THIS week and for as long as the Clare hurlers are still in the championship, Davy Fitzgerald should be concentrating on managing the county team. They have an All-Ireland quarter-final to prepare for and that should be his number one priority.
Fitzgerald’s interview on Newstalk on Tuesday evening clearly suggests that his full concentration is not on that task. Aside from post-match comments to reporters, what other manager gives wide-ranging one-on-one interviews 12 days before a season-defining game?
Regarding his “horrendous” comment on local media coverage of the hurling team, what type of coverage would he be happiest with? Presumably, coverage that doesn’t even lightly question anything related to how he manages the team. Every media outlet in Clare lauded Fitzgerald and his panel when they won the All-Ireland in 2013. However, since then Clare have stuttered badly and won just a single championship game in 2014 and 2015. How could any half-decent journalist ignore that and pretend that the emperor did indeed have clothes, when his team was clearly floundering?
So, while it was only fair that Fitzgerald was given plenty of credit for managing Clare to their fourth All-Ireland title, ignoring the disastrous results that followed in the two subsequent years would have left the media is this county completely bereft of any creditability. Would any other serious hurling county have persisted with a manager capable of winning just one championship game in 24 months of hurling, along with getting relegated to Division 1B?
Brian Cody has won 11 All-Ireland titles, 15 Leinster championships and eight national league titles since his appointment in November 1998. Yet, if Cody only led Kilkenny to a win over Offaly in two years of championship hurling, would he be left in charge? Very unlikely. Either he would walk himself or the Kilkenny County Board would have a word and even a manager as great as Brian Cody would get the message.
Davy Fitzgerald should be very grateful that he is still the Clare senior hurling manager, given how his team performed in 2014 and 2015. Clare have won a single Munster championship game during his five-year tenure. That’s an unavoidable fact.
Again, in the interests of fairness, it must be said that Clare have clearly improved significantly this year. Winning the league title for the first time since 1978 confirms that. Beating Tipperary and Kilkenny in the quarter and semi-finals added weight to that achievement.
It has been noted that if Waterford had a reliable free-taker available for the drawn league final, they would have won but that type of “what if” scenario applies to virtually every team in all sports. If Jimmy Cooney had a decent watch on him in 1998, Clare might have won that year’s All-Ireland. The records show that Offaly did though, however they managed it. Clare are 2016 league champions and that’s that.
If they beat Galway, the year will go down as one in which they at least returned to the higher echelons of hurling. Reaching and competing in an All-Ireland semi-final would be significant progress and would back up the league win. Defeat to Galway, however, will unquestionably lead to rigorous questions being asked of the Clare players and their management team. That’s sport at this level. The highest-profile people in this county are the county hurling manager and his players. When things go well, they are inundated with credit but when they don’t perform, they cannot expect that to be conveniently ignored.
By virtue of whipping up this latest storm, all by himself, Fitzgerald has heaped pressure on his team. Their championship displays to date have been very mixed, losing to Waterford by seven points, who in turn lost by 21 points to Tipperary. Clare did play some fluent hurling against Limerick but didn’t bury them in the manner a potential All-Ireland winning team might.
Ger Loughnane has already fired up Galway by calling them “gutless”, following their Leinster final defeat to Kilkenny. It is not within the bounds of possibility that Galway will rip into Clare with an un-Galway like ferocity and knock them out of the championship. If that happens, Davy Fitzgerald’s role will again come under scrutiny. Much will depend on the performance and not merely the result but Clare should be subject to objective analysis as much as any other county.
Fitzgerald is very lucky in another respect, though. He has an outstanding group of player available to him. On and off the field, they represent this county admirably. They are an intelligent, grounded group, who are capable of hurling any team off the field this championship. Their manager need to recognise that, keep his thoughts to himself and let his players’ hurling do the talking.
By Peter O’Connell