As one of the most passionate and driven characters in hurling, it’s no surprise that Wexford manager Davy Fitzgerald has been involved in a number of high-profile incidents both on and off the field.
One of the most infamous moments took place in his side’s 2017 National League encounter with Tipperary in Nowlan Park when Fitzgerald stormed onto the field to confront the referee and give his side an energy boost.
Wexford went on an incredible run during that League campaign, topping the Division 1B table with five wins from five games before recording a five-point win over fierce rivals Kilkenny in the quarter-final.
However, All-Ireland champions Tipperary were waiting in the wings and Fitzgerald knew that his players would need every ounce of energy to combat the side, as he explained in his 2018 autobiography ‘At All Costs.’
“So now we had Tipperary in the semi-final, reigning All-Ireland champions, carrying the obvious threat presented by what I considered the beat forward line in hurling. Tipp can kill you in seconds with their goal-scoring ability and, maybe on some level, that was my biggest fear going back to Nowlan Park now.
“And it’s pretty much what drove me to a moment of infamy that would make me front-page news.
“I had to do it.”
That goal-scoring ability struck just minutes into the game when John McGrath rattled the back of the net, putting Tipperary into a six-point lead. Already frustrated that his defence was being torn apart, Fitzgerald became even more infuriated with some of the decisions by referee Diarmuid Kirwan.
“I know that march onto the field to confront the referee, Diarmuid Kirwan, become a massive media story when it brought me into physical contact with a Tipp forward, Jason Forde. I know it looked terrible. I understand all that.
“And the fall-out, in Forde’s case, is something I deeply regret.
“But Diarmuid had just allowed two blatant fouls on our defender, James Breen, to go without a whistle in the build-up to Noel McGrath’s 18th-minute goal. They’d already breached our defence with a John McGrath goal too so, nearly twenty minutes in, we were trailing 0-3 to 2-3. Clearly beginning to feel sorry for ourselves too.
“And self-pity, I know from experience, is no defence against a goal-hungry Tipp. They’re just programmed to destroy you. The way this game was going, it looked like the could be out of sight by half-time.
“So I basically went to war.
“Now, I had absolutely no interest in making any contact with a Tipp player, but I did want to get my own players’ attention. All our work of the previous few months was about to come undone here if we fell to a twenty or thirty-points hammering. And there was a real danger of that happening now. Of our confidence being torn to shreds.”
While in a TG4 interview immediately after the game, Fitzgerald stated that he did not regret the incident, in his autobiography he admitted that he knew he had made a mistake the minute he crossed the white line. However, he also knew he couldn’t step back.
“After taking the first few steps onto the field I paused about ten yards. I remember my sister, Helen, asking me about this afterward. My answer was simple. Even at that point I knew I was in big trouble. I was already in a place I had no right to be. But I knew too that I had to keep going now. So I kept walking. I had to change the energy around this game and, being honest, I couldn’t blame Forde or his teammate Niall O’Meara for coming across and squaring up to me.
“Jason told me basically to get the fuck off the field and I told him to fuck off back in return. It really was that basic and that primitive. He should never have been suspended for what happened because I was the only one in the wrong. Unfortunately, I wasn’t the only one who paid for my incursion.”
While Wexford’s spirits were raised by the show of energy from their manager, two further goals from each of the McGrath brothers saw Tipperary storm into the League Final on a scoreline of 5-18 to 1-19.
During the week after the game, it emerged that Fitzgerald was hit with an eight-week sideline ban while Forde was facing a two-match ban for his role in the incident.
While the Wexford manager sat down with the county board to discuss an appeal, it wasn’t an avenue he was interested in pursuing. In fact, he didn’t even appear at his own disciplinary hearing. Instead, he was more concerned about the impact on Forde and did everything in his power to help the Tipperary forward’s case.
Forde was originally cited on a case of “assault on an opposing team official” but following an appeal, the charge was reduced to “contributing to a melee” as was his punishment, although he still missed the opening round of the Munster Hurling Championship as a result.
Fitzgerald continues to take full responsibility for the incident and while he accepted his ban without complaint, he still deeply regrets the impact on the then 23-year-old.
“Soon as I realised afterward that Forde might be in trouble with the authorities I rang the Tipp manager Michael Ryan. ‘Whatever you want me to do, I’ll do it’, I told him. I just felt that Jason was now paying for the high profile the incident had been given, something that almost always seems the case with me. There was a picture of the two of us on most front pages, the coverage just adding to pressure building for heavy punishments to be handed down.
“I just felt that the optics of an appeal wouldn’t have been great now. It would have looked as if I was trying to justify it, which I couldn’t. And, honestly, I was far more concerned about Forde missing a game for Tipp, essentially because of something I’d pretty much dragged him into. He didn’t hit anyone. He just gave me a little shove when he probably felt entitled to do far more than that.
“There’d been nothing in it and, anyway, it had been 100 percent my fault. Bottom line, I shouldn’t have been on the field.”