It hasn't always been easy having Davy Fitzgerald as one of your heroes.
He hasn't made it easy. Giving out about refs, spouting conspiracy theories, losing the head on the sideline, falling out with players. But when you're a Clare hurling fan, everything has always revolved around Davy Fitzgerald. And so has all of our success.
I was a kid for the glory years. All-Irelands in 1995 and 1997, a third Munster title in 1998 in the maddest summer of our lives, six Munster finals in seven years. We were spoiled by the glory. Clare was the centre of the hurling world, the whipping boys no more as Anthony Daly put it on the steps of Pairc Ui Chaoimh.
In that time, the heroes - Daly, the Lohans, Seanie McMahon, Jamesie O'Connor, The Sparrow - were everywhere. Endless tours around the county for coaching sessions and medal ceremonies. Hours upon hours were given over to the kids of Clare, ensuring their heroes could inspire the next generation to similar success.
Nobody did this more than Davy Fitzgerald. I vividly remember a whole crowd of us trying to score penalties on him one night. The time he took as we lined up for a go over and over again. Just to say we scored a penalty on the game's greatest goalkeeper. (I can't say it unfortunately.) As the organisers were wrapping things up, and the coaches are parents were reprimanding us for demanding "just one more go", Davy was cool as a breeze - happy out to indulge our annoying, incessant, and probably terrible penalty shooting.
Davy Fitz was our hero.
Standing in the terraces of Thurles, Pairc Ui Chaimh or Croke Park, Davy bursting out of the tunnel at 100 miles an hour and sprinting towards the goals and smacking his hurley off the crossbar was an amazing way to start a Championship day out. We were whipped into a frenzy, and the ball hadn't yet been thrown in. My uncle used to say he always knew if Clare would win by how manic Davy was coming out of the tunnel. For me, it was always the same. Always manic. He was pumped up, and he pumped us up.
He wasn't bad during the match too. Only a three-time All-Star, he had the misfortune of playing a golden age of hurling goalkeepers including Brendan Cummins, Damien Fitzhenry and Donal Og Cusack. But Davy was the leader at the back and a brilliant shot stopper. And he was hammering home penalties long before Anthony Nash ruined it for everyone.
He was there forever it seemed, and then he fell out with manager Tony Considine, and suddenly he wasn't. He's been Clare's best ever goalkeeper, one of their best ever players. He'd won two All-Irelands and three Munsters. He was one of the faces of Clare hurling, in an era when Clare hurling was king.
Next thing, he pops up as manager of Waterford in the middle of the year. Davy's coaching credentials were well-known. As he said himself, he was coaching since he was a teenager and guided LIT to two Fitzgibbon Cups.
His time there was mixed. He brought an aging Waterford team to the All-Ireland final for the first time, won a Munster title in a floodlit replay and made four consecutive All-Ireland semi finals. And yet his relationship with a lot of the senior players always appeared fractious. That Waterford team weren't exactly known as shrinking violets and they seemed to clash with Fitzgerald constantly.
After four seasons, he stepped down and was the obvious choice for a Clare team who were floundering around Division 2 and had barely won a match since he stopped playing. Five years later, and expectations are a lot higher in Clare now.
Reports in the last 24 hours, backed up by rumours over the last couple of weeks, was that there was player heave against Davy Fitzgerald. If that was the case, he needs to go immediately. A manager will never win this battle, and if he tries, it will sour an incredible career and decades of service to Clare hurling.
Fitzgerald's management style is what it is. He's a great coach and a real thinker on the game of hurling. He is also strict, he often feels hard done by, and he loses it on the sideline with officials, the opposition and his own players. It's his style, and it's been successful.
But it's the definition of a short-term approach. That kind of style can't work forever. Players become immune, or if the bite matches the bark, then they become disillusioned and fed up.
Too many players have left the panel in the past five years, some temporarily and some permanently.
His management won Clare the All-Ireland in 2013 when they had been absolutely nowhere just two years before. It was an incredible achievement.
It occurred in the weirdest hurling year of all time and with an exceptional group of young players, but the manager deserved and received enormous credit. Arguably he got them there two or three years early. There was an innovative style of hurling employed that had yet to be countered. Everyone wasn't delighted with it, but it got results.
A young team with very little experience made it all the way through the summer because they were well coached and well drilled. They also had incredible fitness and a huge sense of togetherness. Davy's Miwadi and biscuits story will go down as one of the strangest GAA stories, but it was significant.
The fact is though, Clare have faltered since then. It's not a case of "eaten bread is easily forgotten" as I saw it crassly written today. It's that he's gone as far as he can go with this group of players. As with any heave, it's not being done for the craic.
Clare have underachieved in the last three years. The bulk of an Under 21 team that won three All-Irelands in a row are entering their peak. Another All-Ireland winning Under 21 team have two or three years left at the top. We might have dreamed of domination in a post Kilkenny world, but that was never going to happen. The fact is though that Clare have the players that should at least be competing at the top table. Right now, there's a clear top four, and they're not in it.
The game has adapted to Clare's tactics of 2013. Can they come up with something new?
Are they a group of players, a different breed entirely from the team of the 1990s, that needs a strict disciplinarian and drink bans and a manager losing it on the sidelines? I don't think so. I could be wrong, but now is the time to find out, before it's too late.
Meanwhile, a coach as good as Davy, can find a new style with a new team. And his approach can work with a new group of players. If he decides this is still for him, there are roles out there for him to flourish in.
Anyone who dislikes Davy Fitz has never met him. Genuine hurling man with unrivalled passion. Hope he takes Clare back to paradise some day.
— Paudie_Shivers (@paudie_shivers) July 24, 2016
Clare have won three All-Irelands in the last 100 years. Davy Fitzgerald has been to the fore for all of them. In the times between being was a player and being manager, Clare were an irrelevance. We've never known success without him. In the days and years to follow, I want people to remember and appreciate that. I'm sure they will. Another bad year, and I'm not so sure.