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Fitzgerald ready to close the deal

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Suddenly, it's here. With much of the media's attention firmly focused on the All-Ireland football final between Dublin and Mayo over the last few weeks, the hurling final replay between Clare and Cork has slipped under the radar a little bit. But now it's just two days away.

We were going flat to the boards from early on. And I've been saying to myself, will these games catch up on them? That's the only concern
Davy Fitzgerald

Inevitably, the build-up to the replay has been very different to the first game. While the first game carried with it all the pageantry and novelty, the grandeur and the excitement, this second game is all about getting down to business, getting the job done.

It was the same last year when Kilkenny and Galway met again. They knew everything they possibly could about each other by then, and all that was left to do come the time of the replay was to play another 70 odd minutes and see where they stood then.

If Kilkenny and Galway knew each other well this time last year, Cork and Clare know each other even better. This game will be their sixth meeting in 2013.

"We're learned stuff about each other," said Davy Fitzgerald at Clare's pre All-Ireland final press night last week. "We know them fierce well at this stage. But I think we're two hurling teams. There were very little dirty strokes between ourselves and Cork the last day. We hurl, we go out and work hard. Two big work ethics and I also think there's a lot of skill on both teams. Let the hurling do the talking out there."

The three-week break which comes with an All-Ireland hurling final replay creates a special sort of energy and tension. In the immediate aftermath of the draw on September 8, the mood was hard to assess. Which was the happier side? Neither? Domhnall O'Donovan's point with effectively the last puck of the game had rescued a draw for Clare, so surely they were relieved while Cork were pained.

Yet Clare had been the better side for most of the game, so they must have in some way felt frustrated at their inability to see out the win. Over the last few weeks, Fitzgerald has tried as best he can to park the drawn game and look forward.

"I've looked at it like, it's a drawn game. I've looked back at it in two or three different ways. I could look back and it say, we should have won it," he said.

"I could look back at it and say that a minute into injury time, we'd take a draw. The best thing I did, and even from a team point of view, we say, we're going to draw a line under this. There's no point dwelling on it either way. We have lessons to learn. We have learned the lessons that we had to learn - there was mistakes made out there the last day.

"So there's no point dwelling back on it like that. It's like the last game we played, we have to learn from it and drive on. That's the way we have approached it."

One significant event within that three week spell was the Bord Gáis Energy All-Ireland U21 Hurling final, which Clare won for the second year in succession with a commanding victory over Antrim.

As everyone knows by now, there is a serious crossover between the Clare senior and U21 teams. Tony Kelly, David McInerney, Colm Galvin and Podge Collins are among a large group who have played for both teams all season, and Fitzgerald was happy to once again let those players focus on their U21 duties in the immediate aftermath of the drawn senior final.

Young Guns

Clare U21s/Seniors

Tony Kelly
David McInerney
Colm Galvin
Podge Collins
Paul Flanagan
Seadna Morey
Aaron Cunningham
Peter Duggan
Shane O'Donnell

"It's been the same for their All-Ireland semi-final, Munster final and Munster semi-final," said the former goalkeeper. "Like, nearly after every big game we've played, they've had an U21 game after. To be honest, it's great. It's well noted that we have 13 or 14 of them U21s in our senior squad.

"So they're training with me since last October at a serious level. I have to also say fair play to Gerry and Donal (U21 managers), it was a great victory, but the trust that they have in myself and Paul Kinnerk (Clare coach) to train most of their team is great.

"It's great to get a breakway for a week. It's no harm. What will we do after a big game? We will train on the Thursday night after a big game. They've a recovery session on the Tuesday. We train on the Thursday, we only do 35 minutes. So basically, we're not doing anything hard until the following Sunday.

"So basically, the 21s have their game on the Saturday so it's the exact same thing. I think it's good for us."

However, Fitzgerald admits he has one nagging worry with regard to all the hurling his young players are playing. While it's easy after a while to take it for granted that messrs Kelly, Collins, McInerney and all the rest will continue performing to the top level every week, the senior manager wonders if one day soon they could hit the wall.

"The only question you're asking yourself is, since the start of February, probably, we have been flat out, because we were playing National Hurling League at a championship pace because we have been trying to survive in the National League.

"We were going flat to the boards from early on. And I've been saying to myself, will these games catch up on them? That's the only concern."

It certainly has been a long hurling season. The evenings are drawing in ever quicker, a discernible chill is attending upon the air, and still the show goes on. Clare have been at it for a long time this season, and it feels like a long time ago indeed since they were beaten out the gate by Tipperary in the Allianz League back in March.

Tipperary marched away with a 3-19 to 1-14 win that day, sending Clare into the relegation play-off with Cork. That was the match which prompted Fitzgerald to call talk of Clare winning the All-Ireland "rubbish".

“Tipperary will take fair beating," he said after the 11-point defeat. "I was listening to so much rubbish during the week about Clare winning All-Irelands. I keep saying we’re building - I’ve been saying this from day one but some of our own people get so carried away.

“We have a job to do, it’s a young team and we’re building and we’ll stay building. We’ll take that on the chin today. That’s our first big loss since I’ve been there. We’ll come back fighting for more.”

If it's possible for Fitzgerald to be chastened, he is after being reminded of this comment. "Did I say that, I did!?" he asks, with a degree of mock incredulity.

"It didn't feel great after that loss," he admits. "Naturally, your ambition...like when you get a beating like that...there was people talking us up locally.

"It's just important that you try and keep the lads on the ground. I think that was one of the best things that ever happened us. I remember Eamon O'Shea with four or five minutes to go, roaring at Tipperary to go for goals and bury us.

"I went into the dressing room afterwards and said don't you ever forget that lesson you got there today. I think it was a good lesson. That was actually a help in our progression this year."

He vowed after that defeat to Tipperary that Clare would come back fighting for more. And they certainly have done that. Here we are in the last week of September, and they're preparing for an All-Ireland final replay against Cork. It's probably the only fitting dénouement to a hurling season which has, at practically every turn, defied prediction.

Fitzgerald wonders about the changing shades of early Autumn when "the air will be heavier, the ground won't be the same." But he doesn't dwell on it. It will be the same for both sides, he says.

For at this stage of the season, the only thing left to do is whatever is necessary to take the cup away at the end. Clare and Cork haven't been hurling since the darkest recesses of last winter to leave anything up to fortune in the last week of September. "Whatever is put in front of us, we'll deal with it," the Clare manager says, defiantly.

***

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