The Irish Mail on Sunday
RAISING the BANNER higher
We’ve no divine right to win another All-Ireland, but we’ll do everything we can, says Davy Fitzgerald
WHEN the Clare hurlers and an adoring public gathered at the West County Hotel in Ennis in December for the official medal presentation and banquet, even the menu was designed to reflect a magical summer’s odyssey and all the awards that followed.
First course? ‘Cream of Shane O’Donnell… The Perfect Starter.’
Next up? ‘Prime David McInerney… All Star main course’ or the alternative option: ‘Tony Kelly Catch… Fish of the Year & Young Fish of the Year’. And that all came before ‘Davy’s Trio of Just Desserts’.
Even the invitation was printed in the form of an All-Ireland final ticket, complete with ‘throwin time’ and ‘premium level’ admittance.
Typically, it took Ger Loughnane to add a note of stinging realism to the light tone. The man who guided Clare to All-Irelands in 1995 and ’97 warned the group present: ‘You will not be regarded as great unless you win again.’
One man begs to disagree. Davy Fitzgerald was goalkeeper on those medal-winning teams and is the living, breathing link to last year’s breakthrough as manager. ‘Ger’s entitled to his opinion,’ he says. ‘In my view, they’re a great team no matter what. We’ve only won four of them in 129 years. I don’t believe in putting that sort of pressure on the players.
‘If we don’t win another one in the next few years, you can never take away from what this group has achieved.’
It’s not a personal regret either that Clare’s second title during his playing days came with a year’s gap rather than back-to-back.
‘I just took ’95 for what it was. Really enjoyed it. Thought it was absolutely brilliant. Same in 1997.
‘And we probably could have done it another one or two times but we didn’t. Every year is different.
‘I’m certain that, whether we win another one or don’t win another one, it won’t take away from 2013 and the style in which we won it. If we win another one, we win one but if we don’t, we don’t.
‘We’ve achieved one goal and we’ll be doing everything we can to win it again. But we’ve no divine right to win it every year.’
He watched Kilkenny and Tipperary fight out a thrilling League final and has a matter-offact way of dealing with the question of whether the empire is getting ready to strike back.
‘It’s funny. When last September came I didn’t think of what happened the previous May. That should answer that question.’
Because, while the same pair contested the 2013 League final, Clare and Cork were scrapping it out to avoid relegation. And look how Championship 2013 worked out.
‘I’m sure there are a lot of teams out there apart from Tipperary and Kilkenny who are going to have a say.
‘In my opinion, it is fairly balanced. I don’t think we’re favourites but I think there are six or seven teams that can win the All-Ireland.’
CLARE took the scalps of Kilkenny and Tipperary in hugely i mpressive fashion en route to topping Division 1A, only to bow out tamely to the latter when they met again in the League semi-final, leaving plenty to wonder whe ther the All-Ireland champions pulled their punches.
‘No, Clare didn’t take a dive,’ insists Fitzgerald.
‘Tipperary were excellent on the day. They showed that they are there or thereabouts.’
Still, it just so happened that Clare flew out to Portugal the following weekend on a five-day warm-weather training camp, where the focus turned quickly to a Munster semi-final against the winners of Cork versus Waterford on June 15.
‘We worked very hard out there,’ explains Fitzgerald, describing how the trip was not a jolly in the sunshine but instead came with no frills attached. ‘No real luxury to tell you the truth. Very basic. It was all about getting down to hard work. I think the lads enjoyed it. They knew why they were there. I said it all year that I felt we were behind in our work. That would have made up a few weeks of ground. That one week – we wouldn’t have got as much done in two or three weeks at home.’
Fitzgerald tells how Clare soon became a hit with some of the other wide-eyed athletes in camp, the players preaching the hurling gospel to other far-flung parts of the world.
‘We were with a lot of different athletes. Two Olympic champions. It was an athlete-based environment which is what we wanted.
‘One fella from Germany who was the Olympic discus champion in London 2012 [Robert Harting] – a big guy. Some other Russian dude.
‘They were looking over at us hurling. They took away two hurleys then and went hurling. They loved it. Like we were telling them that it could be on Sky.
‘We got their email address. They were mad to have a look at it.’
Fitzgerald is buzzing just thinking again about two Olympians spreading the word about the Banner boys and the game he treasures. The world is the GAA’s oyster, he believes.
That is why he welcomes the Sky Sports Championship deal and the push to grow the game globally.
Nobody could ever accuse Fitzgerald of backward or conservative thinking, not with the tactical nous and finely-honed game plan that underpinned Clare’s success, a brand of smart, slick, skilful hurling capturing the nation’s attention. Yet he accepts that a certain minority didn’t want him in the job which he took on after managing Munster rivals Waterford, and his father’s influence in the appointment in the autumn of 2011 was questioned, Pat Fitzgerald being the long-standing secretary of the Clare county board.
‘It was tough. My own view is that my track record speaks volumes,’ he states.
‘I don’t think it would have taken Einstein to workout that I had the best CV that was there. But it wasn’t easy for him [Fitzgerald’s father] because everyone was looking at the fact that it was me coming in. ‘There was comments going around, “Oh you’re going to break the county board.”
‘I’d have heard ridiculous comments in Waterford that I was getting so much travelling expenses, this that and the other – I do this because I love it,’ he stresses.
‘The amount of time I put into this is unreal. It is probably 70 or 80 hours a week at times.
‘But I love it. He was getting stuff said about me which I’m sure wasn’t easy.
‘Me? I just don’t care [about criticism] any- more,’ he adds. There’s a lot of people out there who will support what I do because I put my heart into it. There’s a lot of people out there who haven’t a clue what I’m about – they’ll just have a cut anyway. That’s the way it goes. That’s the way we are in Ireland.’ To anyone who doubted, the faith of his father was vindicated in the events of last September when Clare claimed a crown few had predicted they were equipped to wear at the start of the summer.
‘I’m very proud to be working with my dad. He’s a very tough taskmaster with the Clare County Board. It’s his life. He gets a lot of stick in Clare from different people because he’s so tough but he’s one of the straightest guys I know. One of the hardest working guys I know.
‘His time with Clare proves that. He has been at the helm for over 20 years, the most successful time in Clare’s history. That is no coincidence. I’m very proud of what he has done.’
Family means so much to Fitzgerald.
Anumber of years back, he gifted the medals from his playing days to his mother and father. The first one Pat received was Fitzgerald’s breakthrough 1995 Munster medal, when the ‘curse of Biddy Early was laid to rest’, and described as his ‘most prized possession’ and handed over to his father as ‘an expression of his loyalty’.
Asked to pick one memory out of last summer’s journey, Davy settles on a personal one immediately after the Limerick game when Clare had guaranteed their place in the AllIreland decider.
‘When we won the All-Ireland semi-final, my young fella Colm coming out to me after the game,’ he recalls.
‘That would have been one of t he highlights for me last year. It’s great to have your family there.
‘He would have to listen to different things last year. I was getting stick, even though we were winning most of our games. He asked me one day: “You’re winning most of your games – why are they still giving out about you?”
‘That’s just the way people are. Some people are great at the auld talk; not great at the auld action. That meant a lot that day.’
He looks at the tidal wave of goodwill generated by Clare’s All-Ireland success and sees it as a badge of inspiration for anyone on the outside looking in.
‘What I love to see is, when people think there is no hope, there is always hope. I believe in the underdog. I believe in dreams.’