Shane Stapleton: One conversation with Davy Fitzgerald blew apart some of my preconceptions about him

The Clare hurling manager has announced that he is stepping down

You can never keep a full panel of players happy, that’s just the nature of it.

You might be lucky enough to keep the dissenting voices quiet if the results are good and everyone feels they’re part of something special, but that’s rare. Put it this way: if news that Brian Cody was going to move TJ Reid to midfield while drafting in Liam Blanchfield and Mark Bergin for the All-Ireland semi-final replay with Waterford made it out, then you know loose words can spread from any camp.

Firstly, a spade that we can easily identify as a spade: Davy Fitz was never going to be the most universally popular of managers. You can’t be as abrasive as he is and not draw fire on yourself. As a journalist, there’s an upshot to his firebrand ways, he’s one of these men who we might term as “box office”. The man sells papers because people want to know: what is he saying this time? For different reasons, Kieran McGeeney falls into the same bracket — we just want to let the man take the podium.

After Clare were beaten in the 2015 Munster championship by Limerick, I remember being so taken by the almost trance-like state of the then Clare manager that I pulled out my camera phone to record it for posterity (it’s been deleted since). Head bowed, eyes mostly closed and clearly emptied from a one-point defeat, the overriding impact was: is this guy okay? We all wondered again after his heart problems this year.

The day after that Limerick loss, I wrote a newspaper column about how Clare were in danger of killing the goose that was laying the golden eggs. The nub of which being that they had a wealth of underage talent coming through, but that a combination of public spats, player indiscipline on the field and issues over dual players was costing them playing resources.

So Tuesday May 26 2015, the phone rings as I sit at the kitchen table eating lunch with my GAA-loving housemate.

"Hello," I say.

"Hello, is that Shane?"

"It is, yeah."

"How are you Shane? This is Davy Fitzgerald here."

My housemate can hear the voice on the other end of the line, and he shoots a look up to me. He sees me facepalm and silently mouth the words: oh b*****! I knew it was about the column, of course I did. Not that I didn’t believe in what I’d written, but I was now expecting both barrels from a man known for his own version of the hairdryer treatment.

He was unhappy with aspects of the piece, notably a suggestion that their red card (a fourth in three championship games) through Patrick Donnellan was the latest symptom of an unhappy camp. Apparently the player in question had rang him about the article asking "what the f*** is this lad on about?", and perhaps he had.

As I told Davy, because he never answers the phone (hence why I didn’t even have it saved for when he called me), it’s hard to get his side of the story. Johnny Giles always said it best — "you can only go on the evidence of what you see" — which is what it was written on. And while the expectation was anger from the Sixmilebridge man, he showed understanding. After all, he had once been a columnist for the same paper. He then explained how hard it is to keep everyone on a panel happy, how there’ll always be a few people nudging at the apple cart, and so on.

Eventually, the conversation ran out of road and that was that. Still, it blew apart some of my preconceptions about Davy and the perma-anger he’s supposed to have. Evidently, it’s not blood and thunder every minute of every day.

There’s a famous line which states that "he who wields the sword can never wear the crown", and there’s a warped element of truth in that with the outgoing Clare manager. There was the situation with Nicky O’Connell and Davy O’Halloran being ostracised over an innocent night out. Then Colm Galvin leaving for the summer after training for six months for the championship. There was the game of brinksmanship with Podge Collins and three more Cratloe players that backfired. You can only wield the sword so many times before the blade comes back to you. Point a finger at someone, and the three remaining fingers are pointing back at you.

There was known to be a difficult relationship between the Cratloe crew and Davy over the football, and three of the bigger clubs were said to want him gone. From the outside looking in, it seemed that in 2016 we had turned a corner. Donal Og Cusack was in and the conflict was out. There was a league title but the championship was poor once more. A month or so ago, the talk was that the players were 50-50 on keeping the same management team. Not enough had changed in the intervening period; apparently the nays had two-thirds of a majority for a finish.

No doubt the crosshairs have been showering red dots over Davy’s forehead for a long time, waiting to pull the trigger and dance on his grave. The man who grew up being bullied had turned into one, and needed to be taken down a few pegs. That his daddy, county chairman Pat, couldn’t protect his job forever. That’s the stark nature of opinions that float about at this level, whether you subscribe to them or not. The good guys and the bad guys all find that mud sticks to them eventually.

Was Davy’s term a success? It certainly didn’t start that way as the 2012 championship season lasted just 28 days which, when you consider that teams were allowed to begin training at November 1st back then, it accounted for just 14% of their total time together. Still, he had inherited a team that was going nowhere, and the talent was flowing through.

The following season was a perfect storm of Clare hurling but there’s no getting away from the asterisk hovering beside the historic title win: they didn’t beat Kilkenny or Tipperary. Some speak of the famous meeting with MiWadi and tea at Fitzgerald’s house that year and say it was a turning point; others suggest the players had a few drinks and a blowout that same night. See, he can’t win. Either way, the group found a way forward.

But here’s the thing, 60% of Davy Fitz’s ten championship wins during his five seasons in charge of Clare came that season. He won a total of just ten of 21 summer outings. As much as his personality and name put him out there to be shot at, it also kept him in the job. That record is not good enough and, risking further bombardment for repeating this, it only adds to the feeling that they wouldn’t have won Liam MacCarthy in 2013 had the big guns not misfired in other battles.

Clare now have the makings of a very good team but there are gaping holes in certain positions. At times in these past two seasons, a couple of defenders have seemed well short of the required level and they’ve sometimes had passengers at midfield too. Like all teams, they’ve had injuries but that’s life and contenders find a way past it.

Davy is a victim of his own success because, as he pointed out after the 2013 win, his hope was to be competitive and challenge again. They didn’t do that, so he had to go. Overall, he needed to deliver more. So as Mayo and Galway found out, now it’s over to the players.