Davy Fitzgerald: ‘The players will come and tell me what they think and they’ll be pretty blunt’

Having managed in the championship for all but one of the past 17 seasons, the Waterford boss heads to Limerick in search of a result to extend their summer

In Ennis last Sunday, you could still feel the game ringing in your ears nearly an hour after the final whistle. The ground was cleared now, emptied of the 19,893 who had watched Clare and Waterford grapple each other to the canvas. The place had that spectral energy unique to a sports ground that has just belched out its crowd to sift through the epic they’d seen. Something occurred here. Living happened.

Davy Fitzgerald was standing outside the Waterford dressingroom, still pulsing. If you’ve been around him long enough, you know there are times when he’s teetering on the edge of caricature – half Conor Moore’s Davy Fitz, half actual Davy Fitz. This was one of the other times.

There was nobody to perform for now. His press duties were done, pretty much everyone was gone home. The only people left were the two teams filtering out of the dressingrooms at either end of the stand, some getting food, others getting changed. And there, in the middle, stood Davy, still chafing, still asking around about how many steps Mark Rodgers had taken for the third Clare goal.

By the time The Irish Times caught up with him later in the week, he’d been in and out of the Davy Fitz disciplinary vortex. His rush on to the pitch at the end of the game to confront referee Liam Gorman had got the full treatment on TV, radio and podcasts in the days since. But the CCCC brought no charge and Gorman evidently made no complaint in his report.


“I know there were people afterwards saying I lost it with the ref,” he says. “I didn’t lose it with the ref. He’d tell you that himself. I questioned him on one thing that I was very irate on and it wasn’t the last ball. I was on to him about one incident that I felt strongly about.

“Did I abuse him or use bad language to him? No. I didn’t. But I was very adamant in my point. I was really annoyed about one call and it was a steps issue. I thought it was six or eight steps, it was probably five or six steps. When you look back, you say okay, right, fair enough.

“But that’s what I was on about at the time. If you ask me have I any problem with Liam Gordon or do I think he did us or anything like that, the answer is 100 per cent no. As much as I was animated at the time, it was over one thing that I wanted to question.

“I wasn’t any way abusive to Liam. I have seen referees questioned at loads of games all year, be it at half-time or full-time, and being very strong with their point. And I think if anyone asks Liam, he’ll tell 100 per cent that I did not abuse him. In no way are we blaming him that we lost the game.”

Onwards, then. To Limerick, where one of two cymbal clashes could ring out on Sunday. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that his Waterford team could blow the championship to smithereens by knocking Limerick out. On the flipside, there must also be some non-zero chance that this could be Fitzgerald’s last intercounty match.

“I don’t think like that at all,” he says. “Myself and Waterford said we’d do it for two years and we both have the option of one more on top of it. So we’ll see at the end of the year if either of us is up for another year. We will certainly think about it, on both sides. But in the week of a game, it wouldn’t enter your head.”

Fitzgerald has been managing teams at senior intercounty level for all but one of the past 17 seasons. He remains the only manager to win an All-Ireland (Clare 2013), a Munster title (Waterford 2010), a Leinster title (Wexford 2019) and a National League (Clare 2016). This will be his 68th championship match on the sideline – his record for the 67 that have gone before it reads: won 30, lost 29, drew 8.

As it happens, of all the sides his teams have faced down the years, Fitzgerald has beaten no county more than Limerick. His Clare and Waterford teams have faced them six times in championship and won four. The two defeats came 11 years apart: a qualifier with Clare in 2012 and last year’s two-point loss in the Munster Championship.

You never stand in the same river twice – and that’s truer for Davy Fitz than it is for most – but he’s better having a good record against Limerick than a bad one. His Wexford team inflicted the opening defeat of the Kiely era on a cold league Sunday in February 2017. Even last year was close in the end, albeit Limerick were never in serious peril.

“I have massive respect for Limerick,” he makes sure to say. “Do I hate Limerick? No, I think they’re incredible. The hurling they play is as good as I’ve ever seen. If they had won in Cork the last day, we’d be through now and we wouldn’t have to worry about Sunday. But you can’t have everything.”

He says the last bit mostly tongue-in-cheek. In reality, he knows Waterford only have themselves to blame for not being out the gap already. For all the noise around the winning 65 for Clare last Sunday, the late 1-1 conceded against Tipperary is what has taxed them out of a place in the knockout stages.

Had they seen that game out, Waterford would only need Clare to beat Tipp this weekend to guarantee them safe passage. Instead, they have to get a result in the Gaelic Grounds against the most fearsome team of the age. Nothing is easy.

“We know we should have beaten Tipp,” he says. “That’s hurling though. It’s in our own hands and we’ve got to look at ourselves. You waste time dwelling on the fact that we should be through but the reason we’re not through is down to ourselves. We’ve had the opportunity to put stuff to bed and we didn’t.”

Still, they’re unequivocally in a better spot than they were this time last year. Fitzgerald’s talent for dividing opinion will be his boxer’s punch, the last thing he loses. Yet everyone can agree that this Waterford side is in better fettle than the one at the tail end of Liam Cahill’s reign. And, for that matter, last year’s iteration when they went into their final Munster match on the back of three defeats from three games.

“We have to take confidence from the resilience we’ve shown to be right there in games with the best. That’s a big thing for us. The only thing that’s left to find out is what we’re like on a quick turnaround. Limerick have had two weeks to look at us, we have one. That’s the only thing I’m not sure about.”

It’s clear that he is getting a tune out of them – and vice versa. An underrated aspect of the Waterford panel he took over at the end of 2022 was how much high-level experience he would be calling on. They were by consensus the worst team in Munster at the time and yet when Fitzgerald looks around his dressingroom, he sees players with league medals, All Stars, multiple All-Ireland final appearances. Far from a band of lost souls and shrinking violets.

In another life, Fitzgerald’s first instinct would have been to go in and stamp his authority, maybe slay a sacred cow or two just so everyone could see he meant business. That hasn’t been the case here. The back and forth between players and management has been robust and constant.

“You have to give the platform to the players. Often, they have their meeting and we have ours. They’ll come and tell me what they think and they’ll be pretty blunt. I wouldn’t always have been the type of manager who would make room for that but I think differently now. They come with their point of view, we come with ours and we talk it out. I chat to players on their own a lot. I think it’s important to make time for that, to make sure they feel heard.

“Would it be rosy all the time? I’ve yet to come across a set-up where that’s the case. If some manager tells you that’s the way of it all the time in their camp, I don’t believe it. What I have tried to do is listen to them. Would I agree with all the stuff they come back with? No. Would they agree with all the stuff I say? No. It’s making sure you can strike that balance in the middle.”

For what it’s worth – and contrary to widespread scuttlebutt – he says that Waterford’s playing style is not a bone of contention between him and the players. Their pre-championship move away from playing with an extra defender wasn’t, he says, the result of some sort of player revolt at a team meeting. They had some issues here and there but that wasn’t one of them.

“We had a series of meetings throughout the league on various different things. You’re a stronger manager if you can listen to your players and I try to make them as inclusive as possible. But I’m very comfortable with the fact that style of play was never an issue.

“We have a few different styles that we can play, depending on the players we have available. That’s really what determines it. It might come to it that we go back to playing with a plus-one down the line. I’d be very disappointed if the players didn’t voice a problem with the way we play if there was one.”

He knows, of course, that people will make up their own mind. They will read his words and pass them through their own Davy Fitz filter, as they’ve been doing now for more than three decades. He doesn’t take it as much to heart now as he used. He says he doesn’t anyway.

All he knows is that he’s bringing a team to Limerick this weekend to test themselves against the best. Whatever the outcome, that’s where Davy Fitzgerald likes living.