Davy Fitzgerald is a uniquely Irish public figure and in his new reality series the Wexford hurling manager comes across as a mash-up of José Mourinho and Deepak Chopra.
“No matter how bad things are you keep fighting,” is one of several fridge magnet bromides he delivers during episode one of Davy’s Toughest Team (RTÉ One, 9.35pm), an affecting blend of fitness challenge and portrait of the lost boys of Ireland’s towns and cities.
It’s an occasionally gripping and moving television experience. The idea is that Fitzgerald is helping transform the mental and physical health of seven young men. They undoubtedly need the assistance, having had a torrid time in school and, in certain instances, a history of drug abuse.
This is self-help with a grander purpose, however. The volunteers are being knocked into shape ahead of a trek to basecamp at Mount Everest. Needless to say, the looming pandemic will disrupt the Everest plans: a brief flash-forward to a later instalment suggests they’ll potentially end up scaling a big hill in Kerry instead.
We meet “Sean D”, an ADHD-sufferer from Cork who compares his condition to “drinking five or six cans of Red Bull”. Cian, likewise from Cork, started taking drugs at school and saw his best friend die at 15 . “I took the same drug the day before. Either, I’m lucky or he’s unlucky.”
Then there is Gary, “just a kid from the flats” in Dublin. He became a “man” at 13, he says, when his father overdosed on heroin. These are the sort of young men Ireland has largely decided it doesn’t care about or has dismissed as juvenile delinquents.
And while Fitzgerald insists he’s “not a counsellor” he is clearly earnest about wanting to assist them in turning around their lives.
GAA coaches are celebrated and sometimes lampooned for the lengths to which they will go to build team spirit. But Fitzgerald, also to be seen on Ireland’s Fittest Family, is sensible and restrained as the recruits are summoned to a training camp in Wicklow.
Awaiting the volunteers are an abseiling challenge and a hill they must scale under cover of dark and largely blind-folded. At which point Davy’s Toughest Team threatens to turn into hybrid of Dead Poets Society and Father Ted.
Fitzgerald is often caricatured as the embodiment of the hyperventilating GAA manager, furiously pounding the table with his hurley during the half-time talk. However, here he is empathic and sympathetic towards the young men in his charge. And if Davy’s Toughest Team doesn’t reinvent reality TV, it goes where similar shows rarely venture by putting the humanity of its subjects front and centre.