Murph’s Sideline Cut: Clare the new favourites for All-Ireland glory

Jimmy Barry-Murphy and Davy Fitzgerald were the two managers that best convinced their players of their title credentials.

Clare's Nicky O'Connell, Patrick O'Connor and Fergal Lynch celebrate after defeating Limerick.
Clare's Nicky O'Connell, Patrick O'Connor and Fergal Lynch celebrate after defeating Limerick.
Image: ©INPHO/Lorraine O'Sullivan

CLARE WERE THE rank outsiders going into All-Ireland quarter-final week (that’s three whole weeks ago, fact fans) – and now they’d be my favourites for the All-Ireland final if I was picking a winner this morning.

People kept saying all summer that ‘they had a big performance in them’ – and while people might have thought we had seen it when they beat a really terrible Galway team in the quarter-final, there was so much room for improvement, and they bridged that gap in style yesterday.

They are in an All-Ireland final and it is high time we started acknowledging that Davy Fitzgerald is an extraordinary manager.

He is obviously a divisive character, someone who rubs people up the wrong way, and more combative than he needs to be from time to time… and that pre-match interview with Ger Canning yesterday was unintentionally hilarious for a number of different reasons. I’ve had one or two remarkable phone conversations with him over the years, where he had taken umbrage at some slight, real or imagined, that he had heard on Off the Ball or Newstalk or elsewhere, but in fairness it was always about defending his team.

And he has taken a second team under his charge to an All-Ireland final in five years, in very different circumstances.

He took over Waterford in the middle of summer after a player revolt had ousted Justin McCarthy and got that magnificent, but ageing, group of players farther than they had ever gone in the championship before.  It was their singular misfortune to meet Kilkenny at possibly the absolute apex of their powers in that 2008 final.

Davy Fitzgerald shakes hands with Wayne McNamara of Limerick after the game. ©INPHO/Lorraine O’Sullivan

People will say that Fitzgerald’s timing was far better in taking the Clare job, given the two recent under-21 successes in 2009 and 2012. But those underage wins bring their own pressure, and many good managers in the past have struggled to turn young lads, possibly overly-entitled or arrogant, into senior stars. Davy has succeeded with Clare ahead, I’m sure, even of his own schedule.

The biggest task that every team and manager faced going into that All-Ireland quarter-final weekend three weeks ago was convincing each other that they had a shot at the title.  And we can say now that the two men who did that best were Jimmy Barry Murphy and Davy Fitzgerald.

As managers and as hurling men, they couldn’t really be more different, could they?  JBM – suave, lovable, a hurling myth even as he walks among us. Davy — passionate, fiery, new school in his tactics and methods.  And yet both of them have led their sides from provincial defeat to the All-Ireland final.

The contrast is overly simplistic on both counts. JBM is revered in Cork obviously, but while there was some misgivings about giving Davy the Clare job, there was also recognition there of both his achievements as a player, and his success as a manager at Fitzgibbon level, as well as with Waterford.

If there were any reservations about Davy and the Clare job, they centred on whether he would bring a circus with him to his native county, and I’m sure there were worries too about his combustible style of management. Both of those worries have proved unfounded, and his management has progressed to the stage where we can call him one of the very best in the business.

JBM might have been seen as a very old-school appointment by many, but similarly to Davy, the assumption is a little wide of the mark. He has given Cork confidence, for sure, but he also has them playing to a very specific game-plan, one which is uniquely suited to the players he has at his disposal. There is more to both of these men than meets the eye.

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One monumental challenge awaits for Jimmy Barry Murphy after deposing Brian Cody and the Cats. ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

One observation I would make about both these teams though — for all of the brilliant play they have shown us so far this year, for all the great occasions they’ve been a part of, the most recognisable face in both camps is that of their manager.

Clare have a huge selection of extravagantly gifted young hurlers, but the only player many people would be able to pick out without their helmet would be Darach Honan, and that’s because he’s the guy ducking to get into doorways. And Patrick Horgan might be the form hurler in the country at the moment, but how many GAA fans would pick him out of a line-up?

It’s a problem for hurling that isn’t going to go away. If we don’t see these guys in our newspapers or on our TV screens off the playing field, they’ll be the best kept secret in Irish sport — something which is counter-productive for everyone.

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