JIM GAVIN achieved something no other manager accomplished when guiding the Dubs to an All-Ireland SFC five-in-a-row last year, but he also had the perception to realise when the time was right time to step aside.
hile refuting the idea that staleness had crept in, Gavin insisted that his resignation was “what’s best for the players” and he relished the opportunity to “see the team grow in 2020” from afar as a spectator.
It’s hard to step off the inter-county treadmill when things fall into place and Davy Fitzgerald can relate with that feeling having brought Wexford to Leinster SHC glory last year before being coaxed back for a fourth year.
People often question his life cycle as a manager by making the case that his successes have come at an early juncture – much like Jose Mourinho – before his short-term influence tails off and his impact wanes.
The facts don’t necessarily back up those arguments as Waterford claimed Munster honours in his third season in charge – having contested an All-Ireland final in the opening months of his tenure – while All-Ireland honours came in his second season with his native Clare and league honours followed three years later.
Leinster success arrived in his third season with Wexford – after an initial bounce and a second-season blip – so that narrative has serious holes in it as he heads into a fifth season with the Model men after a dismal 2020.
Everyone knows the type who outstay their welcome by not reading the signals and departing but the dressing-room scene after their comprehensive defeat to Clare last Saturday hasn’t dampened the Wexford squad’s faith in their messiah one iota.
Joint-captain Matthew O’Hanlon is understood to have been emphatic in his response to Fitzgerald’s musing about whether they wished for him to remain at the helm by responding that, “We’ll be ready for you” when the call comes for 2021.
The Model boss is likely to privately have reservations about how he handled this season but with the full backing of players and the county board, he is more than entitled to complete the job that he commenced.
In a text sent to all of his players and backroom staff yesterday, the 49-year-old spoke of “finishing what we started” as plans for 2021 are already afoot with a new panel being assembled before players get stuck into an eight-week gym programme.
What lessons will he learn for 2021? The two-time All-Ireland winner consigned the disappointment of 2018 to a dark corner as Wexford landed the Bob O’Keeffe Cup a year later but can he work the oracle again?
There’s no doubting the “massive desire” that he will bring to the table and former Wexford star Rory Jacob – who hailed the “great job” which Fitzgerald has overseen – believes a turnaround can be achieved provided subtle changes are implemented.
“There was no lack of fight but the freshness is gone out of the team,” Jacob said. “They reminded me of the Ireland rugby team in a few of the recent World Cups. I think they had gone beyond their physical peak for the year and they were on their way down by the time the championship came around while all of the other teams are bouncing on the way up.
“You can’t flog a dead horse and hope that they’re going to get out and be fresh and energetic, he’d have to look at that and tweak it a bit.”
Many have called for Wexford to revert to a more traditional style but Jacob doesn’t envisage Fitzgerald moving away from the sweeper system that has brought them to the top table again, although he suggests many improvements to it.
“I wouldn’t be throwing out the baby with the bath water and I wouldn’t be on for Wexford changing their style, it has worked for them. The style will probably have to be adapted a bit more, though,” he said.
“We’ve gone back to the 2018 style rather than the 2019 version. Our emphasis seemed to be getting the ball to the 70-yard line with wing-backs and midfielders taking shots and I don’t think you’ll win big championship games like that.
“You need a better attacking strategy. We need to get our good forwards onto the ball and play a style that’s going to get them into the game. Our attacking strategy is key.”
Jacob also expects new faces in defence as they were “physically bullied” at times with Jack O’Connor and possible newcomers like Jack Cullen and Wexford footballer Glen Malone tipped to feature as Fitzgerald hopes to turn around their fortunes.
He’s already achieved that feat twice during his memorable reign, time will tell whether he can work his magic again or if the ridiculous mileage he’s clocking up every week should have helped him to step aside.
Fitzgerald likes nothing more than quieting the doubters and 2021 offers a glorious opportunity to prove that he, and his squad, are far from a beaten docket.