KIERAN FITZGERALD was six when he attended his first All- Ireland club final, when St Finbarr’s defeated Clan na nGael in the 1987 decider in Croke Park.
He was at the 1988 finals too, but Fitzgerald has no recollection of the match. His first real memory of an All-Ireland club final is from 1989, when Nemo Rangers defeated Clan na nGael.
The name caught his attention. Nemo. He knew nothing of their storied history, but in Fitzgerald’s young mind, Nemo were always the standard.
Pat Fitzgerald religiously brought his son to matches everywhere and the All-Ireland club finals was an annual pilgrimage. Fitzgerald saw Nemo annihilate Castlebar Mitchels in 1994. Nothing had changed. The empire was still ruling with an iron fist.
“Whenever I thought about club finals, Nemo were always the first team that came into my head,” said Fitzgerald in an interview before the 2018 All-Ireland club final.
“They were always a superpower. To play against them in a final now is the ultimate challenge for us. And it would be the ultimate prize for Corofin if we could win it.”
For decades, Nemo were the standard because they gobbled up so many All-Irelands. Crossmaglen Rangers threatened to surpass them on their relentless crusade which saw them win six All-Irelands between 1997 and 2012, but Nemo still sit on top of the roll of honour with seven titles.
Corofin may be still two All-Irelands away from that number, but becoming the first team to secure three successive All-Ireland club titles has granted Corofin the right to be regarded as the greatest club team ever.
Fitzgerald’s career straddled Corofin’s two golden eras. When he first joined the senior panel in 1998, he played alongside Ollie Burke, Gerry Burke, and Eddie Steede. In recent seasons, Fitzgerald was lining out with their sons; Ian Burke, Daithí Burke, and Ronan Steede. Another former team-mate, Tommy Greaney, is an uncle of Martin and Michael Farragher.
The wheel kept turning, but Fitzgerald’s presence was a constant. In 2015, Fitzgerald equalled Seán Purcell’s haul of 10 county medals with Tuam Stars. In October 2017, Fitzgerald surpassed Trevor Burke’s record for the most Galway senior football medals. The titles didn’t just stop there — when Fitzgerald announced his retirement last week, he finished up with 14 counties, seven Connachts and five All-Irelands.
The crazy thing is that Fitzgerald’s haul is dwarfed by Paul Hearty’s colossal collection of medals — 19 Armagh county titles, 11 Ulster crowns and six All-Irelands. Along with his former Crossmaglen team-mate Oisin McConville, Hearty is the only player with six All-Ireland club titles.
Hearty is the most successful club player in history. In 2008, a full decade before he retired, Hearty gave an insight into the mindset which continued to drive him and Crossmaglen on their relentless charge.
“With the talent that’s coming through, I can’t see it stopping if we keep the heads down and do things right,” said Hearty.
“It’s a credit to all the players that we’ve kept it going for this long, but our attitude is that if we’re able to do it, why not keep going?”
It was easier for players like Hearty and Fitzgerald to keep going when they were on such successful teams. Yet the standard is so high now at club level, especially among the elite teams, that playing on meant having to do so much more.
Anxieties inevitably come with age and increasing mileage on the body clock. Remaining sharp, mentally and physically, keeping the foot pressed to the accelerator is inspired as much be fear as necessity. It was Fitzgerald’s only way of maintaining that edge, especially in his position in the full-back line.
“I constantly feel that I have prove myself every time I go out on the pitch, to show that I’m worthy to be there,” he said in 2018.
“I’m always questioning myself, making sure that I can be right on the day. With strength and conditioning, I’m probably in better physical shape than I was at 25. The biggest challenge is the mental one. It’s almost a case of constantly trying to tell yourself that you deserve to be at this stage.”
Fitzgerald certainly did. Four All-Irelands in five years as he headed towards 40 are numbers that few players have ever got to add up. It was apt that Fitzgerald’s last game was to play almost 90 minutes of an All-Ireland final on the fastest playing pitch in the country.
Fitzgerald was solid that afternoon in January against Kilcoo but anybody following the club game closely wouldn’t have been surprised; in the Connacht championship he kept two current inter-county forwards, Mayo and Ballintubber’s Cillian O’Connor and Hubert Darcy, of Padraig Pearses and Roscommon, scoreless from play.
Fitzgerald continued to get the job done on the field, but his Corofin team-mates always said that Fitzgerald’s greatest legacy, whenever he would depart, would be the immense leadership he showed in establishing the winning culture in Corofin.
Fitzgerald was the ultimate competitor in everything he did, especially in training. If a 39-year old was driving that culture, how could a 19-year old have any excuses with commitment?
In the modern GAA world, where the game is getting faster, players are becoming stronger and fitter, there is often a tendency to move older players on. That may apply more at inter-county than club level but it’s still increasingly becoming a young man’s game.
There are always exceptions but it’s not always about what players can contribute on the pitch — the leadership and example they show off the pitch can often be every bit as important.