Ken Sutton/INPHO Patrick Fitzgerald in action for Ballygunner against Ballyea.
Fitz The Bill

'He's a special talent' - The teenage forward helping champions Ballygunner power on

Patrick Fitzgerald has been a major addition to the Ballygunner ranks.

BALLYGUNNER’S 2022 HURLING journey rolls on.

They move powerfully from one task to the next, lifting the Munster trophy for the fourth time in the club’s history on Saturday and now getting set for an All-Ireland defence, having made the long-awaited breakthrough in that area last February.

The team that won in Croke Park back in the spring was broadly similar to the one that triumphed in Semple Stadium two days ago.

14 starters common to both team sheets.

The difference was in attack, the wearer of the number 13 jersey.

It’s worth considering Billy O’Keeffe’s impact in last winter’s club campaign. He scored 5-13 over the course of the season. There was 2-3 bagged in January’s All-Ireland semi-final on Parnell Park at the expense of Slaughtneil.

On February final day in Croke Park, a pair of important points were notched in a high-level encounter with Ballyhale.

For the majority of clubs that level of form would secure a starting spot but O’Keeffe, just like Harry Ruddle, the famous goalscorer from 10 months ago, had to be content with roles from the bench on Saturday’s Munster final.

When the replacement is an 18-year-old, it is indicative of the precocious nature of that hurling talent.

Patrick Fitzgerald lived up to his end of the bargain, justifying the investment of faith in him.

He cracked home the only goal of the game and finished with 1-4 to his credit.

“He’s a special talent in fairness,” remarked Ballygunner’s defensive lynchpin Philip Mahony afterwards.

“He’s working really, really hard. Since he was a kid, he’s probably put more time and effort into hurling than anyone I ever know anyway.

“But he’s a great addition and he’s working really hard. When he first came in, there was a lot of pressure on him too but to deliver on the biggest stage like this is great for such a young man.”

Fitzgerald’s emergence has been well-flagged. He was unable to play in the 2021-22 senior campaign as he was still eligible for the minor grade last year.

If the GAA rulebook had not held him back, it’s easy to wonder what role he would have played in that run of games. Would he have slotted into senior hurling as a teenager in a straightforward fashion, much like Joe Canning did as a youngster when Portumna began to assume club hurling control?

The opportunity eventually arose to test himself as the 2022 hurling year took shape.
In 2021 Fitzgerald made the GAA’s Minor Hurling Team of the Year, shooting 0-8 for Waterford in the Munster final loss to Cork.

He lined out for the Waterford U20 hurlers this season, scoring 1-5 in two games in the Munster championship.

With county duties over, club commitments began and Ballygunner gently pressed Fitzgerald into adult action, first with their intermediate team and later with the senior setup.

The contribution of 1-2 off the bench in the county senior semi-final against Roanmore was a handsome one, then he started in the final to win his first senior medal against Mount Sion.

Then the Munster scene is where he has exploded to life. He fired 1-4 against Kilruane MacDonaghs, grabbed 1-1 against Na Piarsaigh and then bagged another 1-4 in the success over Ballyea.

“He could have got another one or two [goals] as well, in fairness to him-,” reflected Darragh O’Sullivan on Fitzgerald’s input on Saturday.

“He’s a special talent, I’ve said it all along, but we’ve got to mind him and bring him through. We have to mind him and keep an arm around him, but he has savage ability and he’s working really hard. I’m so proud of him.

“From where he has come from as 17, 18-year-old kid coming in and he’s no frame around him. Look at him now and he’s a frame around him. That’s how hard he is working but he understands that if he wants to be part of this group that he has to work that hard and that’s what he’s doing. I’m delighted for him.”

There is a family connection there, O’Sullivan is Fitzgerald’s uncle. The young forward has cousins like the Mahony brothers surrounding him on the starting team.

Ballygunner have sought to protect their exciting prospect but his abilities have been too persuasive to ignore when it comes to selecting starters.

It’s not like Ballygunner were short attacking options with Pauric Mahony and Dessie Hutchinson established inter-county names.

Kevin and Mikey Mahony are consistently important figures, weighing in with a brace of points apiece on Saturday. Peter Hogan is instrumental to their gameplan with his half-forward role.

Throwing Fitzgerald into the mix enhances further what they can offer.

The teenager is a major addition as they get set for a rematch with Ballyhale in a fortnight.

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