Victory came from within – Davy
Fitzgerald proud of players' resilience and composure, writes John O'Brien
IT has always been said that history is written by the victors. And the tone of post-match press conferences is dictated by them too. Davy Fitzgerald has known this place as both winner and loser. This time is different than all the others, though. He looks at the faces that greet him here. Not all of them have always been kind. And none of it really matters now. Just the satisfaction of what his team has achieved. The sniping voices can't reach him here.
"The biggest test of this Clare team I've ever seen was when they brought us back to zero," he says, referring to Patrick Horgan's 53rd-minute equalising free. "'Cos everything was going against us. And it's not down to anything I did or the management. It's down to the boys themselves. These young boys have incredible resilience. It didn't come from anybody training them. It came from themselves. They are good kids. They are honest kids. They will never give up."
It seems like an eternity ago now, but Davy was once one of the young band of tearaways that delivered Clare to a momentous All-Ireland back in the 1990s. But Davy was already in his mid-20s by then. You see the boyish features of Tony Kelly sitting beside him and, but that the 19-year-old bears the No 11 shirt he has worn with distinction all summer, you could be forgiven for thinking that Fitzgerald had brought his own son along with him to share his moment of glory.
"For me personally, I'm just so proud of them all," Fitzgerald says, "the way they handled themselves out there. Because you have to think how many of them are so young. In the heat of battle, we lost a nine-point lead. They hit us with everything they had and we still came back for more. And then finished it in style too. I couldn't be more proud of them."
He tells the winners' story now. How they had gambled after the drawn game and refused, bar one exception, to countenance training sessions longer than 30 or 40 minutes in duration. Stuff that would have come back to bite him without a trophy to carry home. How they had played an 'A' versus 'B' game last Friday and, within 21 minutes, the 'A' boys had fired 8-9. How nimbly they moved frightened the heck out of him.
But this is a happy story. The training match told him how well Shane O'Donnell was moving and the prospect of the 19-year-old from Ennis starting entered the picture. Especially seeing that Darach Honan was carrying an injury. "He's been carrying an injury for three months," Fitzgerald explains. "Nobody knew about it. A 16cm tear in his quad. He's only been training once a week for three months. How he managed to do what he did was incredible."
Fitzgerald knew O'Donnell had to be managed. The decision was made last week but only relayed to O'Donnell at precisely 10 minutes to three yesterday. And how did he react? "As soon as he got off the bus," Kelly smiles, "he nearly got sick. So it was a good job we didn't tell him," Fitzgerald responds.
The less time for nerves the better. Like any good manager, Fitzgerald sought to play down expectations. "I asked him beforehand for four goals," Davy says deadpan, "and he was very close to getting it too so he was." But seriously, though, how do you measure such a contribution?
"You know he carried us all during the league," Davy says. "When Conor [McGrath] and Darach [Honan] were missing. So Shane O'Donnell carried us on his own, 19 years old, for the whole league. Like, he only came into the panel this year. He was a minor last year, but wasn't on the under 21s. Just saw something I liked. The best thing about Shane is he's such a good young fella. And trust me, he's a good young fella, not cocky or anything like that."
And whatever you want to say about Davy now, the truth is undeniably that he is a wiser, better coach than he was five years ago, when he came into this same room having shipped an unmerciful beating as Waterford manager and prepared to feel the wrath of his critics. A team of bright young waifs like this one seems endlessly suited to him. A team crying out for him to take all the flak and the pressure off them. The way with Davy it always has to be.
"Yeah, I've had a few tough years of it," he says. "From my point of view, I've got a lot of stick, a lot of stuff said. And God, does this feel good now. This feeling, I'm just so happy for the lads. For them guys. This is down to them. They're a fantastic bunch."
He points to the man beside him now. He recalls the point Kelly scored from the sideline in the drawn game – "bouncing a ball, not a bother on him" – and how it neatly summed up what he likes to think this Clare team is all about. "We have a thing. Go out and express yourselves. I love watching them. But how hard they work, that's their biggest asset."
He doesn't forget the journey that brought them here, the people that helped along the way. The short game they introduced 18 months ago, a philosophy those around him bought into. "We said, 'let's take it, let's do it'," Fitzgerald says. "Whatever comes our way. We believed it would suit our boys and I'm delighted it worked out today. And that's thanks to everyone. The under 21 management, the fellas there before me. It isn't Davy Fitzgerald. It's a lot of guys. I take my hat off to all of them."
And they leave for a week of celebrations now, just a small weather eye on the future. "Everybody keeps saying that we're a young team," says Kelly. "But we don't see it like that. We just want to win every match, make hay while the sun shines. It's instilled in us by Davy and the rest of the coaches every day."
And from the man beside him, a firm nod of agreement. "This crowd can do whatever they want," he says. "The only thing I was worried about was transition. Because we've had good under 21 teams in the past and they didn't win championship games for years afterwards. In 2009 we didn't win anything after for a while. It's how you mind yourself. It's how you look after yourself."
And this current Clare set-up is looking after itself very well indeed.