Wexford manager David Fitzgerald had a huge impact on Conor O'Mahony's hurling career.
The caricature of David Fitzgerald’s management style is straightforward - the Sixmilebridge man installs a defensive structure and then trains his players at the intensity of soldiers preparing for war in order to bring that game plan to life.
The picture painted, however, is inaccurate. Davy Fitzgerald knows how to motivate players; he knows when to praise, when to tease and when to taunt. Indeed, Fitzgerald is, most critically, capable of implanting belief in players where little or none previously existed.
Although it is startling to now note - given the fact that Conor O’Mahony played on forty-two championship occasions for Tipperary - the Newport man could, potentially, have been lost to the Premier County, but for the intervention of David Fitzgerald.
Conor won successive Munster minor medals in 2001 and 2002 and was sprung from the substitutes bench to score a goal in extra-time to beat Cork in the 2003 Munster under-21 final before capturing another medal at the same grade a year later - still though Conor was not all that ambitious about his hurling career. Indeed, O’Mahony had two years put down in college before he even considered turning out for LIT; a third level institution he would win Fitzgibbon Cup medals with in 2005 and 2007.
LIT manager Davy Fitzgerald saved Conor O’Mahony from the hurling scrap heap. The Clare man spotted something in O’Mahony, presented Conor with a vision of the player that he could potentially become and then pushed the Tipp down the right road. Indeed, with Fitzgerald’s help Conor O’Mahony could see what he was, had a vision of what he could become and then everything in between became the project. Indeed, Conor O’Mahony has gone on public record to pay tribute to Wexford boss Davy Fitzgerald for his development as an inter-county hurler.
“Davy pulled me aside one day and he said, look, you have the potential to hurl for Tipp for the next ten years if you want it, but it is up to you,” Conor O’Mahony told the Tipperary Star this week.
“And, I suppose, to hear that from someone like Davy at the time was massive. That gave me great confidence - I said to myself, look, if I work hard here who knows what can happen. It was Davy who pulled me aside - he told me I was good enough, but it was up to me if I wanted it after that,” Conor O’Mahony explained.
“I was involved with LIT (Limerick Institute of Technology) and was amazed at the whole professionalism of the set-up and the enthusiasm that he brought to it. When I started out he gave me great confidence that if I wanted to hurl for Tipp down the line that the potential was there. I found him hugely beneficial to me.”
Prior to his encounter with David Fitzgerald the Newport man’s self-image as a hurler was not all that well-developed. As a person Conor was easy-going and he was inclined to go with the flow. Fitzgerald fixed that, however, and inspired O’Mahony to take responsibility for his future as a player.
“Everybody’s dream is to hurl for Tipp - if you pick up a hurley and you are good at hurling you want to hurl for Tipp,” Conor O’Mahony explained.
“But, I suppose, yeah, I was an easy-going character and would have said whatever happens will happen. I was just taking it year-by-year, but to hear that coming from someone like Davy Fitz, who was a huge character and who was after winning a couple of All-lrelands as a hurler, gave me huge confidence. Obviously, the dream was to hurl for Tipp, but at the time I was, maybe, very easy-going about it. I wasn’t overly pushed. For the first two years of college I didn’t hurl and it was only in my third year in college that I decided to focus on college hurling.”
Following Fitzgerald’s timely intervention Conor O’Mahony started to take his hurling and his preparation to hurl much more seriously. And, of course, working in the high performance environment established by Fitzgerald at LIT was a significant contributing factor to Conor’s subsequent development as a player.
“When I got involved in LIT I could not believe the professional set-up that he had. It was my first time experiencing a strength and conditioning coach that was specifically for our team. We had dieticians coming in and this was all new to me. When I was training at LIT all I had to bring was my hurley, my boots and my helmet. My socks, my togs and my jersey was laid out for me. My recovery session was there and planned for me - the ice baths, everything. It was just a real eye-opener,” Conor O’Mahony revealed.
“I had been involved with the Tipperary under-21s, but the whole professional set-up had not really hit under-21 level. Then everything filtered in together - you were watching your diet, training harder, watching your nights out and it was a culmination of a lot of different things that I had to improve on.
“It was only when I was 20 or 21 that I started to do gym programs. And, as everyone knows it takes a couple of years for a guy’s body to develop. It can take three years before you will actually see the real benefit of it. I started at 20 so I was only really hitting my peak by the age of 23 or 24,” O’Mahony added.
David Fitzgerald built his LIT team around Conor O’Mahony at centre-back and made it his business to suggest to then Tipperary manager Ken Hogan that the Newport man was the solution to Tipperary’s problems at six. In 2005 O’Mahony made his championship debut for Tipperary and soon represented a solution in a spot which had troubled the Premier County for nigh on thirty years.
Considering his experience Conor O’Mahony is well-placed to identify the factors which are contributing to the success that Davy has enjoyed in Wexford since succeeding Liam Dunne.
“The big thing I would see so far, especially against Kilkenny, is that they are extremely fit and all of Davy’s teams are extremely fit. He puts a lot of work into match-ups; he pulls his players aside and he puts a lot of individual responsibility on his players. It can add a bit of pressure, but I also think that players can grow in that environment. Players buy into Davy’s concept and they would do anything for him,” Conor O’Mahony said before explaining that Fitzgerald’s intensity as a man and his enduring love for hurling can have a big impact on players.
“I have never met anyone who is so hurling enthusiastic. He is just constant - it is 24-7 with him, it is all hurling,” Conor O’Mahony told the Tipperary Star.
“When he comes into a set-up and he starts making changes and players start to get rewards - Wexford are after having three very good wins against Galway, against Limerick and now Kilkenny - players are going to buy into it. Whatever he says they will do because they believe in him,” the Newport man added.
And, Conor O’Mahony believes that Tipperary need to be on their guard against Wexford in Sunday’s Allianz National Hurling League semi-final at Nowlan Park, Kilkenny. David Fitzgerald and his team cannot be taken for granted.
“They couldn’t and I don’t think that they will,” Conor O’Mahony said.
“The Tipp guys are around long enough. I think it is going to be a different game to what Tipp have played for the last few weeks. There is going to be a lot more off the ball, there is going to be a bit of niggle in it and I think that’s no harm. The Tipp players will be delighted at this time of year that it is not an all-out hurling game and that there is a bit of niggle in it.”
Everyone knows about Davy Fitzgerald's determination to win, but few realise his ability to help players realise their potential.
“You have to be impressed,” Conor O’Mahony said as his thoughts turned to the progress of the Tipperary team led by Michael Ryan and his management team.
“Since Mick (Ryan) came in he won the All-Ireland in his first year (as manager) which is fantastic. He is after bringing in a couple of new players, they are after finding their feet and they are hurling well. He is in a league semi-final this year so things are going well so far, but I wouldn’t be getting too carried away yet,” Conor O’Mahony warned.
“The downside of going so well is that after one defeat there can be a big step back. The team is stepping up and they are doing alright so far, but I would not be getting too carried away yet. They have a lot of work to do, but, look, they are going in the right direction. And, I presume Mick is happy to be in a league semi-final.”
As a centre-back of renown Conor O’Mahony has, of course, been fascinated by the development and progress of Ronan Maher at six on the Tipperary team.
“When Ronan came in (to the panel) a year or two ago you could see that he was a natural hurler. He was learning his trade, but last year he really stepped up. His reading of the game is exceptional; he knows when to follow the man; he knows when to sit back,” Conor O’Mahony explained.
“So far he has been exceptional for Tipp, but he is still young and he is still learning. Let’s hope that he is going to get better and better. So far he has been exceptional and the best could be yet to come.”
Since stepping away from the inter-county scene Conor O’Mahony has starred on a Newport team which won the 2016 county intermediate title and is now preparing to feature in the Tipperary senior hurling championship for the first time in twelve years. And, it is an experience that Conor has enjoyed and is enjoying, no end.
“It was really enjoyable after stepping away from the Tipp set-up. It is different. I was with those guys the whole way up until minor and under-21 and then, all of a sudden, I was gone away from them for nearly ten years,” Conor O’Mahony revealed.
“You start to build a better relationship with those guys again and to go back up senior after twelve years was huge. And, it was huge for the club as well. Let’s hope that we can stay up there now - that’s the target for the long term,” O’Mahony said before explaining that success enjoyed at inter-county and club level sparked very different sensations in him from an emotional point of view.
“It is different,” Conor O’Mahony agreed.
“You ask the majority of the guys if they would like to win a club All-Ireland or a senior hurling championship with their county and the majority of them would probably say club. It just means so much to the parish and to the people around. It gives everyone a lift. The club was down there for a few years; there were very few people going to matches and then, all of a sudden, we started getting to county semi-finals and the people started to come out. There is great enthusiasm now and there are more people around the club at underage level. The club is developing all the time and it is great to be involved.”