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Davy Fitzgerald entered the Croke Park press room a beaten man on All-Ireland final day, but not a defeated man for perpetuity. Nothing like it. That’s never been his style nor shall it ever be.
That the manner of this defeat will craw in his gut for the next few months is beyond doubt.
He, like every Joe and Josephine hurling fan on this island, didn’t expect Waterford to be hit with so forceful a hurricane as the one Kilkenny unleashed on Sunday.
“If I did there was no point turning up,” said Fitzgerald. “I believed coming up here today that we were going to win. If I didn’t, I’d be no good to them boys inside the door there.
“Ask me to explain what happened? I can’t. The one thing I will say and no matter what the story is – there’s probably a few guys out there that are waiting for this moment and this occasion to have a go at me – and off they go.
“All I said was when I came into this job was that if I could wake up Monday and say that I did everything that I knew how to do, that I’d be happy with myself.
“I did everything that I thought was possible. Maybe I will have to look at myself and ask myself questions. Maybe I didn’t prepare right or whatever. I have to accept some of the blame – I am the manager – but I will not blame the boys one bit whatsoever.”
Few questions were thrown Fitzgerald’s way on Sunday evening. They weren’t required. It was as if he’d mentally prepared himself for every eventuality come full-time.
In a summer full of captivating post-match assessments, this was, by some distance, the Waterford manager at his most quoteworthy.
He said of his players: “They’re good lads. They’ve given 10 years of unreal hurling, some of them guys and there’s a lot of young guys coming on. It’s important that the Waterford people give them support. There is nothing worse than the way they feel inside in that dressing room right now, so there isn’t.
“They’ve worked hard, they’ve trained hard and trust me, that arena outside there is the hardest place to be when things aren’t going right for you.
“You know when your back is to the wall, when they get a few scores when they’re on top of you; there ain’t no place to hide.
“When you ask lads to go out and play with freedom and passion and let themselves go and give it everything and you get behind that for a while, it’s fair hard to keep going.
“And I’ll tell ya at half-time, it wasn’t nice, but we said we won’t drop the head and I don’t think they did.
“We didn’t play to our potential; we know that, without a shadow of a doubt. Maybe ourselves and the rest of the country if we played to our potential wouldn’t have beaten Kilkenny today. They’re an awesome team and we accept that so we do.
“If there’s blame, I don’t mind taking it, if lads want to have a go at me; they’ve been waiting in the wings probably for a while to do it. I’m there, but I’ve no regrets with the year we had.”
And what of the magnificent three-in-a-row winners, who could well make it four or five such is their current superiority?
“Kilkenny were awesome the way they played,” he said.
“We had a game plan which was to hold our half-back line back as much as we could, not be drawn up the field. We were going to try and surround the ball but no matter what way we surrounded the ball it was coming into a Kilkenny hand.
“And you’ll appreciate the one thing when you’re playing Kilkenny, you don’t want to concede goals.
“Maybe ‘tis me that needs to look at it tactically. I decided that our half-back line would stay back, protect inside, that we wouldn’t leave it open. Maybe that was costly, I don’t know. If it was, hands up, that’s the way I decided to go today. Them boys did everything I asked of them so I will not say one bad word about them after today.
“People can say the scoreline was whatever it was, I’m proud of them lads no matter what it is. Hat’s off to them. It’s been a great three months of my life, myself and my little fella travelling down there, 10 or 11 hours of a round trip, having a bit of sleep going home in the car, but I wouldn’t swap it for anything.”
The inevitable question about Fitzgerald’s future in the Waterford hot seat was delivered, while a muted episode of ‘The Simpsons’ was running on two large TV screens flanking him. It merely augmented the sense of the surreal last Sunday.
“I’ll be honest with you now and I said it to Pat [Flynn] at the start, I don’t know what the future will hold. The job came up at the time and it didn’t take me two seconds to jump at it and the three months have been fantastic.
“But I don’t know. I’m going to take a bit of a breather myself. To tell you the truth, the last 18 months has been fairly phenomenal in a lot of ways.”
And on he compellingly went. “I’m a hurling man; I love being involved in hurling. I’m not in it to get at anyone or for any ulterior motives. In my view some people are. I’m there because I’m a hurling person and I love it.
“And whether ‘tis managing Waterford or managing a team at home, Davy Fitz will be still involved some way or another. I’d like to think I’ll come back fighting so I will.
“There’s two things you can do after this: you can bury your head in the sand or you can get up and go again. I think that I’m strong enough, especially after the last 18 months which has made me a bit stronger to get up and go again. We’ll see what the future holds.”
What damage would a defeat of this magnitude inflict on the Waterford hurling psyche?
“Ah sure listen, it took 45 years to get to an All-Ireland final, right? They got there. They have to be up in the bracket under Kilkenny. You have Kilkenny up there – I haven’t seen anyone that’s competed with them for the last few years. Waterford are up there with the best of them, there’s no fear of that.
“Them boys have got knocks before. They got a knock on the first week of June this year and they were castigated.
“We came out, we came through tough battles with Offaly and Wexford, we beat a good Tipperary team that won a Munster Championship and won a League. Them boys can hold their heads up high so they can. They will be back so they will.
“And I wouldn’t rule anything out. You see Tony Browne there at the end of that game and they go on about his age – he hit a lot of ball in the last 20 minutes of that game. Don’t write them boys off yet. We’ve been wrote off before.
“If I’d said to ye in the first week of June that Waterford would be in an All-Ireland final, ye’d have said not a hope. They were there. We didn’t perform on the day and that’s a killer. Don’t write them off, don’t write them off. There’s always hope.”
As a Croke Park official craned his neck around a press room door – a signal to suggest that the time with our subject under the microscope was almost up, Fitzgerald went back in time.
“The biggest thing I have in hurling is that you have to stay dreaming,” he said.
“I played the ’93 Munster final and I think we were beaten something like 20 points by Tipp. People told me we’d never do anything. But I still believed. Maybe that’s me; I am a bit of a dreamer or whatever.
“But you know something? At some stage, Kilkenny will be beaten, someone will beat them. It’s going to happen; I’d love to be there to be part of it but it will happen. I’m just going to have to take the stick that’s going at the moment but we’ll be okay.”
To conclude, Davy Fitzgerald injected some realism into the post-match discussion, something that some supporters of all codes tend to lose sight of following a defeat.
“I looked at a little boy I brought in from the Share A Dream there. I brought him down to the lads the first week I came into the job and I told them his life span probably isn’t too long and I said to the lads ‘ye’re worried about hurling matches and look what that little guy has to go through’…
“When I think of that, I’ll get over this. Your health is your wealth, we all should know that. We’ll bounce back. It’s going to hurt like crazy, big time. But at the end of the day we’ll give it a lash and try and come back again.”
As the tape recorders whirred on the desk beneath him, the Deise boss closed his comments with just two words. “Ye happy?” – the very thing he himself will be anything but during the weeks and months that lie ahead.