Davy Fitzgerald is back. Back in intercounty management. Back in Waterford. Back – the place some argue you should never go.
“I reckon that’s a load of bulls**t,” smiles Fitzgerald. “Who came up with that saying or what the story is with it, I don’t know. I don’t buy it anyhow, that’s why I’m back.
“Jack O’Connor [in Kerry], there have been numerous different occasions where people have gone back. You’re kind of going back but you’re not really going back to the same bunch. There is hardly any of the bunch I worked with still there.”
Fitzgerald’s first spell as Waterford manager ended in 2011. He was parachuted in midway through the 2008 season, following Justin McCarthy’s departure. Fitzgerald steered Waterford to an All-Ireland final that summer, but they were overpowered and outplayed by Brian Cody’s all-conquering Kilkenny. He did manage Waterford to a Munster title in 2010, and that remains the county’s last provincial senior triumph.
Still, it is clear – just as it was with O’Connor’s return to Kerry – the goal is not to build a team for the future or win a Munster Championship, Fitzgerald has been brought back to unearth the Holy Grail. He is too long around the game now not to know that, but equally he is too long around to be openly admitting it.
“Any manager going in to one of the top teams would feel you have a chance. Looking at the last few years, it looks like Limerick are a bit ahead, that’s just being realistic, being honest,” he says.
“Hopefully over the next two or three years we can challenge. The one thing I want to say over the next two or three years is I gave Waterford an opportunity. All you can do is give a team an opportunity.
“Thankfully, most places I have been, that has happened. Whether you take it or not is a different thing. But I want to give them an opportunity to see can we win Munster, win an All-Ireland. I’m not going to make any rash statements that we’re going to do X, Y and Z. The only thing I want to do is give them an opportunity to win one of them.”
Following that first spell in Waterford, Fitzgerald went on to complete his full set of managerial achievements – winning an All-Ireland and National League with his native Clare before adding a Leinster title with Wexford.
He returns to Waterford knowing that while many are pleased to see him back, there are others harbouring doubts.
“I’m under no illusions that there are a certain amount of people in Waterford will love me being back and there are a certain amount of people will think ‘why go back?’.
“All I’ll say to them is, my record isn’t too bad normally with teams that are finding it hard to get over the line.
“I’m very hungry. I think the way I see the game isn’t bad. I believe anything is possible. The only thing I would say to the people that love me or mightn’t like me is don’t judge, just give the man the two or three years and if he’s able to do something great and if he’s not, fine.
“I think we have to stop this thing and stop being like the Premiership, looking to get rid of lads straight away. I would just hope these people give me the two or three years to get this spot on and if I can’t then I won’t need to be hanging around myself, I know the story. All I can promise the Waterford people is I’ll give it everything I have.”
The hope in Waterford is that Fitzgerald’s experience can now get this group over the line to win the county’s first All-Ireland SHC since 1959.
When he entered the Waterford dressing room in 2008, it was stuffed with strong characters such as Ken McGrath, Dan Shanahan, Tony Browne, John Mullane and Brick Walsh.
“I was probably in my mid-thirties, I was just finished playing,” he recalls. “So I was fairly thrown in at the deep end the last time. In 2008 I was going in for three months, I ended up there for three-and-a-half years. It was a learning experience, it definitely was, and I’d like to think I grew from that when I went to Clare, I grew from Clare going to Wexford and hopefully I’ll have matured a bit more coming in here again.”
One of the standout inclusions in his backroom team is that of former Tipperary captain Eoin Kelly, who had played under Fitzgerald with Limerick IT. Fitzgerald has also drafted former Ireland and Munster rugby player Donncha O’Callaghan.
When Fitzgerald put the proposal on the table to Kelly, he knew the Tipp factor would have to be addressed.
“I said to him, ‘I know you love your county, but this is different. I know you’ve played 15-plus years with them, you’ve helped out in the backroom team, you’ve coached, maybe try something different.’
“I’m a Clare man and some people will say, ‘Ah, he was with Wexford, Waterford’. I will always love my county. I played with them for 18 years, I managed them for five. I spent 23 years of my life being involved with my county. Eoin Kelly has given so much time with his county. Like, do they want us to sit at home and do nothing? Just put us on the shelf and do nothing?
“I’ll put it to you this way, I’m as excited as I’ve ever been. I’m as enthusiastic, I’m as energetic, I’m buzzing.”
Yep, Davy Fitzgerald is back.
Davy Fitzgerald was speaking at the announcement Londis will sponsor Ireland’s Fittest Family for the fourth year in a row, with the show returning to RTÉ on Sunday October 2nd for a tenth season.