Fitzgerald’s Banner men braced for pivotal test

Victory over Cork would see the 2013 All-Ireland champions generate serious momentum

The hurling life of Davy Fitzgerald has been accompanied by the singularly fatalistic perspective from which he views the best and worst of days. Nobody will appreciate the nuances of meeting Cork in the first heavyweight knock-out match of the hurling summer more than the Clare manager.

Time does strange tricks. When Clare and Cork met in the 2013 final they spread a kind of magic dust across the country over two weekends in September and when it was over, Clare were the All-Ireland champions for the fourth time in their history.

Fitzgerald had been a central figure in three of those successes, as the diminutive lionhearted goalkeeper in the teams of 1995 and 1997 and as manager in 2013.

His apprenticeship as manager was public and sometimes painful, from the formidable reputation developed at Sigerson level to the peaks and troughs with Waterford. As Pat Donnellan, the Clare captain put it as he spoke from the steps of the Hogan Stand, Fitzgerald had acquired "a certain persona" through the media. None of that has diminished any since.

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The lodestone

Cork have acted as the lodestone for Clare and Fitzgerald’s turning points. It was after the June defeat to Cork in the

Munster

semi-final of 2013 that Davy Fitzgerald called the mass meeting at his house.

They were torn asunder by Cork that afternoon in the Gaelic Grounds, losing 0-23 to 0-15 after a second-half tempest which threw question marks over the short, intricate game which Fitzgerald was trying to implement. Afterwards, he asserted that Cork had won fair and square. But he was unhappy at a challenge John Conlon had shipped. He was unhappy at the officiating. He sensed what was coming down the tracks in the days ahead.

"That was a tough one to take," he would remember that September in an appearance on the Late Late Show, when Clare were All-Ireland senior and U-21 champions and the air was thick with talk of a new dynasty.

“We got a lot of stick from people even in our own county. We needed to put it to bed. I have so much time for these guys. I wanted to show them how much time and faith I had in them.”

That reflection contained the essence of Fitzgerald’s mantra as Clare manager. He can’t be just a manager when it comes to his own county. He is too close to the material. No manager likes losing. But as Clare manager, Fitzgerald absorbs every defeat as a mortal wound which he refuses to allow to kill him.

That night on the Late Late was largely a celebratory interview but Fitzgerald's conviction that future clouds are always gathering was close at hand.

“It’s great now, but we lose a game or two and trust me: that that will be back.”

Clairvoyant’s prediction

It was like a clairvoyant’s prediction. Maybe he knew then that his young team had surpassed itself and that consequent expectations would skyrocket.

Clare exited the 2014 championship winless, starting with a high-scoring five point Munster semi-final defeat to Cork. It was a season when the old order reasserted its supremacy: a classic All-Ireland final between Kilkenny and Tipperary which contained none of the fabulous element of that 2013 match.

Instead, Kilkenny were champions again and it felt like a portent of things to come. No team was under as much scrutiny as Clare in this year's league. Bare results suggested that the former champions were in freefall. Lost to Galway. Lost to Cork. Lost to Tipp. The defeats mounted up and didn't take account for the narrowness of the losses or the periods within the games when Clare had looked excellent.

The break they were looking for, a 2-22 to 2-20 win over Dublin came on the same Saturday as the story carried by this newspaper that two players had quit the panel.

One of those, Davy O'Halloran, detailed a series of disciplinary measures which he considered had left him humiliated. That, rather than Clare's victory, formed the theme for Fitzgerald's post-match discussion with reporters. Clare's league season came down to a relegation game against the All-Ireland champions. Clare gave their best performance of the year but fell to a late strike from Cillian Buckley, 1-18 to 1-17.

“We are absolutely gutted,” Fitzgerald said on Clare FM a few days later.

“I knew . . . I believed in my heart we were going to win today. But listen, they gave us everything they had. I know how tight the players are. I know how tight as a management they are. Listen, we have won four All-Irelands in 130 years. And just because we won U-21s doesn’t mean we have the right to go on and win this and that afterwards. That is rubbish.

Work harder

“There are teams like

Limerick

and Galway who have won titles like those and won nothing afterwards. We have to mind lads after winning. We have to keep their heads on the ground and work harder.

“And we will work harder. Can I say we are going to be successful this summer? I don’t know. But I can tell you one thing. Between this summer and the next two or three summers we will be working very hard to get a fifth All-Ireland back to Clare in 130 years.

“Keep things in perspective. Let’s not get carried away. That is what myself and the players try to do. And I would like to thank the genuine supporters that have stood behind us especially over this trying last month. They know what we are about.”

The address contained the key notes of Fitzgerald’s belief system.

Time and time again he goes into matches with the sense that he can will a victory out of the day through pure desire and faith. No matter how often or how hard he and his team get knocked, they will get right back up again. He has been consistent in that regard.

Just an hour after they won the All-Ireland, he singled out the work ethic of his players as their biggest asset.

“They exceeded my expectations, yes. My job is to keep the pressure off them as much as I can. But in my heart of hearts I knew anything was possible with them. I believe in them so much.”

A gift

That has always been plain to see. Fitzgerald has always been a man struggling to contain the emotion he feels for a county team. It makes him stand out; an obvious focus of attention for opposition supporters, a gift from heaven for the satirists.

There are days when he appears to feel that all kinds of powers are at work just to thwart his team and cannot hide his sense of injustice. He is often preoccupied by the role of the referees, believing that Clare cannot get a fair break. Sometimes he has reason. Sometimes not.

When Clare were pipped by TJ Ryan's young Limerick team, Fitzgerald's 'no comment' interview with Clare McNamara on RTÉ became the instant talking point. It inferred that if he said anything, he might say everything. So he kept it under wraps. Later, in an empty dressing room, he looked spent but spoke at length and spoke reasonably, hinting at his unhappiness at the officiating and reiterating his faith in the boys.

Last week’s qualifier win over Offaly was almost inevitable given how far the Faithful County have fallen in recent seasons. Still, you could hear the relief in Fitzgerald’s voice afterwards that he was walking out of a winning dressing room after a championship game, a relief that maybe they have shaken off the black dog.

The return from Boston of Colm Galvin restores one of the key instruments of the Clare game to the panel. A clear-the-air interview with the Clare Champion in June served to dispel the perception that Fitzgerald rules his squad with an iron fist.

This evening in Thurles, Fitzgerald and Clare find themselves in a familiar place. They are at a crossing point. He can point to what happened last time they went on a run through qualifiers.

Have they broken the bad spell? Not for the first time, they will find out through Cork.

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan is a features writer with The Irish Times