MIKE MCNAMARA’S PERSONAL relationship with Davy Fitzgerald dates back to 1989 – when McNamara was manager and Fitzgerald goalkeeper on the Clare team that contested the All-Ireland minor hurling final that year.
They would remain close throughout the 90s, with McNamara serving as a selector alongside Ger Loughnane on the 1995 and 1997 All-Ireland winning senior teams.
Fitzgerald, of course, was the last line of defence as he, along with goalkeepers like Brendan Cummins, Donal Óg Cusack and Damien Fitzhenry, brought the goalkeeping trade to new heights.
Never before had such a clutch of brilliant netminders come along at the one time but in McNamara’s eyes, two had the edge.
“You had two goalies – Damien Fitzhenry and Davy Fitz – who will stand out as immortals, both of them. They were the pinnacle of everything good about goalkeeping.
“Most good goalies have a bigger stature than Davy, around the 6 foot mark and more imposing in the goals, but Davy made up for that in other ways. Himself and Damien Fitzhenry were the two that, to me, were beyond incredible.”
When McNamara went on to become Clare manager in his own right, he recalled Fitzgerald to the fold following an infamous and very public fallout with Tony Considine.
And Fitzgerald, as McNamara would have wanted, went out on his own terms, and in his own back yard, when Clare played Kilkenny in a challenge in Sixmilebridge in 2008.
It was just a few months after Fitzgerald had sustained a serious injury on club duty in October 2007, when the top part of the ring finger on his left hand was almost completely severed. True to form, Fitzgerald refused to accept that his career was over but he did call time on his remarkable time with the county in March 2008, shortly after that Kilkenny challenge.
“Wasn’t it wonderful to be able to give him that opportunity, after the service he gave, the years and years?” McNamara adds.
“Nobody heard anything about Fitz –he stayed in the background, did his job, got his couple of Allstars, should have got at least another one.”
McNamara remembers that Fitzgerald was often the first to arrive for training –and the last to leave.
“I’ll always remember his attention to training,” says McNamara.
“I would safely say that a score against him in a training match in Crusheen or wherever we trained would be almost as hurtful as a goal in an All-Ireland final. He took it so seriously that any time a ball passed him, it was nearly a personal insult.
“And that’s something I took with me in all of the coaching I did since.
“In order to be the best, the levels of dedication would have to be as high as Davy Fitz, if not more.”
While still at the height of his playing career, Fitzgerald took over a flagging Limerick IT and inspired them to Fitzgibbon Cup glory in 2005 and 2007.
And just a couple of months after calling time on his intercounty playing career, he took on the Waterford post vacated by Justin McCarthy. In at the deep end, just how he likes it.
“He’s at his happiest…he comes alive when he has a whistle in the middle of the field,” McNamara smiles. “That’s his passion.”
And in less than two years at the helm in his native county, Fitzgerald has transformed Clare into potential All-Ireland champions.
It’s a progression that has staggered even McNamara. “It has of course,” he nods. “We were a million miles away from an All-Ireland last May.
“Nobody could have foreseen how they would improve with every outing.
“And to win an All-Ireland, or get there, you must improve day after day. The challenges get bigger along the way but they have adapted to each one of them. They’ve also managed to keep a very low profile along the way, slipping from second gear, third gear, fourth gear and into overdrive.”