By Arthur Sullivan
Their ascent to the top has been rapid, their development curve off the charts. The Fitzgerald blend, of personal charisma, coaching excellence and highly developed tactical awareness, has worked a dream.
"We're going to do it!" - What Ger Loughnane told RTÉ at half-time in the 1995 All-Ireland hurling final
The tapestry asks that comparisons are made between Clare's miracle summer of 1995 and this year's march to the All-Ireland hurling final. Whether warranted or not, the links are made, the connections explored.
Before this year's All-Ireland hurling semi-final between Clare and Limerick, Davy Fitzgerald gave an interview to RTÉ's Ger Canning that was eerily similar to Ger Loughnane's famous flourish at half-time in the 1995 All-Ireland final.
Davy had just coldly and clinically dealt with all the questions. "Don't care who we're playing...", "No excuses from us...", "Our only objective today is to beat Limerick." Then, Canning asked, possibly with a nod to 1995, "Are you going to win?"
Fitzgerald didn’t pause. He said "yes" with utter certainty and walked away, not averting his intense stare from Canning until out of shot. In that semi-comic, surreal moment, he paid a sort of homage to Loughnane, whether he meant to or not. For as much as Davy Fitzgerald has defined himself in his own right as a manager, his presence in Loughnane's greatest dressing room played a major role in making him who he is.
On the surface at least, Fitzgerald appears to be from the Loughnane school. "He has a full-on approach on the sideline. He's an intimidating figure on the sideline and that's the way he trains his teams - to intimidate other teams." So said former Waterford hurler Fergal Hartley - not of Fitzgerald but of Loughnane - but it's a sentiment that could equally be applied to Fitzgerald.
John Allen, his counterpart in the semi-final, is a quiet man on the sideline, much like Cork manager Jimmy Barry-Murphy. Fitzgerald couldn’t be more different. To say his sideline presence is intense is an understatement. He never seems to take a breather, running and jumping up and down the line, shouting instructions at his players, getting revved up. The occasionally mad glint in his eyes is just like Loughnane’s, as is the indisputable, unquenchable passion for hurling.
But according to those who know him best, that intensity and on-the-surface explosiveness hides something very different. "After the fire, comes the ice,” wrote journalist Christy O’Connor of Fitzgerald in Last Man Standing, his book about hurling goalkeepers. O’Connor was once the sub-goalkeeper to Fitzgerald in Clare, and he points to the way Fitzgerald can blend an ice-cold streak with the hot, fiery side most readily associated with him.
In a recent column for GAA.ie, Dónal Óg Cusack gave some fascinating examples of this element of Fitzgerald’s make-up. He remembered standing watching the 1999 Munster semi-final between Clare and Tipperary. Fitzgerald had just made a brilliant save from Paul Shelley to keep Clare in the game when his side were awarded a penalty, with the chance to draw level as full-time loomed.
“Just before the penalty, one of the Tipp corner backs got injured,” wrote Cusack. “I don't remember if it was Liam Sheedy or Donnacha Fahy; I think it was Sheedy though. Davy went to take the penalty. Davy's preferred and natural strike of the ball in that position would have been from right to left. At that moment, every sports shrink and every coach would tell you to fall back on muscle memory and do what you are most comfortable with. But Davy struck the ball low the other direction at the injured Sheedy. Goal.
“Some people wouldn't give Davy the credit for that. I would but even if you don't, his performance topped by the moment of cold blood it took to score a penalty against Cummins was incredible. Maybe he's mad like they say but for me there's a method in there.”
All Stars: 3
Clare Career: 1990-2008
Davy Fitzgerald was born on August 2, 1971. He grew up in Sixmilebridge, and in the story common to thousands of young boys from hurling country, the sport quickly became his fervent passion.
However, in a recent interview with RTÉ, Fitzgerald revealed the severe bullying he was the victim of in his youth. “When I was a young fella I was bullied quite a bit and the easiest thing would have been to take it and lie down, but I didn’t," he said.
“It would have been unreal for a few years, even in secondary school in a big way. It probably made me stronger, it wouldn’t make probably everyone stronger but I was lucky enough I came out of it in the right way. It [the bullying] was tough, I have to say, but it hardened me up for what was to come and made me fight for things a bit more... I came out OK at the end of it,” he said.
The experience taught him how to survive in an often difficult world. He says he learned from it to never give up and to stay with what you believe in. He clearly believed in hurling, and in the end, it made him a star. In his native Sixmilebridge, he is a club legend. Long before he was winning All-Irelands on the national stage with Clare, he was winning titles with the club.
He won Clare Senior Hurling Championship medals in 1989, 1992, 1993, 1995, 2000 and 2002, and was a key man on the team that won the All-Ireland club title in 1996. He played 100 times in the championship for Sixmilebridge, a brilliant record spanning four decades, from 1989-2011.
But during the long years of his playing career with Clare and Sixmilebridge, Fitzgerald was always looking towards his future as a coach and a manager. It started with the club from a young age, and he coached teams at practically every age group. He led Sixmilebridge minor and U21 teams to county titles, and his abilities quickly drew attention and demand, first from wider Clare, and then from beyond the county bounds.
Fitzgerald’s first big success came with Limerick Institute of Technology (LIT) and it’s where he remains today in a professional capacity, as the college’s Director/Ambassador of Hurling. He led the college to prestigious Fitzgibbon Cup titles in 2005 and 2007 – the first time in their history they had ever won the competition.
There was no doubt about it, he had utterly transformed their fortunes and that success cemented his reputation as an elite, 21st century coach. Cyril Farrell, well-known RTÉ pundit and a man who managed to Galway to three All-Ireland titles, was part of Fitzgerald’s coaching team in Limerick.
"I think it's only a matter of time before a smart county snaps him up and gives him a three-year term," he said five years ago. "He's very advanced in his methods. He has all the scientific stuff, but he's got the hurling background too.
"His coaching is fantastic, top-class. To me, Davy Fitz will improve any hurler he gets time to work with, whatever the standard. People have this idea of Davy from his playing days, this thing of he'd kill anyone to win. But he's a completely different character as manager.”
Fitzgerald’s prowess as a coach is legendary. Galway talisman Joe Canning knows Fitzgerald well, having won the Fitzgibbon Cup with him in 2007. "His training sessions are incredible," said the Portumna man. "You're never hanging around for the same drill. Everything moves at speed. He has to be one of the best managers around."
Another man who played under him at LIT, Limerick's Gavin O'Mahony, praised him to the skies in a recent piece in the Irish Examiner. “The hurling sessions Davy took were the best I have probably ever done. He had such enthusiasm," he said. "You'd arrive to training early in the morning or in the evening and within five or 10 minutes you were flying around the field and that's all credit to his motivation.
"It was always about speed. You'd be under more pressure going for the ball in training because he'd be running up beside you and roaring at you. He’d drive you that way whereas you could be doing drills in other sessions and you'd wonder if the coach was looking at you at all. He was always keeping an eye on you and always had a comment or zoned in on something you were doing."
Fitzgerald got his first inter-county job in 2008 as manager of the Waterford hurlers. His appointment was somewhat controversial, in that he came in midway through the season after a number of players had called for the resignation of previous incumbent Justin McCarthy. Fitzgerald led a talented Waterford group to the All-Ireland final that season, but unfortunately for them, they met the great Kilkenny four-in-a-row at the peak of their powers, as the 3-30 to 1-13 final scoreline attests to.
Fitzgerald stayed in Waterford for three more seasons, with the obvious high point being a Munster Championship title in 2010. The chance to manage Clare came at the end of the 2011 season, and Fitzgerald knew that although the county hadn’t competed at the top level for many years, an exceptionally talented group of hurlers were coming through. They had won the Munster Minor Championship in the previous two seasons, and there was plenty of potential to work with.
Nonetheless, it is remarkable that less than two years later, Clare are in the All-Ireland Senior Hurling final this Sunday. Their ascent to the top has been rapid, their development curve off the charts. The Fitzgerald blend – of personal charisma, coaching excellence and highly developed tactical awareness – has worked a dream.
Aside from his evidently vast knowledge of hurling, which manifests itself in his coaching sessions and tactical application, Fitzgerald’s personality appears to be made for management. In much the same way Loughnane did, Fitzgerald acts as a lightning rod for his players. He is almost always the story, the man who riles up the opposition supporters, players and management. Type in ‘Davy Fitzgerald’ to any image search, and the pictures tell quite a story. There are hundreds of images of Davy Fitzgerald in various dramatic poses on the sideline. Hands outstretched incredulously. Mouth wide open, screaming. Images of despair, of delirium.
His passion is undeniable so the sincerity of the images can’t be denied. But just like Jose Mourinho and Brian Clough did in soccer, Fitzgerald has carefully crafted an image of himself as a sort of madman which many people appear to take seriously. This persona is extremely useful to him as a manager – it takes the attention away from his players for one, but more importantly, it has caused people to underestimate him. Not that too many are underestimating him anymore, mind. “He loves the media building him up to be something he’s not,” said Canning recently. “I suppose he gets a bit of a buzz off it, in a way. He knows himself...he’s a very smart guy.”
There are lots of opinions out there about Fitzgerald, but the vast majority of those opinions aren’t based on personal experience. Those who know him in hurling, either through playing with or against him, or having been coached by him, usually have a very different take to the general perception. For them, nothing about his success is a surprise.
And if you thought hurling was Fitzgerald’s only sporting talent, think again. He plays golf off a handicap of one.