DAVY FITZGERALD HAS proved time and again that he’s a man who likes to think outside the box.
Davy Fitzgerald takes a puck-out for Clare in 1996.
That goes all the way back to his formative days as a goalkeeper on the Clare panel in the early 1990s when he was vying for a starting place with Bodyke netminder Leo Doyle.
Knowing the route his rival drove to work in Shannon each morning, Fitzgerald would set his alarm early and cycle a few miles down the road to puck around against a particular wall.
Fitzgerald had his timing down to a tee. So each time Doyle was on his way to work at 8.30am, he’d pass the Sixmilebridge youngster diligently belting the ball against the wall, honing his craft. It let Doyle know he was serious about taking over the number one role.
Once Doyle’s car passed by, Fitzgerald would pack up and cycle home, content with the mind games he’d waged on his adversary.
Then we come to a favourite move of Fitzgerald’s during his time in charge of LIT. On at least two occasions when they played UL away in the Fitzgibbon Cup, his team would tog out on their campus in Moylish before taking the team bus across the city to UL.
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He’d instruct the bus driver to park on the main road beside the UL GAA grounds and Fitzgerald’s players would emerge through the bushes at one end of the field like an army arriving into battle.
His sweeper system has been much-maligned over the years, but he pays no heed to criticism and continues to employ it.
He often watches the first-half of Wexford’s championships games from high in the stand before taking his place on the field for the second period, an uncommon practice among inter-county managers.
Davy Fitzgerald watches from the stand during Wexford’s game against Galway in Pearse Stadium earlier this summer.
Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO
He likes his Wexford players to blare music from a speaker in the dressing room before and after their games and, uniquely, he doesn’t give any pre-match team-talks these days.
“That’s the way we kind of are,” he said after the Leinster final. “We don’t do team talks before we go out on the field.
“We didn’t have one before we went out on the field today. I won’t tell what we did but it was different. And I want them to go out and hurl.
“You have to make them feel – our psyche today was that there are a lot of people who are ill and who can’t do stuff. My belief in life is when you get an opportunity to go out in Croke Park to play you go out and you play.”
It’s almost unheard of for a GAA manager not to give a speech before a big game. We’re not far removed from the days of managers banging on dressing room tables to gee up the troops, something which would have been widespread during Fitzgerald’s playing career.
“Management style has changed incredibly, even from when I started to now,” he went on following the win over Kilkenny.
“The young people are different. You have to handle them a different way in trying to get the best out of them.”
His move away from team-talks is “definitely a small bit different,” admits defender Kevin Foley.
“Davy wanted to make it unique for us because we’re the ones driving it on and leading it, he didn’t have to come in and shout any speeches,” he continues.
Fitzgerald speaks to his players before they played Dublin in the 2018 Leinster SHC.
Source: Tommy Greally/INPHO
“It came from within and it was true for us and it meant something for us. It’s something that we’ve stuck to through the year and it seems to be working.”
And while Fitzgerald’s detractors accuse him of employing a defensive structure that restricts attacking play and places skilful players in a straitjacket, that’s not exactly true either.
Explaining his system back in March, the Clare native said: “That’s what I’m saying about the style that we play, it isn’t short or it isn’t defensive, as much as people would like to say it’s defensive.
“I wouldn’t agree with that and I think if you look at some of our passages of play you’ll see eight and nine players attacking a lot of the time if you watch it. Not all of the time, but a lot of the time.”
It’s certainly unfair to cast Wexford as a defensive team. Two of their most important players this season – midfielder Diarmuid O’Keeffe and sweeper Kevin Foley – grew up playing in the forward line but have since been recast into new roles further back.
It’s another sign of Fitzgerald’s willingness to try new things and his habit of divergent thinking. O’Keeffe was employed as a wing-forward under Liam Dunne, while Foley was one of the star forwards in the U21 side that lifted the Leinster crown in 2015.
They both have the skill level of a forward, giving Wexford the ability move the ball through the lines at speed.
“I think intensity levels are something that stand-out (about him),” O’Keeffe says about his manager.
Diarmuid O’Keeffe drives at the Dublin defence.
Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO
“The other thing I always say about Davy is he’s an excellent communicator and knows exactly what he wants on the field and off the field. He has a great way of painting a picture of what he wants for players and simplifies, he keeps it simple for guys.
“Lads were more than keen to get involved in that, he has that proven track record and when he speaks, everyone listens.”
The security offered by a sweeper means Wexford’s midfielders and backs are encouraged to venture forward into the pockets of space left vacant up front.
Their savage fitness levels and off-the-shoulder running game means they attack in waves which can be difficult to defend against.
“Davy allows us to play with that bit of freedom,” continues Foley. “Okay there’s a strategy or system there but there’s different variations there that we can jump in and out of.
“Even for myself, if I end up going up the field, someone else can slot in as sweeper or vice versa. The backs and the forwards, we’re lucky that we train so hard and rigid that the lads can move around and jump into different positions.
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“Being a forward and an attacker, going back into the backs was completely different for me,” he explains.
Shaun Murphy – who played the role for the previous two seasons – and Fitzgerald have acted as a sounding board for Foley as he adjusts to the new position.
“A couple of defending techniques were the main things that myself and Shaun spoke about, and even with Davy as well, we went over different plans and stuff like that.
“The boys, any time I had any questions I could give them a quick call to double-check on or clarify.”
Kevin Foley celebrates the Leinster final win.
Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO
O’Keeffe averaged nearly a point a game at wing-back over the last two seasons and his scoring rates have soared since his move to centre-field in 2019. He scored 0-9 during their successful Leinster campaign and will take serious watching by Tipperary on Sunday.
Another key aspect of Fitzgerald’s management is his ability to keep his team living in the moment. With an All-Ireland final just 70 minutes away, it might be tempting for the Wexford players to get caught up in all the local hype that comes with their first semi-final appearance since 2007.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’ve thought about it as a chap, you’re going around dreaming like you’re in an All-Ireland final,” admits O’Keeffe.
“Davy is excellent in focusing on the here and now,” he adds.
“So let’s make hay now. Let’s deal with what’s in front of us, do everything we can, as best as we can going into the semi-final. Then after that, let’s see where it takes us. If there’s a game after that, then great.
“If there’s not, then we’ll build again and we go again. Simple as.
“If there’s something at the end of it, then great. If it’s a semi-final or a final or whatever it may be, that’s it. There’s nothing else after that, it’s there and then.
“Our task the last day was to beat Kilkenny. It wasn’t to win a Leinster final – it was to beat Kilkenny. Again, that’s another good aspect of Davy’s character – ‘this is our job, let’s focus on this.’”
So no team-talk is required. The players know exactly what he expects.
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