Colm Cavanagh: Davy Fitz made me realise that every county needs a CEO

Colm Cavanagh
Colm Cavanagh Colm Cavanagh

Some call it socialising, I prefer the term ‘networking’ but either way it’s usually an enjoyable change from the office.

I attended the Saffron Business Forum Lunch last Friday in Belfast where one of the guest speakers was Davy Fitzgerald.

A man who needs little introduction and someone I had never met before. His reputation for getting results, taking his job seriously but also being up for the craic is well known. 

He spoke about various elements of his role with the Waterford hurling team and also about his experiences as a player and what has stayed with me since hearing him, and something I have mentioned here before, is how professional in nature the GAA has become.

He touched on how the demands of an inter-county player are at an all-time high and ever increasing, how as an amateur sport the commitment and dedication it takes to get to the top level and moreover, stay there, are as much as any professional sport. 

Davy spoke about how his approach to training has completely changed in recent years in an attempt to take the ‘seriousness’ out of the game.

He started his managerial career with a very autocratic approach because that’s just how things were done. You had to be the leader, be firm and disciplined to get results from the team.

This only works for so long before it becomes a dictatorship and when he saw the fun and the energy starting to leave the team, he knew it was time for a change. 

He described how he now has a more relaxed attitude now. The team are there for their love of hurling and to enjoy the game.

He has nominated two members of the team as the CEOs (Chief Entertainment Officers) whose role it is to organise a night out every few weeks to maintain and strengthen friendships and team spirit.

Rather than punishing lads with press-ups he instead asks them to sing. There were a few funny anecdotes and stories like this which really got me thinking. 

I played my entire Tyrone senior career under the management of Mickey Harte who is known for his high levels of discipline and commitment.

Starting out, I viewed Mickey as a very tough and honestly unapproachable character. He had the fear factor where we did what we were told, when and how we were told.

This got us results and the team were a strong and united force who worked together for each other. There are only so many times a team can buy into that attitude, though, before it becomes repetitive or stale and Mickey recognised this.

In the latter years, he had to adapt and change to better match the next generation and the number of external influences on the players, with a slightly more relaxed approach to training, matching the personalities on the team rather than trying to change personalities. 

Alcohol bans were always standard while I was playing, whether encouraged by management or self-imposed with the hope of better performance. There were many years when we would have had one night out in the year at most, because we would have been straight into club fixtures, but when nights out are so scarce, it meant that it was a binge anytime we did have the freedom to party.  

This attitude was discussed recently by Lee Keegan and Paul Flynn and also how we go about creating a culture change. They played at the highest level for many years themselves and agreed that one blowout a year doesn’t help anyone.

To party for one night and suffer for three days afterwards just isn’t appealing. 

Having team bonding sessions or entertainment evenings and training weekends without alcohol are commonplace, but many would agree that getting everyone together for a few pints gets players to know each other and the different personalities in a setup a lot quicker than any amount of paintballing or obstacle course days out.  

From the speech that Davy Fitzgerald gave, he seems to be trying to bridge that gap between ‘amateur professionalism’ and being committed while playing sport for enjoyment.

The GAA is in a precarious position at the moment as many people simply don’t see the benefit of committing six nights out of seven, missing family occasions, missing holidays, sticking to a diet plan, a training plan, living under a regime for years after which, for many, there is absolutely no ‘reward’ at the end.

I think this change needs to spread throughout the country and somehow get back to a point of balance between training hard and enjoying it while wanting to be there. 

I couldn’t let the week go past without congratulating the Derry players on winning back-to-back Ulster titles. To have a provincial final decided by penalties won’t be favoured by the purists but for the excitement factor, I have to say I really enjoy it.

There's no denying it was tough on Armagh to lose in that manner, but from a neutral perspective, it was great to watch, and I am sure everyone in Clones on Sunday enjoyed the spectacle, regardless of which team they were there for.

I do think if Armagh had have taken more risks in the first half of extra time, been braver and went for it when they had the extra man, they would have won it. There are an interesting few weeks ahead with the next rounds of games and Armagh will feel they have a point to prove for sure.