, with the patience of Felipe Contepomi poised in his own 22 and an overlap looming. "Well, what in the name of Jaysus were you doing hitting the ball down on top of him for last Sunday?"

Fitzgerald bit his lip and walked away. This was the pits. In 54 championship games since 1990, this was the hardest game to deal with, as portrayed by his mood at 5pm on August 15. He wasn't a pretty sight at the end. Inconsolable, he leaped around the goalmouth in rage, thumping his hurl off the sod just as viciously as Cork had hammered the final nail into Clare's coffin. As if powered by volts of electricity, he then darted up the pitch to unleash more frustration. The producers of Celebrity Jigs and Reels were obviously elsewhere that afternoon, or they would have invited him on the show, such were his moves.

Referee Dickie Murphy was the focal point of 'Fitzy's fury, the enraged 'keeper accused him of screwing Clare, "just like you did against Tipp in 2001." Murphy had denied Clare a late free and prevented Fitzgerald from taking quick puck-outs as they tried to by-pass the magnetic clutches of John Gardiner, Ronan Curran and Tom Kenny, in the Cork defence.

In truth, Murphy was a handy scapegoat. Clare had that game won. At one stage, Fitzgerald could have pucked the ball out with his eyes closed and it would still have ended up in a Clare hand. They had the game won but, with 20 minutes left, John Allen made changes and with Cork restructured in attack and defence, every ball Fitzgerald drove out was suddenly seized by Gardiner. The Leesiders surged home and went on to win another All-Ireland title. Fitzgerald would later get an All-Star for his efforts ahead of Donal Óg Cusack, but he will never forget the caustic memories of that afternoon which left him fraught with desolation for months.

"Last year was very disappointing," he says. "To be beaten like that was cruel. We showed what we could do against one of the best sides the game has ever seen and were very close. I had to train young lads in Swords at 9am the following day; it was the last place I wanted to be, but you have to get up in the mornings."

He recently turned down offers to train clubs in Cavan, Tipperary and Birmingham and hasn't let his own playing standards drop either

It's some comfort, though, that a physically powerful Clare side is flying high again and face Limerick today for a league final place. Youngsters like Tommy Holland, Derek Quinn and Paddy Vaughan have impressed and the bustling Fergal Lynch, Barry Nugent and Brian O'Connell have progressed too. This callow band of talent blends nicely with ripe old berries like Seán McMahon and Brian Lohan.

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And Fitzgerald? Well, he's still going at 90 mph. There are just not enough minutes in his day, and life is as busy as ever. After the Cork game, he battled with Cusack for the Munster number one jersey in the interprovincial final against Leinster, where they both got a half each. He then helped Galway side Liam Mellowes retain their division one status before focusing on retaining the Fitzgibbon Cup for Limerick IT, a campaign that ended at the quarter-final stage.

After that, he resumed coaching duties with his club and he's back with Mellowes again. He can mix it as a coach, by the way. Last year he introduced kick-boxing as a novel approach to LIT's training but then displayed ruthlessness by dropping captain Niall Gilligan from the 'Bridge team in last year's Clare championship.

He recently turned down offers to train clubs in Cavan, Tipperary and Birmingham and hasn't let his own playing standards drop either. He still runs the beach at Lahinch and uses Darren Ward and Michael O'Doherty as personal training advisors.

Having so many eggs in one basket was risky and a heart scare in 2003 resulted in endless blood tests and an angiogram that easily traced the problem - he had bitten off way too much to chew.

Apart from hectic playing and business schedules, he also coached LIT, successfully took on Seán Stack for the job as Sixmilebridge manager which saw Stack storm out of the club's '04 AGM, and he guided the Clare under 21s, Liscannor footballers and Ennistymon junior hurlers at the same time! Little wonder the single-minded 'keeper was stressed.

After overcoming that, he discovered a three-centimetre cyst on the wall of his brain and since rectifying that problem, he says he has a different perspective on life although such is his crazed devotion to hurling, you wouldn't think it.

"It takes a lot out of me," Fitzgerald admits. "I'm working myself to the bone and it's getting harder. I'm still mad to play and that's the main thing. I'm on top of my game and will play until I'm slipping. I'm on the go all week and don't know how many clubs have asked me to train them. The amount of requests you would get is frightening and if I had nine days in the week, I still wouldn't manage. You can't fit everything in."

Last year's spare time was spent co-writing his autobiography Passion and Pride, which revealed as much about his private life as it did of his career. In the fascinating story, Fitzgerald wrote of his separation from former wife Ciara and the subsequent Chinese whispers that swept the country afterwards.

He gave an insight into health problems and his dealings in the domestic and international property markets, which must be fruitful as he drives a classy 04 Mercedes. The book confirmed that there are two Davy Fitzgerald's. On the field, he's like a wired-up maniac ready for psychopathic therapy but in reality, he's soft and sensitive.

He will donate all proceeds from the sale of his book to the Cystic Fibrosis Association of Ireland and before championship matches, he visits the grave of close friend, Sheila Considine, who lost her brave battle with spina bifoda. Her courage touched him deeply and after flying back from holidays in Malaga to attend her funeral, Fitzgerald is only sorry that he doesn't get time to devote to other such causes.

"It's nice to be nice," he smiles. "I should give more time to people like that, not everyone is lucky enough to have the life that I have, some are not as fortunate as others. Over all, it was great to publish the book. There were a lot of issues to deal with. Deep down, people might have perceived me as being this or that but you never really know what's in a player's mind; everyone sees me on the field and assumes my life is perfect but we're all normal people. The book had to be honest and straight from the heart."

From today, he'll pull down the blinkers and slip into championship mode. May 28 is their date with destiny and a rematch with Cork

With his memoirs safely on the shelves, Fitzgerald might yet have to add another chapter if Clare land more silverware. From today, he'll pull down the blinkers and slip into championship mode. Apart from his son, Colm, and immediate family and friends, he'll lie low; even the golf members at Dromoland Castle and Lahinch won't see him. The league is there to be won but the 'keeper openly admits he won't lose too much sleep over it; May 28 is their date with destiny and a rematch with Cork.

"Dalo has tried players out with that date in mind," Fitzgerald continues. "And as a manager, Dalo is improving all the time. It's a tough job, but everyone's behind him and there's a new breed coming through to join Lohan and McMahon. Those two, they're back driving everyone else on. They still have the same commitment and their attitude hasn't dropped one little bit over the years. The last two training sessions we had were really tough but they roared encouragement throughout."

He says the notorious telephone spat that dogged Clare this season never affected him even though he has a close affinity to Colum Flynn, whose long stint as team physio ended in the midst of the row. Flynn is Fitzgerald's father-in-law and Colm's grandfather, so all sorts of tensions could have unravelled. But instead they were only defeated once in five games, their much-maligned attack has scored 8-88, an average of 0-22 per game, an impressive statistic considering the direction the team could have taken following the commotion.

"There was an awful lot of fuss in Clare earlier but it had nothing to do with us," he states. "The whole world was talking but it was outside the players' control. It wasn't our job to get involved, we just put our heads down and I think we've done well. We want to reach a league final now but Limerick are improving.They've really got it together now and are hurling some stuff. Don't get me wrong, though, while it would be great to beat them and great to win the league, we can't afford to forget May 28 against Cork."

With Cork intent on a three in a row and also buzzing with the prospect of another Munster title, Fitzgerald will have to recapture last year's form, the most consistent of his career. He insists there was no secret to that individual success which saw him pip Cusack to an All-Star which, in turn, almost prompted Cork to boycott the ceremony in protest. Fitzgerald, however, had no qualms about receiving the award and is adamant that he was a worthy winner.

"I always make the same effort but there were just more balls hit at me last year," he laughs. "I love when lads go straight for goals, others might dread it but I adore that. I want to save shots and last year I had plenty of practice. Some years, you don't get many shots so you don't stand out. As for the All-Star, it was great, but I would much rather get an honour in September with Clare.

'It was nice to be part of the Railway Cup squad. I didn't bother playing with them after the way Colin Lynch was treated

"It was also nice to be part of the successful Railway Cup squad. I didn't bother playing with them after the way Colin Lynch was treated so it was great to win again 12 years after my first medal, it's good to be still around all these years later. I was happy that I was the best 'keeper in the country last year, I was very consistent and my record and saves spoke for themselves."

But he doesn't want this campaign to end in disappointment or rage for the Clare team, some of whom are on the road almost longer than Foster and Allen. Fitzgerald hopes a win against Limerick and another league final appearance would enhance their preparation for Cork.

"Everyone is wondering what Cork are at. Hurling is now very technical and we had to get with the times. We have to have our tactics right for that game and we'll need a few tricks up our sleeves."

Fitzgerald knows that sweat plus sacrifice equals success. The first two parts of the equation are no problem; he just hopes the tried and trusted formula works out again.

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