'It was a dream to hurl in Croke Park, I grew up watching Cork get to four All-Ireland finals in a row'

'It was a dream to hurl in Croke Park, I grew up watching Cork get to four All-Ireland finals in a row'
Darragh Fitzgibbon burns away from Colm Roche of Waterford. Picture: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

THIS time last year, few were predicting Darragh Fitzgibbon would make the starting line-up for Cork’s championship opener against Tipp.

While he’d shown real quality in the league, particularly in the victory over the Premier when he came in as an early replacement for the injured Conor Lehane and slipped over five points, Fitzgibbon was still very much an unknown quantity. He was ripping it up behind closed doors at Cork training though, and an injury to Daniel Kearney on Sars duty opened up a vacancy in midfield.

MY BALL: Darragh Fitzgibbon, grabs the sliotar ahead of Mike Millerick, Fr O'Neill's, on the road to winning an IHC with Charleville. Picture: Jim Coughlan.
MY BALL: Darragh Fitzgibbon, grabs the sliotar ahead of Mike Millerick, Fr O'Neill's, on the road to winning an IHC with Charleville. Picture: Jim Coughlan.

By the end of the summer the 20-year-old was a Munster medallist, an All-Star nominee and along with Mark Coleman, Shane Kingston, Luke Meade, Colm Spillane, one of the new faces of hurling on Leeside. With pace, poise and point-scoring ability, Fitzgibbon is the prototype modern hurler.

His new-found status meant he was the Rebel representative at the launch of the Bord Gáis Energy U21 Hurling Championship last week and he admitted this season has brought new challenges.

Jack Canning of Galway, Richie Leahy of Kilkenny, Kyle Hayes of Limerick, Rory O'Connor of Wexford and Darragh Fitzgibbon at the launch of the Bord Gáis Energy GAA Hurling U21 All-Ireland Championship at Mitchelstown Caves. Picture: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Jack Canning of Galway, Richie Leahy of Kilkenny, Kyle Hayes of Limerick, Rory O'Connor of Wexford and Darragh Fitzgibbon at the launch of the Bord Gáis Energy GAA Hurling U21 All-Ireland Championship at Mitchelstown Caves. Picture: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

“There’s no doubt the element of surprise is gone. When I came in last year it wasn’t like I’d been on a minor team that had won the All-Ireland or anything like that so no one really knew me at all.

“In the league it was a bit different. You were playing teams who were ready for you but that was the same for all of us on the team.

“It’s a new challenge, a different challenge to overcome, but the aim has to be consistency. You have to respect every single player you come up against, they’re all top quality.

“Last season the management gave us a lot of confidence. They encouraged us just to go for it, to attack the ball and be positive with it. They allowed us make mistakes and learn from them.”

That approach certainly reaped a reward.

Darragh Fitzgibbon with Michael Kearney of CIT. Picture: INPHO/Tommy Dickson
Darragh Fitzgibbon with Michael Kearney of CIT. Picture: INPHO/Tommy Dickson

A student in UCC, he dismisses the notion he’s now a big name.

“I’ve friends who keep me grounded and my family as well. It was just one good season. It helps that there’s familiarity with the new management as well because John (Meyler) was a selector last year and over the U21s.”

While he perhaps could have done with a winter recharge after his breakthrough, there was no time to rest.

“We’d U21 with Charleville and then UCC after that. I did a lot of work in the gym as well to build up my strength. It’s all touch work now though coming into summer. That’s the time of year you really get going.

“With the new format there will be more games and less training and that’s what most players want. I’m used to being busy anyway playing across different teams with the club.”

It’s disingenuous to suggest Fitzgibbon came from nowhere. It wasn’t quite ‘zero to hero’ stuff. At club level he inspired Charleville to a Premier 2 county minor final where St Colman’s, coached by Donal Óg Cusack, pipped them.

Peter Collins of the Carrigaline Court Hotel sponsors, pictured with Donal Óg Cusack and team captain Daire Healy of St Colemans with Charleville's Darragh Fitzgibbon and team manager Mike Keane in 2015. Picture: Howard Crowdy
Peter Collins of the Carrigaline Court Hotel sponsors, pictured with Donal Óg Cusack and team captain Daire Healy of St Colemans with Charleville's Darragh Fitzgibbon and team manager Mike Keane in 2015. Picture: Howard Crowdy

He’s a product of Cork development squads and as a minor he was outstanding. Unfortunately in 2015, Kingston broke his leg following an opening round win over Limerick and they had to face the same opposition again at the Gaelic Grounds for a knock-out Munster semi-final. Denis Ring’s young guns were left to rue a series of wides (15 to Limerick’s four) and a season of promise was squandered.

It truly was a gifted group, which included Deccie Dalton, Tim O’Mahony, Robbie O’Flynn, Michael O’Halloran, David Griffin, Eoghan Murphy and Conor McCarthy, who is now centre-back for Cork City.

Darragh Fitzgibbon clears his lines as he's challenged by Limerick's Barry Murphy in a minor clash. Picture: David Keane.
Darragh Fitzgibbon clears his lines as he's challenged by Limerick's Barry Murphy in a minor clash. Picture: David Keane.

Reflecting on that game now, it’s no surprise Fitzgibbon and Coleman made the step up.

In the analysis at the time, we wrote: “Sweeper Darragh Fitzgibbon and centre-back, Eoghan Murphy, hurled the world of ball, and for long periods Limerick just couldn’t work the sliotar past Cork’s 45.

“The obvious man of the match — in terms of his touches, intelligence and striking — was Blarney’s Mark Coleman. He started at wing-back and was switched to midfield in the second-half, and still finished Cork’s top-scorer from play, with three points.”

The next challenge for Fitzgibbon, Coleman and co is to take Cork into an All-Ireland final, while success at U21 level, with the Rebels at home to Waterford in the Munster semi, would be welcome too.

“I was at the four All-Ireland finals when Cork got there when I was young. My dad brought me up to see those four finals in a row and it was a dream last season to get to play in Croke Park. When I was six or seven that’s all I wanted.”

Interestingly one of his heroes from the Cork team of the noughties, Ben O’Connor, is now in charge of Charleville, a few miles out the road from O’Connor’s native Newtownshandrum.

Ben O'Connor hits the net in the 2005 All-Ireland final win over Galway. Picture: Dan Linehan
Ben O'Connor hits the net in the 2005 All-Ireland final win over Galway. Picture: Dan Linehan

“Ben and Jerry were superb. I watched them a lot when I was younger. We were a bit disappointed how we finished up with Charleville last season but Ben’s back and we’re trying to rectify the issues we have. It’ll like a new season when I go back after Cork are finished but I think the Premier grade is wide open.”

For now Fitzgibbon is fully focused on the Munster series, though as a Chelsea supporter he’ll be hoping his Liverpool-supporting comrades aren’t too happy after the Champions League final.

“There’s always a bit of slagging about the soccer. It’s a change from the hurling anyway!”

Darragh Fitzgibbon nails a sideline against Waterford.
Darragh Fitzgibbon nails a sideline against Waterford.

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