A COUPLE of months back Mick O’Dwyer reflected on his year with the Clare footballers — the one team he failed to work the oracle with.
After delivering the usual platitudes and excusing their shortcomings, the grandfather of football management gave a telling quote. “Ultimately,” he said, “they’re a hurling county.”
Well, as hurling counties go, they’ve kept their passion a secret for the bulk of their existence. Sunday will be just their sixth All-Ireland final and given that they’ve been entering the competition since 1887, that’s a statistic bordering on an embarrassment.
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Yet here they are, facing a Cork side they have absolutely no fear of, with the fourth title of their history waiting to be captured.
“For the next few weeks Davy Fitzgerald has to control the madness of Clare, the precociousness of his team, the expectations and the criticisms,” wrote Donal Óg Cusack in his hurling blog on the GAA’s official website. “And he has the attention to detail to carry it off.”
Praise from Cusack is praise indeed.
The shrewdest of hurling analysts doesn’t cosy up to people for the sake of it — and in any case, he and Fitzgerald had “no interest in having a cup of tea and a chat together” whenever they found themselves in one another’s company.
Yet Cusack — like a growing number of others — have grown to respect Fitzgerald’s managerial style, one that this underachieving Clare side badly needed to kickstart their senior life into gear.
A central figure in the Ger Loughnane team of the ’90s, Fitzgerald’s spiky personality resulted in him taking plenty of grief from opposing fans at a time when Clare happily fulfilled the stereotype of pantomime villain.
That he wore his heart on his sleeve was undeniable — and as much a weakness as a virtue — but it disguised the depth of his hurling intellect, something he honed coaching the Clare U21s and the college students of Limerick IT while his playing days were moving from autumn to winter.
He saw how the game was changing — observed closely how Brian Cody had demanded his wing forwards fulfil the dual responsibilities of attack and defence — and wondered if the sweeper system which had become a de-facto requirement of any successful football side could be introduced to hurling.
Waterford gave him a chance to answer those questions. Taking over a team in disarray, he dragged them kicking and screaming into the 2008 All-Ireland final before Cody and Kilkenny gave them a hiding that scarred deeply.
And as is the nature with modern-day sport, the manager receives a disproportionate amount of abuse when things go wrong just as there is a tendency to exaggerate their genius when it sometimes goes right.
Time would ultimately prove kind and cruel to Fitzgerald in Waterford. He would win a Munster in 2010 before being picked apart by a growing number of the Deise’s key players.
Still, as managerial apprenticeships go, it was a superb grounding. Fitzgerald grew up a lot. And his system, based around his centre back and centre fielders becoming obsessed with marking space rather than people, began to evolve.
All he needed was a break. And Clare provided him with it.
Yet the manager wasn’t the only one in need of a fresh start. Clare too had spent the best part of a decade drifting between nowhere and the odd All-Ireland semi-final.
The Loughnane era had come and gone and no system appeared to be in place to produce a new dynasty. Yet, at underage level, the county board had invested time and money on improving their coaching structures.
The upshot has been their first ever All-Ireland U21 titles in 2009 and 2012 — and the likelihood of a third next month, in addition to two minor Munster titles captured in 2010 and 2011.
Still, for a time, the underage success seemed to carry little relevance into senior hurling. Clare remained one of those teams where early summer hope is extinguished.
By July this year, they were mentally spent, their players complaining of emotional fatigue after a soft defeat by Cork in the Munster semi. For them, after a hard winter improving their fitness and a longer spring spent staying in Division 1A, the well was running dry.
“Some of us wanted the year to end,” admitted a dressing room insider.
But it was only starting.
A handy draw saw Laois and Wexford defeated in the qualifiers before Galway were demolished in the quarters. By now, the system had evolved. Their hurling was a little more direct, their clearances from defence improved in terms of accuracy. A side, containing nine players aged 22 or under, were ready for Limerick. And they demolished them.
“Clare, like Cork, are ahead of their own development curve,” says Cusack. “The key to Clare’s game is that it is fluid. It changes when it needs to. Podge Collins gets called away to perform some other task and another man has the intelligence to fill in.
They are like that everywhere. Their style is like a river making its way through mountains. Fast and shallow when it needs to be, quiet and deep when necessary. It makes its way through the path that will get it to the sea.”
To Fitzgerald’s credit, he spent time dissecting the bones of the Cork defeat and figured out what had to be changed. And while there are plenty who believe his managerial personality has a limited shelf-life, for now he has the players believing in his Gospel.
During the Cork defeat, John Donlon was taken to hospital suffering from concussion. That night he had four people at his bedside, three of them family, the fourth, Fitzgerald. “That sums the man up,” says Donlon. “He’d die for us.”
Yet, despite Donlon’s assertion, the truth is Fitzgerald has calmed a lot since his hyper-active playing days.
He has grown to realise that shouting and roaring is no longer sufficient. Players expect thoughtful arguments. Their manager has provided that.
Now it is time for the promising new boys to turn into the deliverance men.