Clare saga highlights the nightmarish side of the dreamy GAA tradition

Is the humiliation of promising young players not too high a price for glory?

Davy Fitzgerald:  Reiterated his certainty that nobody had been treated unfairly before stonewalling all-comers. Photograph: INPHO

Davy Fitzgerald: Reiterated his certainty that nobody had been treated unfairly before stonewalling all-comers. Photograph: INPHO

 

The common observation after the kind of internecine conflict which broke out in the Clare hurling panel last week is that there are no winners. And all of that may be true but the person who has indisputably lost the most is the former Clare hurler Davy O’Halloran, who is all of 22-years-old.

Since speaking his mind in this newspaper last Saturday, the Éire Óg man has found himself light years away from a sporting group and a sport which has presumably been at the epicentre of his life since he was a child. It must be a lonely place in which to be.

Clare is one of those GAA counties which are inexplicably prone to incendiary episodes that seem scripted by the creators of HBO dramas. This period of internal strife was sufficiently grave for RTE’s Six One news to solicit the views of Morrissey - Marty, not Stephen Patrick - in an interview with Evanne Ní Chuilinn, following a statement released by the Clare panel.

Marty is from Clare and it must have been a dismaying story for him. He was thorough in his appraisal of what happened while allowing that the Clare manager, Davy Fitzgerald, at whom Davy O’Halloran had directed his unhappiness was “a players’ man 100 per cent”. That may well be true and we have to assume that the Clare panel are as certain in their conviction that O’Halloran’s portrayal of events in his Irish Times interview is not fully accurate, just as much as O’Halloran believes his perception of events. But the most important part of what O’Halloran said is beyond any interpretation or objection.

He said that the punishment handed out to himself and Nicky O’Connell - training separate to the main panel and having no dialogue with them, not allowed wear the official training gear, not allowed travel to matches - had left him feeling “humiliated.” Only O’Halloran can know what it felt like to actually show up at training and to endure this separation for what was to have been a scheduled three weeks.

His belief that a more senior player had been spared the same punishment despite admitting a more serious transgression deepened his sense of unfairness. Clearly, he found it intolerable. Clearly, he didn’t walk away from the panel for the fun of it and he can’t be enjoying very much the feeling of being at the epicentre of an intense week of media coverage of the row. If O’Halloran was in Coventry before he left the Clare panel, then where is he now?

And how does Fitzgerald feel about this? After Clare beat Dublin last Saturday afternoon, Fitzgerald knew that he would face a thousand and one questions about that morning’s interview. He took them on by reiterating his certainty that nobody had been treated unfairly and then stonewalling all comers: Clarence Darrow himself couldn’t have persuaded Fitzgerald to elaborate further. The terse statement released midweek by the Clare panel offered substance to Fitzgerald’s conviction that the squad was fully unified.

Because the explanation and comments from Fitzgerald and the panel have been so gnomic they have created, inadvertently or otherwise, the notion that O’Halloran and Nicky O’Connell had deserted of their own accord. Something doesn’t quite add up about that line of thinking though. Until a few weeks ago, O’Halloran and O’Connell were in it up to their necks with the rest of the players, hurling, running, hurting, lifting. They were part of this cause. Then they did something which contravened the code of conduct which the panel presumably agreed with management. “Being out” and drinking minerals is hardly going off the rails. As O’Halloran pointed out, both were injured and not even in the reckoning for selection.

Most of us live our lives outside the near-religious fervour with which elite GAA players dedicate themselves to the idea of being a team. To outsiders, this Clare row must seem like the height of insanity. And it is but then, the entire tradition of the All-Ireland hurling and football championships is built upon an idea that is undeniably beautiful but at some other level is also undeniably insane.

The extremes through which squads go from autumn until summer to try and win a big piece of silverware for their county both insane and magical. Nothing changes and yet everybody in the county is transported by the idea of being All-Ireland champions. And many county teams have no real chance of winning anything but its players purge themselves anyhow.

In Clare, Davy Fitzgerald is a son of one of the most infamously punishing training regimes in GAA history. Ger Loughnane’s team responded to the frustration of belonging to a county that couldn’t win by channelling a collective fury. Mike McNamara, the coach, broke the 1994/95 squad down to build them up. “Very few players would come back to question what I had written. Davy Fitzgerald would but then Davy loves to question everything,” McNamara wrote in his memoir To Hell and Back.

When he read an article in which Fitzgerald had said he needed a specialist hurling coach, McNamara responded by having other keepers smashing 150 sliotars at his number one, time after time. That ended that. Fitzgerald was and is a unique figure: physically small and ferociously determined. In Last Man Standing, Christy O’Connor’s definitive book on hurling goalkeepers, there is an unforgettable yarn about Fitzgerald contesting for the senior Clare spot with Leo Doyle of Bodyke.

Fitzgerald knew that Doyle worked in Shannon and so got out of his bed and cycled to a place on the road where he knew his adversary would drive by every morning. He hit a ball against the wall until the car past and then cycled home again. Just to have the other guy thinking. When Fitzgerald began to contest the Poc Fada, his entourage included a masseur and people who would familiarise him with the cartography of the course.

His chronicling of the verbal abuse he took from behind the wires at games - about his marriage, his parenting, himself - is disturbing to read. After winning the All-Ireland as manager with Clare in 2013, he gave a powerful account of the bullying he was subjected to in school on radio with Miriam O’Callaghan. He had to learn the hard way how to stand up for himself and how to fight back; how to never back down from anything or anyone. There was a little of that this week.

Fitzgerald was shaped by 1980s and 1990s Ireland and the contemporary GAA: the school of hard knocks. He must have had limitless courage to come through what he did. Now, he is the guy shaping Clare’s best young hurlers. He is presumably privately appalled at the idea that he has humiliated a young player. Equally, he may be absolute in his sense that he has conducted himself in the right way. The purpose of the punishment was probably supposed to achieve the opposite: purgatory followed by a welcoming back into the fold and a stronger sense of togetherness.

It didn’t work. Maybe it would have been better for Davy O’Halloran to try and resolve his issues internally. But this is a young player, not a senior figure in the team. Things played out as they did. Clare - Fitzgerald, the hurling panel, the supporters - will move on: matches will be played, people will forget. They are a superbly talented bunch and in Fitzgerald they have a leader with uncommon zeal: they may win big stuff this summer.

But that doesn’t change the fact that there is a hollowness emanating from the message emanating from the Clare camp this week. O’Halloran and O’Connell were their teammates. Does that count for nothing? Can they really move on without a backwards glance? And if so, at what cost in five months or five years time?

And it doesn’t change the fact that the GAA, with it its prevailing value system and the seemingly perpetual pressure on all squads and managers to push themselves to the brink and to exclude the sort of common social experiences of all twenty-somethings, has failed Davy O’Halloran.

It is a grand and dreamy tradition, the GAA and the All-Ireland pursuit. But what happened in Clare this week has made it all seem a bit small and joyless and may make other promising young players wonder what in the hell it is all about.

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