Davy Fitzgerald: 'The All-Ireland Poc Fada is an incredible competition'
By John Harrington
The M Donnelly All-Ireland Poc Fada Final on Annaverna Mountain in the Cooleys will always hold a very special place in Davy Fitzgerald’s heart.
The Clare man’s competitive nature is legendary by now, and for a long time winning the All-Ireland Poc Fada Final was a goal he obsessed about.
He eventually won it twice, but had to travel a hard road before eventually reaching the destination he craved so badly.
“I won it twice but it took me nine years of trying to get there and win it,” says Fitzgerald.
“At home they used to be slagging me, 'Are you ever going to do it?' So after nine years I got there.
“One of the most incredible competitions you can do. I don't think people realise it. If you're competitive and love to be involved with a hurley and ball this is just different.
“I used to go up weeks before it and practice up there on my own. I brought up my friend one time and on one particular day we went around four times.
“We started at 8am and this was around 8.30pm. I said, 'Will we go up and do the first bit again?' He said, 'If you're going up, you're going up on your own.' I loved it.
“It was killing me and the slagging at home wasn't helping but it's like anything in life, if you stay going long enough and believe you'll get there, you'll get there.”
Ger Cunningham was crowned champion in Fitzgerald’s first year competing, his seventh title in a row.
The Cork man was undisputed King of the Mountain in those days, but Davy made it his mission to claim the throne for himself.
“When I started Cunningham was winning them for fun, yeah,” says Fitzgerald.
“I put a big X on his back. Sure I'm only five foot nothing, these guys are all six foot plus. I said for myself for the small lads I have to get this done at some stage or another.”
He finally did it in 1999, and the years of toil and coming up short made the experience of winning all the sweeter.
“Oh the most unreal feeling ever,” he says. “It was an incredible feeling. '99 was probably one of the best years I've had personally as a goalie.
“I was on fire the same year and it was just extra special to do that as well.”
Because the All-Ireland Poc Final course across Annaverna Mountain is such a challenging one, it’s very rare for someone to be crowned champion on their first attempt.
That’s why last year was such a rarity – both the men’s champion James McInerney from Clare and women’s champions Aoife Murray from Cork were first-time competitors.
“When I started first I just didn't want to make a show of myself,” admits Murray. “And then half-way around the course I started to go, 'Actually, hang on a second now, now you want to win it', so it's funny how your perspective changes.
“I probably was very naive going up. I didn't really know what to expect. I had tried to do a bit of research and I had obviously seen bits and pieces from years previous.
“I probably went up slightly blinkered because I didn't really know what to expect, but I absolutely love it. It was brilliant, really worth doing it. I'm back again this year so I must have enjoyed it.”
Murray’s accurate and lengthy puck-outs for the Cork camogie team have always been a feature of her play, but she quickly found out that the All-Ireland Poc Fada Final is about more than being able to simply hit the ball far.
“The only thing I could think of as a comparison would be golf and how you have to play the course,” she says.
“It isn't just about giving it welly. You've got to place it, you've got to see where it lies, you have to think about the shot ahead of the shot you're taking and how you get to the nicer lie.
“You have to hit the ball standing as well, and you could be standing somewhere with bushes up to your knees and you need to hit it 60/70 yards to exactly where you want it. It's really testing actually."
Murray clearly has the same competitive spirit as Davy Fitzgerald because her immediate emotion on winning the M Donnelly All-Ireland Poc Fada Final last year was disappointment that her 26th shot came up just four feet shot of the finishing line.
Had it made it over, she would have set a new course record. She’ll surely chase that target hard this time around, but knows too the value of humility on Annaverna Mountain.
“To be honest, I don't think about winning it,” she says. “I just want to go back up and enjoy the day again and try to correct things I did incorrectly last year.
“But I know up there the weather could change. We had a good day last year, the odd shower, but nothing too bad. But you could have lovely weather on the up part of it and then on the return you could have terrible weather.
“It's about trying to manage the elements and situations as they fall. I'd just love to come home somewhere near the top, but you don't know what could happen.
“I mishit my first return shot last year. I had thought I was in a really good position but then I slipped, mishit the shot, and got myself into a right bit of bother.
“And you could lose your sliotar and if you do you drop a shot, just golf. So there's a lot that could go wrong.”
The 2017 M Donnelly All-Ireland Poc Fada Finals take place on Annaverna Mountain this Saturday, beginning at 11.30 am. For a full list of the competitors and to follow their progress on the day, visit the Poc Fada Facebook page and Poc Fada Twitter account.