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'One of my last touches as a player could have been an own goal in Croke Park, I was lucky!'

After All-Ireland wins with Galway and Corofin, Kieran Fitzgerald reflects on a playing career of ups and downs.

Kieran Fitzgerald celebrates after Corofin's All-Ireland club success in January.
Kieran Fitzgerald celebrates after Corofin's All-Ireland club success in January.
Image: Tom O'Hanlon/INPHO

Updated May 10th 2020, 10:25 AM

THAT PERFECT ENDING almost veered off script.

The All-Ireland finish line was in sight under the January floodlights, Corofin on the cusp of providing the latest confirmation of their club football superiority.

The ball was being moved around their defence when Kieran Fitzgerald sent his hand pass a little off target and Bernard Power had strayed a little from his goalmouth.

A career of remarkable longevity and success nearly had an unfortunate footnote.

“One of my last touches as a player could have been an own goal in Croke Park, I was lucky,” laughs Fitzgerald.

“What people tend to forget is Bernard actually punched it directly back to me. It was an amazing piece of skill to dive to get it.

“Even when I got the ball back and I was moving away with it again, I was looking at Conor Lane and he was taking to the umpires and I’d visions of him calling the ball back but thankfully he moved off.

“Honest to God it was as close to a goal as I could have possibly got. I’ve been slagged about it a few times since.”

That clean sheet was preserved and the night concluded with Corofin heading west as proprietors of the Andy Merrigan Cup again.

It rounded off another season on a high note and this time there would be no deliberations from Fitzgerald over his future playing intentions. At 39 years old he was done.

Between club and county, six All-Ireland and eleven Connacht medals collected along with a role in 14 local title wins in Galway. The decision to call time was not sparked by the current Covid-19 shutdown and the ongoing uncertainty over whether GAA action will resume in any shape or form in 2020.

A hamstring issue flared up around the two-game county final saga with Tuam Stars last October and repairing it was not straightforward.

“It was very hard to try to stay fit and obviously my age didn’t help. After the county final I said I was going to take it game by game. I did very little training. The games came thick and fast with Ballintubber and Pearses, and immediately after Christmas with Nemo and then Kilcoo.

“It was basically getting to the finish line and thankfully it ended up in Croke Park. The lockdown has come now but I really had my decision made from a way back.”

He ended embracing that winning feeling and had started out in a similar fashion almost two decades ago. In the summer of 2001 as Galway tried to regain their feet after taking a hit from Roscommon, Fitzgerald was part of a new wave of talent in their side, nailing down a defensive spot.

By September they faced a Meath team that had defeated Kerry with a devastating semi-final showing. Padraic Joyce put on a point-scoring masterclass and there was a maroon Sam Maguire parade in front of Hill 16.

2002 did not deliver the ultimate prize but the Corofin youngster was a defensive cornerstone on an U21 team that swept past Dublin for an All-Ireland victory that seemingly signalled a healthy and vibrant future for Galway football.

“It was an unbelievable time. Johnno gave loads of young guys opportunities. Michael Comer from my club was playing corner-back with me in a national league final and Kieran Comer was centre-forward I think, Joe Bergin obviously there as well.

“It helped with the U21 championship that a lot of those guys had already played senior football. I probably didn’t think about it much at the time, we were just going from game to game loving football, playing at every opportunity like young lads do.”

kieran-fitzgerald-and-steven-mcdonnell Kieran Fitzgerald in action against Armagh's Steven McDonnell in 2001 Source: INPHO

It wasn’t a sign of things to come though. On the county scene at least.

The days of glory dried up for Galway, a few Connacht titles could not propel them to greater heights as Gaelic football became locked in a battle for supremacy between Ulster revolutionaries and Munster aristocracy.

“Football changed and we probably didn’t adapt well at all,” reflects Fitzgerald.

“We were probably stubborn the way we tried to play football for a long time, going man on man at the back, leaving six up front, the traditional way. We had some good results but we weren’t winning and we were conceding a lot of scores.

“When we did try and change it, it wasn’t our style and we weren’t very good at it. I don’t think we were really happy playing that way too.

“I think we played a National League final against Kerry in Limerick in 2006 maybe. Peter Ford was in charge, it was a terrible game of football. I think the Kerry manager at the time was Jack O’Connor, he said we were Tyrone light. It wasn’t our way, it didn’t work out for us. We fell back into the mid tier of Gaelic football.”

His last championship summer in 2010 saw Galway reside in the wilderness, dumped out of Connacht after a replay by Sligo and then reaching the end of the road in Salthill in a qualifier against Wexford.

Yet it’s not a chapter that Fitzgerald looks back on with regret, that season where they were guided by the figurehead of Armagh football.

“We put in huge effort that year and we had some really good victories early on against Dublin in Parnell Park and we beat Tyrone in Tuam.

“For the effort we put in we didn’t get any rewards but it was an enjoyable year with Joe Kernan and to see how he worked, we’d admired him from a distance in the past.

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“It didn’t work out and he only stayed for a year but ironically that was one of my most enjoyable years.”

john-omahony-and-joe-kernan Mayo boss John O'Mahony and Galway manager Joe Kernan before a league game in 2010 Source: Mike Shaugnessy/INPHO

The following spring saw Fitzgerald leave the Galway dressing-room. The timing and manner of his departure sparked some loose talk that it had been a messy exit.

“I actually left on great terms. Tomás Ó Flatharta was manager at the time, I was captain, myself and Mike Meehan and Finian Hanley, we kind of had three captains. Papers at the time were saying because Niall Coleman had left as well, there was a falling out of sorts.

“But it couldn’t be further from the truth. I met Tomás in Athlone one day and I just told him. I was constantly injured and I wasn’t enjoying my football for other reasons. I felt I couldn’t contribute to Galway any more and the best option was to step way.

“Maybe I felt in my head that at some stage I’d return if my injuries improved but as it turned out I never did. I’ve met Tomás on numerous occasions since and I’ve great time for him. I’ve no regrets about it all.”

kieran-fitzgerald-and-trevor-mortimer Fitzgerald in action against Mayo's Trevor Mortimer in 2006 Source: Andrew Paton/INPHO

He was 30 then and it would have been hard to envisage the extraordinary run of success that was to follow.

Fitzgerald had joined the Corofin senior setup in the months after their 1998 national triumph, then watched with a mixture of admiration and envy as local rivals Caltra and Salthill-Knocknacarra reached that summit.

It took time and graft and a capacity to sustain disappointments before the career renaissance that featured final days of celebration.

Corofin displayed perfect expressions of their play in Croke Park against Dr Crokes and Nemo Rangers, produced gritty showings to defeat Moorefield and Kilcoo, while there was plenty heat in their provincial rivalries with St Brigid’s and Castlebar Mitchels.

But the journey to the top is distilled down to a pair of All-Ireland semi-finals.

“People talk about the Brigid’s game in 2011 where we lost in Kiltoom and there was a lot of controversy. I don’t really dwell on that though or when Karol Mannion got a cracking goal against us in 2006.

“But if you were to name one, the St Gall’s All-Ireland semi-final in Parnell Park, that’s really one I look back on as a game that we left behind. At times I think we had an inferiority complex going into games in All-Ireland series, we were nearly beaten going up.

“We should have won it in full-time and it went to extra-time. We ran out of petrol a bit. There was a real funny rule at that stage. Gall’s had got a player sent-off and in extra-time they got the opportunity to go back to 15. Gary Sice got a yellow in ordinary time but that carried through and he got sent-off in extra-time. 

“They won the final after against Kilmurry-Ibrickane handy enough. We were without doubt good enough to win the All-Ireland that year but belief honest to God was our biggest issue that day.”

kieran-fitzgerald-with-karl-stewart Fitzgerald with St Gall's Karl Stewart in that game in 2010 Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

It took another five years to win a semi-final tie and reach the promised land on St Patrick’s Day. That game against St Vincent’s was a different milestone.

“You’d get goosebumps thinking about that game. That was the closest club game I’ve ever played to inter-county standard. It was unbelievable football, they’d Diarmuid Connolly, Mossy Quinn and Ger Brennan all at that time.

“I remember we’d a meeting in Ballinasloe two hours before the game, Stephen (Rochford) and Kevin (O’Brien) were going through their last few bits with us, there was just an air of steely determination in the room, you could get the sense that something big was going to happen.

“I was fully convinced then we were going to beat Vincent’s. Stephen was a great confidence booster and psychologist in a way, he had us primed. Going back into the dressing-room that day, I can clearly remember how ecstatic we were. It was such a weight off our shoulders that we’d got to an All-Ireland club final. That victory was our most important one.”

conor-cunningham-celebrates-at-the-final-whistle-with-kieran-fitzgerald Celebrations after that success over St Vincent's Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

They took off from there, that statistic about two championship losses since (Castlebar in November 2015 and Dr Crokes in February 2017) capturing their relentless drive to win.

The job description in defence changed as the game evolved yet the calibre of opposition forward remained high.

“When I started playing football first, you had direct play, putting ball into the danger area. That 50-50 or 60-40 ball that you’d be working hard to try to get a fist in as an inside defender.

“Midfielders or players out the field won’t take the risk of kicking a ball in now, that Diarmuid Connolly-Ronan Steede kind of a ball in. The opportunities to win man on man ball has decreased. Whether I won those battles or not, I always found it enjoyable, great satisfaction in competing really hard for the ball.

“Within the club scene in Galway marking the likes of Padraic Joyce and Michael Meehan, they were huge contests. To win a ball against those guys, you had to really be on top of your game, albeit I had limited success against the two of them.

“Outside of that, I marked Oisin McConville one year in an All-Ireland quarter-final and the Kerry lads were always difficult. In fairness to Kerry would always try to play first-time ball in with Colm Cooper, Bryan Sheehan, Darran O’Sullivan and those boys.”

His defensive longevity and adaptation was aided by a sounding board at home in his wife Emer.

galways-emer-flaherty Emer Flaherty in action for Galway against Monaghan in 2013 Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

“She just retired there last year from the ladies game. She won an All-Ireland in 2004, has two All-Stars herself and she played centre-back and full-back. She says herself at times, she knows exactly what I’m feeling on the pitch when things do or don’t go well.

“It’s nice to come home and have somebody who’s constructively critical of your performance. Without doubt I’d be bouncing ideas off her and how to make my game a little bit better. She was a great addition to my backroom team!”

The demands escalated as their marathon campaigns unfolded. Fitzgerald juggled life and work as a Garda stationed in Ballinrobe and what was required to stay going with Corofin.

At times that all intersected. In January there was not much time to bask in a celebratory glow after defeating Nemo with a family wedding to attend.

“My brother-in-law Noel got married to Majella that day, we were really fortunate the wedding was actually in Doolin and our game was fixed in Ennis. I didn’t miss a huge amount of it. I was in good form anyway after winning the game and it was a great day.

“What we in Corofin have been doing the last few years and other clubs I imagine is not so far off a lot of inter-county teams. Between Hudl and GPS and stats and analysis, individual video and your own individual training programme, the time you spend on the pitch and the time you spend preparing yourself with your food and diet and mobility. You have to really want it but there’s huge rewards there.”

He got more rewards than most, a treasure trove of memories to dig into. It’s an odd time to have moved on, that retirement party will have to wait.

kieran-fitzgerald-celebrates-after-the-game-with-manager-kevin-obrien-and-ciaran-mcgrath Kieran Fitzgerald celebrates with Ciaran McGrath and Kevin O'Brien after Corofin's All-Ireland club success in 2019. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“It’s unusual but it’s a bit easier because there’s no football going on around me. Everybody’s in retirement mode at the minute. I’m sure whenever it kicks off again, I’ll miss it.

“I’d always emphasise that you never achieve anything by yourself. I was always part of a great team. Down through the years we’ve developed a great bond and a great camaraderie and togetherness.

“We’ve shared a lot of ups and downs, on and off the pitch, no more than other clubs no doubt. They’re super guys. Hopefully I’ll get to play a part with that team and club in the future. I’ve got great cards and messages from them all, hopefully when this all settles down, we’ll get to enjoy a drink.”

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Fintan O'Toole

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