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All-Ireland wins 19 years apart as playing career of stunning success draws to a close

Kieran Fitzgerald has retired after a remarkable run with Corofin and Galway.

Kieran Fitzgerald celebrating All-Ireland senior club glory with Corofin.
Kieran Fitzgerald celebrating All-Ireland senior club glory with Corofin.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

ON THE THIRD Sunday in January, Kieran Fitzgerald was in a reflective post-match mood.

It had been another rewarding trip to Croke Park for Corofin, again departing with silver. They had scaled unprecedented heights in completing three-in-a-row on the All-Ireland club circuit.

Pronouncements about the his playing future were batted away but the 39-year-old did evaluate this highly lucrative phase of his playing career.

“I finished playing with Galway when I was 30. My most enjoyable years playing football, no disrespect to Galway, has been with Corofin. Loved it. Always loved it to be honest with you but like this particular group are unbelievable.

“As I’ve said loads of times before, I’m not a vital cog on this team at all. Those boys are super and look I’m just happy to be a part of it.”

His words captured the personal impact of Corofin’s recent conquests, the satisfaction at being a member of such a talented group.

Yesterday he announced his decision to call time on his days lining out in defence for the club, just over nine years since he had made a similar call on his role with Galway.

It marks the culmination of a staggeringly successful career, defined by the longevity in remaining at the top of the club game and just how much was achieved in those days after moving out of the inter-county limelight.

Fitzgerald’s medal haul with Corofin makes for impressive reading.

Corofin record

  • 14 Galway SFC – 1998, 2000, 2002, 2006, 2008, 2009, 2011, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019.
  • 7 Connacht SFC – 2008, 2009, 2014, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019.
  • 4 All-Ireland – 2015, 2018, 2019, 2020.

Yet it is striking to reflect on the fact that he didn’t claim his first All-Ireland club medal until he was 34. That didn’t seem to sate his appetite, a breakthrough which proved the launchpad to partake in three more Andy Merrigan Cup triumphs.

Since he finished up with Galway there have been five Connacht club honours secured with Corofin and locally eight final victories in the county senior football arena.

The excellence and relentless success of Corofin have in a way obscured his feats with Galway. Part of a group that John O’Mahony unearthed to help Galway go again in 2001, his debut season represented a flying start to county life as they blitzed Meath to land Sam Maguire and picked up an All-Star award for his defensive input.

There was an U21 victory in October 2002 at the expense of Dublin under O’Mahony’s tutelage that hinted at a promising future with a band of youngsters with rich potential set to command the senior stage with Galway.

Galway honours

  • 1 All-Ireland SFC – 2001
  • 1 All-Ireland U21FC – 2002
  • 1 All-Star award – 2001
  • 4 Connacht SFC – 2002, 2003, 2005, 2008

kieran-fitzgerald Kieran Fitzgerald in action for Galway in 2001. Source: INPHO

It never quite worked out that way. Gaelic football veered in a different direction with Kerry and Tyrone monopolising the biggest prizes for the rest of the decade while Mayo were the Connacht standard-bearers when it came to contesting the September showpieces. Those early days had been as good as it got in maroon for Fitzgerald.

When he retired there, he was immersed in a Corofin collective that desperately sought to achieve. The class of ’98 were the trail-blazers for the club, county and province with their All-Ireland club success over Erins Isle.

After that St Patrick’s Day victory, a teenage Fitzgerald moved onto the squad to occupy a place he would retain for 22 seasons. That autumn he was involved as Corofin lifted the Galway title and that set in motion a battle to emulate the club’s national winning heroes.

Climbing to the top proved a challenge. Corofin watched local rivals Caltra (2004) and Salthill-Knocknacarra (2006) savour All-Ireland glory while provincial acclaim didn’t arrive for them until 2008. They retained that title twelve months later but last four losses to Dublin’s Kilmacud Crokes and Antrim’s St Gall’s heaped on the disappointment.

Connacht became a bearpit then. St Brigid’s proved a powerful presence when they emerged from Roscommon and Castlebar Mitchels were moulded into a formidable force.

Corofin were running into roadblocks but from the outset of the 2014 campaign their fortunes changed. They got back to winning ways in Connacht that November and conjured up a spellbinding display the following February to fell St Vincent’s. Felling the reigning champions paved the way for them to breeze past Slaughtneil and finally match the feat of their predecessors 17 years before.

There are two celebratory images of Fitzgerald after those games in the spring of 2015 that illustrate the significance in breaking those semi-final and final barriers.

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conor-cunningham-celebrates-at-the-final-whistle-with-kieran-fitzgerald Kieran Fitzgerald (left) celebrates Corofin's victory over St Vincent's with team-mate Conor Cunningham.

kieran-fitzgerald-michael-farragher-celebrate-at-the-final-whistle Kieran Fitzgerald (left) celebrates Corofin's victory over Slaughtneil with team-mate Michael Farragher. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

The winning streak has exploded since then, slumps against Castlebar in November 2015 and Dr Crokes in February 2017 the only blemishes since then on a sparkling record. Since that last reversal Corofin have defeated the club kingpins of Mayo, Roscommon, Kildare, Cork, Donegal, Kerry and Down.

And through it all Fitzgerald’s influence has not been diluted. The admiration from his team-mates has always been clear at his capacity to remain at the top at a time when the bar in the club game is continually rising. He has spoken of tailoring his training regime to prevent injury issues cropping up and it has proved a successful move.

It has not been a case of a loyal club servant staying involved on the fringes of a squad. First Stephen Rochford and latterly Kevin O’Brien continued to install him at the forefront of the rearguard effort. In January he picked up Cork All-Ireland U20 winner Mark Cronin for Nemo and experienced Down senior Conor Laverty for Kilcoo.

Marshalling danger men has remained his core task. The 2020 club final went the distance, a marathon affair that required extra-time but despite Corofin bringing on eight subs, their longest-serving member stayed out on the pitch until the last whistle.

Fitzgerald leaves at the top, his last playing contribution part of an afternoon of glory at Croke Park. It’s a happy conclusion that is not afforded to many but it was his persistence and resilience that put him in a position to achieve that.

All-Ireland victories 21 years apart neatly bookend his playing career. He got through the valley periods for county and club before enjoying the views from the summit of late.

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About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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