When? Wednesday evening last. Where? Walsh Park. Why? Davy Fitzgerald’s debut training session as a county senior hurling manager, donning the navy tracksuited colours of Port Láirge.
The “new man” as Dan Shanahan described the former Clare goalkeeper earlier that day, was in town.
Entering Walsh Park, with pockets of interested spectators dotted around the ground, a sense of urgency and intensity hangs as heavy in the air as the evening’s humidity.
Kevin Moran is on an exercise bike positioned next to the players’ tunnel. A few yards away, Ken McGrath and Seamus Prendergast are lifting medicine balls.
Next to the ‘county’ goal’s uprights, Clinton Hennessy is busying himself the way last men standing tend to busy themselves during training.
At the other end of the ground, those participating in the full session are being put through a series of intensive drills.
There are tackle bags to be barged into and harnesses to be buckled into. There are limbs to be stretched in ways they may not have been previously stretched, all of which means there’s little or any time for idle talk between players. There’s work to be done.
During one drill, the players scramble sideways in the press-up position, with arms and feet scurrying across the damp sod. It looks incredibly awkward but everyone adapts well to the insect-like movement.
The recovery time between drills is short. There’s work to be done.
“Lads, if ye’re out early, don’t be just pucking balls anywhere,” says the proprietor of one of the modern GAA era’s most distinctive voices.
“I want ye doing what ye’d do in a game. I want ye thinking like ye’d think in a game. That’s what we’ve all got to do.”
The players listen. There’s work being done here and there’s not a second to lose.
Davy Fitzgerald immediately strikes one as someone who’s not big on wasting time.
As a man who commanded his goalmouth in a manner only a handful of netminders similarly achieved (think Ger Cunningham, Ned Power, Seamus Durack, Damien Fitzhenry, Noel Skehan), timing has always been a priority.
As the saying goes, it’s of the essence. So too is speed. “A hundred miles an hour lads, that’s how we’ve got to do things,” he implores to his players, some of whom he faced in championship action not that long ago. “And we’ve got to make sure we do them well.”
The session was open to the public, a decision taken by the Sixmilebridge man. It’s an immediate way of earning good will with supporters, many of whom have had their dinner early and travelled from across the county to catch a glimpse of the new era.
Leaving the Walsh Park gate open before the team begins its backdoor championship journey was the right thing to do.
After all, what separates the GAA from other sporting codes is that its practitioners are of the people, of the townland, of the parish. Unfilled spots on named team sheets really ought to be labelled ‘J Soap’, rather than ‘AN Other’.
When you lock players completely away from their public, good things generally don’t tend to happen on the field of play – Ireland’s experience in last year’s Rugby World Cup being a case in point.
And while no-one expects any manager to bend over backwards in accommodating supporters or reporters, it was refreshing to be granted the level of access we had last Wednesday.
Indeed, in the context of the 21st century Waterford hurling experience, it bordered on the novel.
“Lads, what do we do if something on the field goes wrong,” Fitzgerald questioned as he set a 10-second target for players to gather themselves and all training sliothars in a group around him.
And, as managers tend to do, he answered his own question. “We think together. And that’s what I’m setting out to achieve here.”
You’d have spotted Lord Lucan on board Shergar quicker than identifying a slacker at training last week. There was a real sense of purpose about the session, a real sense of togetherness about the task at hand and a clear identification of what has to be achieved.
“Three and a half weeks’ time lads, that’s all we can think about,” said the manager as the players went through a short passing and sprinting drill. And with the recent upheaval now behind them, one suspects it’s all the players, from a hurling perspective, want to think about too.
Players took to their tasks throughout the session the way players at this level ought to. There wasn’t a dragged heel in sight. Traversing the pitch with urgency, Fitzgerald had quiet one-to-one chats with Michael Walsh, Ken McGrath and Dan Shanahan.
As a trainer, cajoler and motivator of men, accustomed to Ger Loughnane’s powers of dressing room persuasion, and having coached teams since his early 20s, Fitzgerald knows only too well that the devil is in the detail.
By taking players to one side, by simply asking them how they are, by making that connection, by opening that communicative line, the manager demonstrates a willingness to listen on his behalf.
And in the current GAA climate, where communication is the key between manager and player, he’s fulfilling a key part of the job description that’s not easily defined in print.
After a drop of rain falls on the hard working players, the session draws to a close with a huddle and one last oratorical offering from the manager. Fitzgerald emphasises the importance of togetherness to his panel.
Selectors Peter Queally and Maurice Geary stand nearby as the new manager says all that needs to be said to his charges on this particular night. ‘Tús maith’ would appear to be the night’s welcome outcome.
The players amble up the tunnel towards the dressing room, and to a man they wear the look of a group enthused by the night’s work. Several onlookers offer friendly hellos and handshakes are exchanged between players and supporters. Positivity, to borrow an Apres-Matchism, is palpable.
The new manager, after a quick chat with County Chairman Pat Flynn, seemed pretty pleased with his inaugural training session.
“It was good to get into it,” said Fitzgerald; the mood in his environs at odds with what had prevailed on this same spot six days previously.
“It’s good working with this group of players and I was just happy to start into it. I suppose they’ll just have to adapt to the way I do things, which may be a small bit different. I just hope it can be half as effective as what Justin did and that’s all I can do.”
Time, as alluded to earlier, is on Davy Fitz’s mind. With a handful of weeks to go before his first day on the sideline as a senior county boss, tactical shifts in the Deisemen’s hurling approach will not be easily realised.
“It’s going to be very hard to impose the way I want to play on the team,” he tells The Munster Express. “I have to think of the short span and I’m going to be thinking about that and work hard on it. I’m just willing to work hard and see what happens.
“I’ve a plan in my head; I’m going to keep it in my own head, what I want to do and what the story is in the short term. Obviously I would have liked more time but I haven’t yet I’m confident we’ll do an okay job with it.”
A handshake later and off he goes to shower before enjoying a post-training meal with his panel. There are smiles all round and a real sense that something new is about to reveal itself upon the inter-county scene.
Faílte, Davy. Hope you enjoy it in these parts.