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‘Stuff other players don’t have’: How David Fitzgerald became the ideal modern hurler

Having added consistency to his exceptional skills and athleticism, the Clareman has become the outstanding player in the league

YouTube is the flea market of the internet, teeming with retro stuff you never knew you needed. Patrick Kelly said you will find footage from the 2016 league quarter-final between Clare and Tipperary, and there it is, eight hectic minutes, with the commentary replaced by Beethoven’s Symphony No 9 in D minor. Shazam knew the tune.

The part that he wanted you to see, though, didn’t make the edit. Kelly was in goal for Clare and his young club mate David Fitzgerald was sent on as an emergency wing back. During his novice season he had been auditioned in the forwards, but that day they were stuck in defence, and he was promoted from their roster of understudies.

“He came on in the 63rd minute,” says Kelly, “and he caught four puck-outs. He caught four puck-outs between the 63rd and 73rd minutes. We ended up winning the game by a point.

“He kept his place for the semi-final against Kilkenny and I remember in the team meeting the manager [Davy Fitzgerald] saying to him, ‘You’re not going to be catching puck-outs today over this lad. Don’t be trying to go up and catch with Walter [Walsh].’ The first Kilkenny puck-out, Eoin Murphy landed it down on top of them and he caught it. That’s just the way he is.”


A Clare highlights package without Fitzgerald would be impossible to find now. By consensus, he has been the outstanding player in the league. Trace the graph by the numbers: five points against Wexford, five points against Kilkenny, 1-3 against Tipperary, all from play. His goal in the league semi-final, off his left, on the run, was straight from a Hot Shot Hamish comic strip, with a vapour trail and a bamboozled goalie.

For more than two years Fitzgerald’s form hasn’t changed with the seasons: three springs, two summers. In 2022 and 2023 he was named on The Sunday Game team of the year; in one of those years, he won an All Star. Those end-of-year selections are always skewed in favour of the All-Ireland finalists, and in both years Clare had come up short. Fitzgerald’s performances, though, outflanked that bias.

In the modern game, every elite team is looking for a pimped-up version of Caelan Doris in their half forward line: good feet, great hands, direct, dynamic, huge. Gearoid Hegarty was the prototype. Fitzgerald is next generation.

“If you were modelling a player for the modern game, he is your model,” says Seanie McMahon, the former Clare centre back, who worked with Fitzgerald for two years with the Clare U-21s. “He’s a huge man but he’s very athletic. He has a great burst of pace, he’s great in the air, beautiful striker, left and right. He pings the ball over the bar from 60 or 70 yards, no bother.”

How he got to this point is a different story. When his club, Inagh-Kilnamona, reached the county final in 2021 Fitzgerald said in an interview that his Clare career “didn’t have the trajectory I’d have liked”. He was 25 by then, and out of favour.

During the 2020 championship he lost his starting place. Worse than that, when Clare played Waterford in the All-Ireland quarter-final he came on at half-time and was whipped off 20 minutes later. The following summer he was reduced to the role of impact sub, but he didn’t even make the match day squad for the qualifier match against Wexford and played no part either when Cork ended Clare’s season. His inter county career had reached a crossroads.

“He did get a bit disillusioned,” says Patrick Kelly. “I remember talking to him that winter [after 2020] and he was a bit iffy about going back [with Clare]. The confidence was drained.

“I suppose he just had a look in the mirror. In these things you can be blaming management, you can be blaming this and that. He had to get his confidence back first of all, then he looked at himself, ‘Am I performing to the level that I’m able to?’

“I think he worked harder. I live near the [club] pitch and I’ve seen him up there on his own, doing runs, shooting for points. I know he was in the gym in Lahinch. He just worked hard. Then he had an unbelievable run with us in the club in 2021. He took savage confidence from that.”

Finding Fitzgerald’s best position was a drawn-out process. Because he was adaptable, he was moved. The Clare under-21s played him at full-back; he made his initial breakthrough with Clare as a wing back; his All-Star award was at centrefield; his childhood had been spent in the forwards, and that is where he is flourishing now, marauding from the flanks.

“He’s different,” says Patrick Kelly. “In Clare, in the past, we had big men in the backs. In the forwards, we weren’t overly blessed with big, tall, athletic men. The game now is more of a possession, retention, running game. It suits Fitzy. He’s able to get around, he’s able to link it, he’s able to break the line.”

Hurling had evolved in such a way that players in the middle eight were more interchangeable than ever. Fitzgerald fitted that profile. He had an all-court game. When he drove Inagh-Kilnamona to the 2021 county final he had been transplanted from the forwards to wing back, but they didn’t see that as a defensive move.

In the first round he caught a ball under his own crossbar, soloed to centrefield, and fired it over the bar. It was like a manoeuvre from an under-12 match. His athleticism reduced the pitch to a PlayStation screen.

“When he was in the forwards he was a target [for other teams],” says Tomas Kelly, the club manager. “They would be looking to zone in on his temperament and see could they get a reaction out of him.

“When he was moved to wing back it gave him a new lease of life and he was scoring three or four points a game from there. What people don’t see is his striking. His striking is outrageous. It’s just a flick of the wrist. In a way it was like playing with a seventh forward. That was the first year he really caught fire for the club.”

Was it obvious that he would eventually reach this level? McMahon says that you could tell he was “ambitious, very ambitious”. When University of Limerick won the Fitzgibbon Cup in 2018, with a squad that, at the last count, contained seven All Stars and eight All-Ireland winners, Fitzgerald was the man of the match in the final. That was the scale of his potential. The sticking point was consistency.

“He’s added that bit of consistency to his game that he maybe didn’t have when he was 23 or 24,” says Tomas Kelly. “Back then you might be saying, ‘What Fitzy are we going to see today?’ You don’t have those questions about him now. Even still you could be watching a Clare game and you mightn’t see him for 10 or 15 minutes – but then he’d come up with two outrageous scores. He has stuff in his locker that other players don’t have.”

Everyone can see it now.