Getting to the heart of the real Davy Fitz
Clare manager wears his heart is on his sleeve. He has just learned to live with the caricatures
“I love hurling. But there are more important things in life. Your family and your health. Hurling is . . . it is fun and enjoyment and it gets you excited. I think we all need something. It doesn’t have to be hurling.” Photograph: Inpho
What winds Davy Fitzgerald up? And who is he anyhow? Yes, he is still – always – the fiercely energetic and fine goalkeeper in a Clare group that seemed not so much a hurling team as a vital popular movement for the silenced majority. But those All-Ireland winning teams of 1995 and ’97 began to fragment almost 20 years ago.
Luminosity fades on all great teams and yet their firebrand number one has stayed vivid. He is known as “Davy” within the hurling world and beyond it, too. Yes, he is the sketch with the helium-balloon voice and the comical intensity made famous by Mario Rosenstock. Yes, he is the manic coach on Ireland’s Fittest Family, the television show, exhorting a Nike-ed and lycra-ed nuclear unit to beat their opposition on an obstacle course as though the very future of mankind depended on it.
Yes, the dog in the street in Clare has an opinion about Davy Fitz. Yes, if you ask around enough you will find plenty of evidence of a big heart in that small frame: of generosities small and big that remain unreported.
Yes, he chose the day after Clare’s transcendent, Saturday evening All-Ireland final replay win to go on the radio and tell all to Miriam’s listeners that this leader-of-men was actually bullied something silly as a teenager.
“Man, it just came out,” he explains, fixing you with the pale blue eyes. He is sitting back on a luxuriant sofa in a hotel lobby while outside, Storm What’s-Its-Face is doing its best to make a bog out of JP McManus’s fairways and the rest of Co Clare.
“I didn’t mean it probably to come out. You’d be speaking off the cuff and I just said it. I was asked the question and I gave an answer.”
Helpless candourSometimes the helpless candour of his answers gets him in trouble. More recently, his live interview minutes after Clare were beaten by Limerick when he played hostile witness to a perfectly reasonable line of questioning by RTÉ’s Clare McNamara didn’t do his public reputation any favours. He can’t help but think you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
Everyone knows “Davy” but how many actually know him? That’s the question that has become kind of a consolation to him. On the day before we met, he went to the funeral of the father of his friend and former teammate Fergie Touhy. Afterwards, he took a training session. The weather was relentlessly awful: howling wind, bright sky and rain. The radio was full of talk about the late Terry Wogan and the start of the new GAA football leagues, which is always like the first bell of the season.
“You are thinking: here we go. It’s starting. Back in the firing line.”
And all of it – life, death, hurling – was swirling around in his head. He saw most of the ’95 guys at the funeral. As it happened, he has remained close friends with Touhy.
“That’s a guy I played with and his dad would have supported us for years. When times seem bad, it gives you a little shot to realise what it’s actually about. You will always have the ’95 or ’97 team. They were super times back then and I’d admire so many of them. As Fergie always reminds me he scored five points in the final and he was a massive part of that team. So it is important you just be there, in a small way, at times like this. To me the most important thing in life is life.”
He repeatedly says “there is a line drawn under last year”, as if to remind himself as much as the rest of us. That Clare have won just one championship match since their irresistible September is the short version of two summers packed with heartache and emotionally draining afternoons. Like everyone else in the hurling universe, Fitzgerald is continually grappling with the omnipotence of Brian Cody: at the rage within the machine. He sat in the crowd near the touchline for the 2010 final and didn’t so much watch the hurlers of Tipperary and Kilkenny as the tall man in the peaked cap.
“I wanted to see what makes this guy tick, what is he. Kilkenny were attacking in the first few minutes but he wasn’t looking at that. He was looking down at the defensive match-up, one and ones. It was unreal that day – I remember Tommy Walsh in at full back at one stage. And he gave one or two messages and it was fairly vocal.
“In 2013 they were taking stick and people were saying Cody is finished or whatever. And it is true, what you say. He never took no notice of that whatsoever. He got rid of a lot of high-profile guys as well. And one thing about Kilkenny in fairness, anything that is there they keep it to themselves and deal with it. The way they do their business – it is always kept in house. And it is about winning for Brian Cody. And I admire that.”
Sideline altercationHe only once had a sideline altercation with Cody, back in 2004, in the twilight of his playing career. Clare playing Kilkenny and the memory of Cody bestriding – thundering – on the sideline a week earlier against Galway fresh in his mind. Davy laughs now, tickled at the thought of the confrontation.
“He was unbelievable that day, behind the goal and everywhere. And whatever got into my head as a Clare player I said ‘this f**kin’ lad isn’t going to do that to us now’. So after the parade I ran over to him and I gave it to him. Left, right and centre. Before the match even started – ‘You try any of that shit today . . . whatever.’ And a few months later we both found ourselves at a dinner dance up in Derry. He was there and I was there. And he told the whole dinner dance what I’d done. Sure, he’d only be laughing.”
When Fitzgerald kept goal, the demonic fire within him informed his style of play. He was like a man who had drank a gallon of Colombian premium brew, all nervous energy behind the Lohan brothers, who in comparison evinced a kind of Easter Island statue implacability. “I was better wired,” he confirms.” I would be way better wired than calm. I’d be at my best when I’m on edge. I wasn’t a good player relaxed.”
Now, as manager, he does his best to keep the physical energy suppressed. He nods at The Sunday Game clips which capture him going berserk on the sideline, sizing up a linesman or hopping-mad at a call. “I wish they had a camera on me for the full 70 minutes. For most of it, I am standing watching the game with my arms folded. I like to read a game. On the sideline it is tougher . . . you would read it better in the stands. But if you see something really bad, well, my heart is on my sleeve. That’s it.”
That’s it. He surrenders himself to it. An internal competitiveness is probably the driving force of his life. “Massive,” he sighs. “Maybe one of my downfalls too.”
For years, he has gone playing cards on a Thursday night with his mother’s friends. When Mike and Irene were alive, they’d meet in the Greyhound bar. “I’d ring down to see what the story was and Irene would be on the phone saying come down, come down. My mam, who probably wasn’t meant to be smoking ,might be having a drag here or there. My mother would be signallin’ to her: no, no. But the crack was brilliant. You’d be f**king dying to win those games. God rest Mike and Irene. Now we play them in my house and some of my friends will come along too. And we fight like anything. There is always a few quid. T’isn’t massive. I love it. It is great to get to do with mam. That is one of the reasons I do it ,even though I try to beat her every time.”
His mother is a Mulvihill from Limerick and his father Pat is the long-standing county secretary with Clare. “He hurled a bit and is competitive out. So between the two of them, I was in trouble.”
But it was through watching his uncle John, a farmer and an O’Callaghan’s Mills all-weather hurler, that he got the spark that won’t leave. “He played junior and senior. He was tough as nails. I’d go to every game with him. Man, that was so cool. My first game was in Thurles around ’78. Looking at Séamus Durack and Noel Skehan and I knew that is where I wanted to play.
“Even now I’d be so excited talking to Noel Skehan because he was one of the guys who made me want to hurl. Beside our house was an old factory and I’d be beating the ball off the wall. John Lynch, the minor captain of ’81, lived a few doors down and I’d always be at him to come out. I’d spend hours out there. When I look back I’d treasure that more than playing because you are looking up and there is dreams there, but to be out in the mill hitting the ball . . . that was happy. That was unreal.”
ProfileHe still lives just outside Sixmilebridge, a local at the club, but because of his profile as Clare hurling manager and his recent television role as a mentor on Ireland’s Fittest Family, also a recognised face beyond the game. Fitzgerald doesn’t drink and pubs aren’t his scene. You might see him in around the local shops to buy messages. He hopes he is friendly but knows he is reserved too.
“I don’t like imposing on other people. You know . . . there’s your man, he thinks he’s unreal. I’d talk to anyone but I don’t want to be in their faces. People maybe think you being stuck up. But if I think people are genuine I will chat away. If I think they are piss-takers I will sort that out fairly quick. But I don’t want to be going in bouncing around the place.”
Hurling absorbs so much of his time that he values the free time he has on his own, going to the cinema or battling against his handicap on the fairways of Dromoland Castle. When Clare lose big games, he goes home and draws the blinds and gathers his two Bichon dogs around him and flicks around Sky movies until he finds something old; ideally until he finds John Wayne. “Trying to get my mind to stop .If I can.”
Does it ever stop? Davy Fitzgerald smiles his half smile. Maybe. Maybe once a year when, in the dead of winter, he tries to make it his business to escape to America. Myrtle Beach is one of his favourite places on earth but really, anywhere in the States: endless road, big sky and hurling behind him on the far side of the Atlantic ocean.
When he turned 40, his partner Sharon surprised him with a fabulous trip; a camper van from San Francisco all the way over to Florida and up to New York for six weeks. He had his hurling notepad so he could sketch future plans. Sharon kept at him to leave it down and somewhere around Monterrey he just let go of the tensions he has carried all the way through. He let go of the hurling.
“I love America anyhow,” Davy enthuses. “It feels so good. You are anonymous and you can go down the fairway and worry about nothing. There is a lot of warmth out there and people seem to be in good form. I love that. I love the glass being half full. It drives me mad people saying, ah the weather is awful. If you are alive and well things aren’t too bad. I have gone through tough times money wise and business wise, same as a lot of people around here. But being nice to people . . . it isn’t a big thing.”
Tomorrow, Clare open their 2016 league campaign by hosting Offaly, the other soul-insurgents of the 1990s, in Cusack Park. Fitzgerald is determined the blackboard be wiped clean. Last year hurt. The results pierced him. The criticism from Ger Loughnane and former teammates hurt. He felt the portrayal of how an internal squad issue was handled was unfair. Sometimes it felt like the shrapnel has been raining down from all corners of the sky.
“You are not going to change people’s opinions. Maybe that is what you have to learn to accept. Would I have made mistakes with the team since the All-Ireland? Of course. I could have walked in 2013 – won my All-Ireland and gone. But I felt I had a responsibility to make sure my young bunch stayed grounded as possible. I said it to the lads when we won the All-Ireland: there is going to come days that are pretty tough. There have been days that have hurt but I have to leave them behind me.”
Too sensitiveMaybe he is too sensitive, too quick to respond, to take umbrage, to be hurt. And maybe that comes from the past too. He has bumped into the guys that bullied him back in his schooldays and elected not to bring it up. “We’d chat away. Maybe in their minds, it might not have been that much. It might have been pure crack to them. Everyone makes mistakes and changes. If you carry something like that about, it will eat you up.”
He believes he isn’t really capable of holding a grudge. He believes he is basically a private person who has come to lead a public kind of life in spite of himself. When he talks about those he really cares about, it is well defined group. He talks about his family. He talks about his son, Colm, who hurled midfield for the Clare minors last summer, with unabashed pride. He has learned to counsel himself to stay away from Colm’s training sessions because he can’t help himself then. He is too close to the material.
“He is an absolutely unbelievable young fella. I love his demeanour. I feel sorry for him at times because he is always going to be Davy Fitz’s son. Colm is his own man. I remember even a year or two ago the doing he got on social media was totally wrong. It was on a forum and he read it and was in pieces.
“I’m probably harder on Colm than anyone and I try not to get involved in his teams because I feel I push him way more. But it is hard when you see that. As I said, that is just a few people having that view. Leave it and drive on. He is a good young fella and he is not afraid to tell you what he thinks.”
He has his circle of friends and his backroom team, which this year has grown into a kind of United Nations of hurling staff. Paul Kinnerk, trainer in 2013, is back and Donal Óg Cusack, the former Cork goalkeeper and an arch-rival on the playing field has been recruited. Their newfound collegiality is about the most surprising Irish friendship since the bromance between big Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness.
“I believe Donal Óg is really intelligent and knowledgeable and cares about the game. As does Aonghus [O’Brien, coach], Jimmy [Payne, strength and conditioning], Paul, Louis [Mulqueen, selector], Mike [Browne, selector]. Trust me . . . any of these guys I brought in I didn’t bring in to be yes men. Louis and Mike? They will give it to you. It isn’t what Davy likes to hear. I can promise you that.”
The only other thing he can promise is that he will throw every ounce of himself into getting the Clare team back on the right track. He is content that despite the myths – the 4am training sessions – that he is no slave driver. He is content that as a squad, they know how to have a bit of fun and that the players know he cares for them as people. He believes that. He understands only now –“two-sixteen” as he calls the year – he can begin to sit back and appraise hurling, this game that kept him spellbound. He nods when asked if hurling is even important.
“I love hurling. But there are more important things in life. Your family and your health. Hurling is . . . it is fun and enjoyment and it gets you excited. I think we all need something. It doesn’t have to be hurling. Whether it is that game of cards or going out for that walk. It’s important to get out and do stuff and get involved. But you realise there’s more important things in life than hurling.”
Of course, try whispering that to him on June 5th of this year, when you will find him on the sideline in Semple Stadium as Clare and Waterford rise dust and history before a crowded house. Try offering the Zen perspective then, if the Banner are up or down by a single point and see how far it gets you. He knows how it looks from the outside. But . . .
“From the outside...it doesn’t bother me,” says Davy Fitzgerald. “How many people really know you? My players know me. You can only be who you are.”