The Big Interview - Davy Fitzgerald
By John Harrington
It’s Wexford’s Pre-Leinster Final media evening at their Centre of Excellence in Ferns, and Davy Fitzgerald is buzzing.
The quips are flying, a smile rarely leaves his face, and the vibe in general around the place is a relaxed, happy one.
Fitzgerald had already spent 30 minutes talking with the national print media before he sat down with GAA.ie, but he was quite content to do it all over again.
And as soon as he started talking it was quickly confirmed what we already suspected – the marriage of Wexford hurling and Davy Fitzgerald is a very happy one indeed.
Q: Davy, every county has its own unique characteristics. Has there been anything about Wexford and its people that surprised you?
Davy Fitzgerald: Their passion. The passion of the players and their dedication to training is incredible, the supporters I can't get over. Jesus they're just crying out for...If you look back on their history you know what they're about. I think we're actually a very good fit, which is good.
Q: Could you sense that quite soon after taking charge of the team?
DF: Yeah. You can tell I'm in good form and the reason I'm in good form is the way we're being treated a lot of the time. Even though we lost to Tipperary they were still great. I think they realised this team is only in a process and there's a few years to get them to where we want to get them.
Once they realise that and we all know what's ahead of us. I think the expectations are massive in the Leinster final. We'll just take it as it comes and what ever it is, it is.
Q: Wexford is renowned historically as a county of rebels. Do you think that’s one of reasons why they’ve taken you to their hearts, because you have a rebellious streak yourself?
DF: Yeah we're a good match. The way they've made me feel makes me want to work even harder for them, to do it more. The test will be when we lose a few games, will they be the same?
I really hope they are because I'm really enjoying it. And we will lose games, we might lose them well at some stage. I just hope they stay the same because it's a lot easier come down here and take that long drive when you've massive support. Where we've come from in six to eight months has been incredible.
It's been some journey so far. It's been way ahead of what I thought it would be. I didn't expect this progression so quickly.
Q: So you’re surprised by how well things have gone?
DF: 100%. If you said to me at the start of the year that you'd win promotion and be in a Leinster final, I think if you asked anyone that they'd say you're off your head.
We've got a few breaks, we've worked really hard I think we've played a decent brand of hurling. I think we've been really positive with how we've played actually, although some people would perceive it as negative - it's not.
If you look at our shots ratio in every game, if you really look at our shots ratio, a lot of pundits haven't really looked at it, we're getting off a lot of shots. Will we score five goals a game? Probably not, but put in a goal or two and hit 18 to 22 or 23 points. We're averaging 22 or 23 scores a game. That's not bad.
Q: Is your philosophy something akin to ‘Total Hurling’? Every player must be comfortable on the ball in every area of the pitch? Numbers must be committed to attack when you have the ball, and to defence when you don’t?
DF: I'll put it to you this way. People that know their hurling, go back and look at some of the top teams over the last 10 or 15 years. See how many people they have behind the ball at different times.
I'm very certain they have a lot more than six back there, I'm very certain of that. Yet because you leave one man back there you get absolutely criticised.
What you've said I won't go into too much. There is more to it than a straight seven backs that's all I'll say to you. Even with Clare there was a lot more to it than seven backs. People had this perception they wanted to see a certain thing. They didn't really read the game 110%. Will it work every game? No it won't. It's just a different way of playing.
I looked at Waterford, who would have got a certain amount of stick over the last few years. If you look at Waterford in 2014 they were hammered out the gate in every game. No hope for them.
Why did they become competitive in '15 and '16? Because he came up with a system that suited their way of playing. Negative or not negative, it doesn't matter. They were there or thereabouts with the All-Ireland champions and they haven't been far away.
I think people should want teams that haven’t been to the top to get to the top. That's my honest opinion. In life everything changes. I'm sure the game of soccer and rugby have evolved and changed in different ways too. Hurling can change as well and that's my view. We won't always get it right, things will go wrong too for the system and I won't get it right everyday. But I want to make us competitive and that's what I want us to do - make us competitive.
Q: Is the key to the game-plan to cut down on the space available to the opposition in your own half when you don’t have the ball, and to then create it and exploit it in the opposition half when you do have the ball? To transition from defence to attack with the use of support runners from deep and try to pull the opposition defence out of position with clever use of possession?
DF: There's a lot of different things to it. You're actually the first person fella that has even attempted to go into this zone. All I'll say to you, and I think you'll appreciate I don't want to go there, you’re thinking isn't 100 miles off and it's not near as negative as what people think. But they haven't really looked at it.
I've been working on this for fecking years. With LIT, we have played the same way for the last number of years and we haven't been negative. All I'll say is there is an element to what you're saying.
We have serious possessions in a game. It isn't just get the ball and beat the shit of it. When we do that, we did it in a big game this year, we were in big trouble.
You have to play to your strengths and what you have. You have to see what you have. When I came in I played 12 challenge games. I had to see exactly what I had, what the story was. The same in Clare when I went in there.
Clare weren't a physically strong team so it was very hard to go toe-to-toe and belt ball. Waterford was a big different. They were physically stronger than Clare were and I could go more direct. It's all down to what you have. What are your backs like? What are your forwards like? What's your speed like? What's your physicality like? You have to weigh up what you have and try and come up with something that'll work for them.
Is there a Davy Fitzgerald way of playing? No. It's what I dealt with. I try to do the best I can with it.
Q: It looks like you’ve gotten some of these Wexford players performing to a higher level than they ever had previously. Have you worked with certain individuals a lot?
DF: We've had a lot of things to work on. I identified three or four areas when I came down here which I'll be keeping to myself. We worked extremely hard on them. Every player is different. We've got to figure out different parts about each guy.
You're trying to. Lads, I could go out the next day and Galway could beat us by 20 points and I'll be the worst f**king guy under the sun. That's the way hurling is. Yet, I get a kick out of certain things we've done.
No matter what happens for the rest of the year, to see some of the lads progress and to see change in some of their styles, I love. I love that we've made a small bit of difference. They key is to have a good coaching staff with you, I have that. We've worked extremely hard, we'd be on the phone to each other all the time, 'How can we make this better, how can we make that better?'
The fact we're in a Leinster final we're delighted. Are we up against it against Galway? Any team that hits four Leinster finals in six years, they've won one, they've won a league, two All-Ireland finals, they're battle-hardened. This isn't a big ordeal to them really. Well, any Leinster final is a big ordeal but to them they've experienced it. We haven't.
Could we fall flat on the day because the most the lads have played in front of is 20,000 or 25,000? We're going to hit 40,000 or 45,000 the next day or in that bracket I'd imagine. It's going to be the biggest crowd they've played in front of. They haven't played in Croke Park on a big day. I don't know how we react, I'm just hoping we go out there and give it everything.
Q: Wexford seem to be traditionally one of those teams that react more and more positively the bigger and louder the crowd is…?
DF: I love when the supporters get behind them and they have a number of times this year. There's been one or games where we're under pressure and they really got behind them. The last day I felt they were holding back because they were afraid, 'Are we going to slip up again or is there something going to happen.'
Q: They made a serious noise when Lee Chin scored that great point after Kilkenny scored those two goals in the semi-final…
DF: That's great to see. Over the last number of years they haven't had a whole pile to shout about. They haven't beaten Kilkenny in championship in a good while.
To do that, I could see the relief on them and it was great. Kilkenny are going to come back, there's no doubt about it. They'll beat Wexford again when it comes to that but I'd like to think now Wexford are there or there abouts and any time we play them from now on we're going to have a good chance.
Q: Where does that win over Kilkenny rank compared to the other great days you’ve had as a player or manager?
DF: Some people were saying we were 3/1 or 4/1 outsiders. That means we haven't really got a hope. When you go into a game like that and playing the likes of Kilkenny who I know worked so hard for it because they wanted to prove a point for the quarter-final. I'll tell you the truth, it's right up there. I was above in the box, but when I looked out onto the field afterwards. Man!
Q: When you emerged from the box and appeared at the top of the stand hundreds of Wexford supporters turned around and started cheering you. What was that moment like?
A: It was a great feeling. People ask you why you do stuff and I was thinking of taking a break after the illness last year, but, you know what, you get very few of them days in hurling. You get very few of them. But I'll cherish that one no matter what happens. Whether we're beaten well or whatever on Sunday, I'll definitely cherish that one.
Q: Has what you’ve achieved so far with this Wexford team confirmed your philosophy on the game works? Had you any doubts after leaving Clare?
DF: Listen, I think over the last number of years whether it was Clare or Waterford, this stuff has worked. But it's not always going to work.
I remember Waterford people were saying when I took over there that they were finished, they were gone, they were over the hill after they were hammered by Clare. But they weren't.
When I took over Clare they hadn't one U-21, they had no U-21s. We changed their whole style of play. You get a kick out of that, coming back. The same with Wexford.
You love going into a situation where it isn't meant to happen. That gives you a buzz and a half, boy. I enjoy that, so I do. I don't know what's ahead, but you love that bit of a challenge, you know?
Q: Were you drained after finishing as Clare manager? Has this experience been a reinvigorating one?
DF: I was over in America when I left Clare. That day in Thurles after Galway beating us, I knew. I went around and shook their hands and said I'm not sure if I want to stay or come back to ye.
I made a lot of calls to a few guys and you'll always have certain guys who want you to stay on and certain guys who don't. You'll hear about these big votes and other things like that.
I can tell you that a lot of the top 20 guys wanted me to stay. Naturally from 20 to 40, these guys aren't getting a run, so you'll have a lot of them that don't want you to stay. You know what? It was 100 per cent the right thing to do.
Clare had five years of me and it was no harm (to move on). That's why Donal Óg stayed on. He came in with me for the two years and I was delighted he stayed on.
Out in the States when I did that, the lads will tell you I probably played the best golf ever after it. It was like a weight had come of my shoulders.
The next thing about three or four days later I got a call outside from my auld lad who said, "Wexford want to talk to you." I said, "You're joking me! Could you not let me enjoy the rest of the trip!"
So I came home and I said I'd meet them out of courtesy. Met the Chairman and we had a chat for an hour and a half. He was asking me about my thoughts, I was asking him about theirs. I threw him out my beliefs and thoughts and he asked me to think about it.
I said, "I don't think I can do it. I honestly think I need a breather for a year or two." He said, "Think about it, and I'll ring you."
So he rang me the next day and said, "Diarmuid, I don't think I can do this." He said, "Davy, don't make up your mind yet. Just think about it for one more day."
I rang him the next day and said, "I don't think so." And he said, "No Davy, you're taking the job, we want you to take it, you are what we need here. We're dying and we need something to happen."
So, he got me into it with the enthusiasm he had. I could just feel it from him. I did not believe I was going to go down there, but I am absolutely delighted I did because the people have been so good to me.
You can tell I'm in good form because the people have been great to me. It's a lot easier do stuff like this when the people are good to you. It's a lot easier.
Q: What have the players given you?
A: They have worked. Anything I've asked them to do, they've done it. Stuff I give them to do on their own that they have to go away and do, they do. They come back, they do their work, if you do your work you have a better chance of being successful.
We identified a few areas we cold work harder on and I think that's very important. So, listen, they've done everything they could do, they've given me 110 per cent.
That makes that long drive a lot easier, so it does. But we do know that we are underdogs. And you're not saying that to build it up, that is the truth.
We know Galway are very hungry. When you've got a bit of stick as they have over the years...and I was actually delighted to see them winning the League. That shut a lot of people up. They deservedly did so.
They've been very close and I think the League win for them was a good thing for them. They are one of the top one or two teams in the country, but isn't that good from a Wexford point of view that we get a chance to pit ourselves against the likes of them.
Now, we fell well short against Tipperary in the League semi-final. They beat us by 10 or 11 points, so there was a bit of a gap there. Hopefully we'll have learned stuff and will be able to bridge that against Galway.
Q: When you see how this hurling championship has developed so far, does it suggest the game is in better health now than ever?
DF: To me, if it's more balanced if there's a chance of five or six teams that can do it...like, you're half wondering, do Cork have a chance? Clare won the All-Ireland a few years ago, they're not 100 miles away. Kilkenny are not gone, Tipp are still there, you can't write off Waterford. You know what I'm saying?
Six or seven years ago you'd be saying, 'It's going to be Kilkenny, maybe Tipp might do something'. I think that hurling needs to be like it is now.
Obviously one or two counties mightn't agree with me on that, but for me looking at it I'd love to see six or seven teams...I'd love it...because teams that haven't won it in a while, for them to win it is incredible.
From being from Clare and we've only won it four times, so '13 meant a lot after 16 years of a gap. There are teams out there like that. Galway haven't won it in a while, Wexford haven't won it in a while, Limerick haven't won it in a while, Cork haven't won it in a while.
There are teams out there that need to get this and drive the whole thing mad again.
Q: Some people would complain that hurling isn’t as exciting a spectacle as it was before because it’s too tactical. Do you think the quality of the game is still improving all the time?
DF: I think so. I look at different things. People will always have their opinions. Like, I love seeing different aspects of play. Would I be a fan of long-ball a lot of the time? Not all of the time.
I like to see different types of skill level. Short-ones here and there, scores from 70 yards out by the sideline. Taking on your man and hitting the back of the net. Keeping it tight at the back so you're not conceding. Like, there's so many different things to it.
I don't think hurling is in a bad place. I think some people are just afraid of change. That's my view on it. They're afraid. Change almost seems to affect them, whatever part of life it is, whether it's stuff in business, your general life or sport, some people are afraid of change.
To me, I don't think change is bad.
Q: There'll be some reaction down here if you win a Leinster Championship in your first year in charge...they might build a statue of you if Wexford win the All-Ireland.
DF: The most important thing is that I want us to be able to go out and compete. I'm not thinking of winning a Leinster here. I want us to be able to hold our heads up and be able to go and compete.
We've competed this year so far. I know Tipp might have beaten us by 10 or 11 points, but we actually competed. We need to be able to go and compete.
Galway are going to try and blow us away. I'm sure Galway are saying to themselves, 'We've a lot more experience than Wexford do, we've a lot better players than Wexford do, we're going to teach them a lesson'.
We have got to meet that challenge. And if we can hang in there for 20, 25 minutes, then you're going to have a chance. But that's going to be the thing, the key. Tipperary tried to do it to us and got on top of us early but we managed to hang in there.
We've got to do the same here. Galway are one of the favourites for the All-Ireland. Their physicality is massive. They have massive physicality, they're able to hurl, they're able to run, they can play short and long. They can do everything. It's a big challenge for us, very big, on a big occasion which is another challenge we have to meet.
But let's look forward to it. Let's go out there and see what happens and give it everything. And hopefully we'll get to show that Wexford bite and heart, that's what I want to see out there.