Sooner or later in Thurles tomorrow, the hurling will become so absorbing the audience in the stadium and watching across the country – the world – will forget the players have other lives too: that they fit work and scholarship and family and even occasional dumbass youthful exuberance around this capacity to mesmerise.
We forget it's just a game. Take Pat Donnellan, who lifted the Liam MacCarthy Cup on the back of Clare's irrepressible combination of flair and fearlessness three years ago. When he snapped his Achilles last February, his season was all but over. At 30 years of age, Brendan Bugler and Donnellan are the senior men in the squad and Donnellan and his wife are celebrating the arrival of their first baby. His job, in the sales division of a Shannon-based aviation painting company takes him across the Middle East and the US.
Leaving elite hurling aside, his is a busy, demanding life. The injury might have persuaded Donnellan to step aside for a year. Instead, he showed up at Clare’s training complex near Tulla all winter.
“He is thinking of the team,” rhapsodises Davy Fitzgerald in the dining area of the same training facility on a sunny midweek evening. Down the corridor, a group of young hurlers have commandeered the weights room and test the double-glazing with a blast of death metal.
“He rings me: can I do anything? Do you want me to talk to any lad? That is phenomenal but it breaks my heart because I’d love to see him out playing. He hasn’t been selfish. It is the same with the other guys. What can I do?”
The question is rhetorical but it reflects the new approach Fitzgerald and Clare have taken.There is a mellowness about their approach now that is striking to behold. Fitzgerald’s warning when Clare won the All-Ireland about tough days to come was prophetic and he understands he probably didn’t appreciate the rareness of that time. “When you are up there, there’s only one place you are going to go and you are probably going to get kicked left, right and centre and I probably knew that. I have regret: I f**king should have enjoyed it way more.
“That’s why the league, I’ve enjoyed it. I don’t know what’s going to happen the next day. I made a decision at the end of last year. I was getting kicked left right and centre in certain places and do you know what? I have fantastic people around me in Clare, love them. I have a great bunch of guys that stood by me unreal.
“And you know, I just made up my own mind to stay inside that. I can’t do anything about what ye write or what other people say. That would have bothered me a lot probably at one stage. Now that’s it, I can do what I can do, I’ve been so lucky. When I think back on it, Clare wouldn’t have been a historic county. I’ve been so lucky. I’ve got to play on the biggest days, I’ve got to win on the biggest days and I’ve got to win everything as a manager. Donal Óg [Cusack] actually said to me; ‘boy, you’ve done everything, what are you at?’ I was thinking, let’s enjoy it.”
Fitzgerald in full flow is a heartening reminder of what separates the GAA from actual professional sport. The language of professionalism and the rehashing of buzzwords and the reliance on statistical evidence helps to maintain the veneer of professionalism but the great appeal of Gaelic games is that it possesses an irrational heart: the participants are lost in this simply because they want to be.
Almost alone in elite management, Fitzgerald is honest enough to acknowledge and reflect upon the emotional pull of being involved with the team. The day he stops doing this – the day he resorts to the GAA’s burgeoning book of stock phrases – is the day something will be lost.
Right now, in early summer, he seems to have made peace with the fact he can only control so much, that while he is a key figure in the great seasonal opera, he is still just a player.
“People will have this thing that I will be roaring and shouting in the dressing-room and driving them mad. No! There is a lot more to life. Let’s really look at what is happening around us. There are big problems out there. There are people who are very young and they are struggling with health. Feckin hell. We are going out playing a game of hurling. The bigger the day, the better. We made mistakes the last day and it nearly cost us.
“I guarantee not one thing was said to those players about making a mistake. It might happen the next day. If they give me everything and we walk in having left every single ounce outside there, I am telling you, there will be shake hands from Clare and fair play . . . but Jesus, it is not a big deal. We will be doing everything and will be disappointed for a few hours. But life is a funny thing and I don’t think we appreciate it enough and when we look at it . . . there was someone recently in their mid-40s I know who passed away. And I was thinking . . . Davy, boy, I am f**ken involved in hurling here. And there is abuse and this that and the other. But this is a f**ken game. Go out and let it rip. There is a lot at stake. But we will give it everything and if that’s good enough, that’s fine. If it isn’t, that’s it.”
There is no doubting Fitzgerald’s sincerity when he is saying this: there is equally no doubt that should Clare lose by, say, a point tomorrow after having a last-minute penalty unfairly awarded against them, Fitzgerald will have a hard time accepting his own words in the aftermath. He will have to go through his process: retreat, draw the curtains, think it out, get back out and start again. But win or lose, it is tempting to believe that Clare have reached a new level of self-understanding.
“Even at work, people say that we look like a different team,” says Donnellan.
“We do. But if you ask any of the guys it would be hard to put a finger on one thing. Maybe it was a hangover from 2013, but it if was we didn’t feel it. It wasn’t as if our bodies felt tired, but when we came to this year guys seemed to have more energy and then with the new back-room team coming in, it all seemed to build towards the potential for a good year. Fresh voices can have as much of an impact as anything. It doesn’t have to be anything radical.”
As well as planning without Donnellan, Clare will also be missing David McInerney, John Conlan and Conor Ryan against Waterford. These are significant losses but Clare managed to win the league without them.
Fitzgerald’s sharp eye for a player’s potential and versatility has been most recently reflected through the recalibration of David Reidy from promising corner forward to the nimble and industrious midfield player who exerted such influence in the league finals. Reidy watched the 2013 All-Ireland final from the stands and hadn’t even properly featured for the Clare under-21s when he was invited to train with the seniors.
“It was a big surprise,” he says. It means he has no idea how this year’s mood compares to the attitude post-2013. But having walked into the dressing-room of the All-Ireland champions he is as burningly aware as the seniors that the team has not fired for the past two seasons. The league triumph over Waterford suggested they have managed to retrieve the confidence and boldness which underlined their play.
“We are taking it game by game,” Reidy says. “We haven’t done ourselves justice so the only option is to go game by game.”
His role is to somehow create space and forward momentum in the antic middle third of the pitch. “You need someone with energy levels anyway because it is so tight,” he laughs of his role. The pitch might look big but when you are inside there with maybe 20 bodies there is not much room about. The grip has to be short! There wasn’t space either day. They close it something unbelievable.”
Stifle their opportunity
If anything, it will be even more claustrophobic tomorrow. Waterford will try to do to Clare what they do against every other team: stifle their opportunity to attack, pressure and harry them.
Donnellan believes the two recent games are just further evidence of the natural progression of the sport.
“As a player, what I appreciate is the basics: the touch under pressure, people being able to keep their head up under a pressure situation. To see a guy hitting a ball 100 yards up into the sky is not a huge skill in my book. The game has evolved and I know the GAA is amateur but the mindset is professional. Everyone wants to win so you have to change tactics and go with the way the game is changing. Now it is a running-based game. Catch and hit style is still there but having the ball is key. And if you give it away easy you will be punished.”
It echoes what Fitzgerald said. Left loose, both teams can cause damage. It’s a coin toss as to who will triumph but Clare seem ready to absorb both sides of the equation now.
“I think Clare over the next few years will be very competitive,” said Fitzgerald. “I think that those lads, if they mind themselves, if they stay level-headed, if they stay grounded . . . and it is a very important thing in the GAA that we make sure if they have success or whatever that there’s only a certain lifespan in this.
“You could be in a little bubble for a while. I’ve tried my very best to make sure that we can cope with that, I think we are an ordinary bunch that works extremely hard and whatever comes, comes.”