Cork's Ashling Thompson hails impact of Fitzgerald
By Paul Keane
Ashling Thompson felt the pain all last winter.
In his first pre-season as Cork camogie coach, Davy Fitzgerald made his presence felt on the training field.
'Our pre-season was horrific,' smiled midfielder Thompson before adding that, a day out from the Glen Dimplex All-Ireland final, it was clearly worth it.
Fitzgerald wasn't actually manager Matthew Twomey's first choice as coach when he stepped up from the role of selector for the 2022 season. Truth be told, Twomey contacted many other coaches who didn't fancy the job but the Clare icon jumped at the opportunity and immediately got down to work.
The fresh approach was a sea change for the players, many of whom had experienced a decade under former manager Paudie Murray.
'Change is a scary thing, especially when you're so used to a system for 10 years,' said Thompson, an All-Ireland medallist under Murray in 2014, 2015, 2017 and 2018. 'But then when you bring in someone like Davy, who has all the experience in the world, we were delighted to see it.
'The one big thing I take from working with Davy is the relationship amongst the squad. We've had over 10 new players come into the squad this year, a lot of young girls too, but you'd genuinely never know that they're new, it's like we know each other for the last 10 years and that's the biggest thing that I take, that he's incredible at gelling a squad, bringing them together and getting them fighting for eachother. That's what it's all about - when he's with you, he's with you. And it filters down throughout the squad.'
It could still be considered a brave thing for Twomey to do, to bring in such a successful and ebullient figure as Fitzgerald who could potentially have overshadowed the new manager.
'Yeah, absolutely,' agreed Thompson. 'Obviously Davy has a big personality but Matthew is so calm and laid back that it was very easy for them to gel. The rest of the management are the same, there's a lot of jokers there. We're serious when we're serious but there's a lot of jokers there and it's just a very sociable group.'
Fitzgerald will be hailed a hero around Cork, and his punishing winter regime a masterstroke, if they can win back the O'Duffy Cup. It's only four years since they were last champions, beating Kilkenny in that decider, though it feels like a lifetime for Thompson who won seven All-Irelands - three with her club and four with her county - in just five years between 2013 and 2018.
'It's something we're not used to,' said the 32 year-old personal trainer. 'When you go that long, what has it been now, 2018 since we've won a final? That's a drought in Cork camogie. It mightn't be for other counties but it's a drought for us.
'Do you know what though, you learn a lot from losing. I know you want to be always winning but at the end of the day, you only really learn from your losses I think.
'So that's been a big help for us in some ways, it's been a big motivator. The main thing was to get back to the final this year but unless we're pushing over the line, there's just no point in being there.
'We've worked hard enough, I think we have enough in the squad, the management have done everything in their power to get us to this point and look, it's down to the team now.'
Thompson, cleared of a two-match suspension on the morning of last month's semi-final win over Waterford, came on 22 minutes into that game and helped turn things around a slow start. They were still five points behind early in the second-half but ended up winning by five.
Kilkenny came from behind at half-time too in their semi-final against Galway.
'I've been around long enough to know what to expect from Kilkenny,' said Thompson, the 2015 All-Ireland winning captain. 'No matter what the obstacle they seem to face, you'll always get the same from them, you'll always get the same level of effort, the same level of fight. We know exactly what to expect off them. No less than 100% is going to get us over the line.'
This will be the sixth final meeting between the two counties since 2009. Cork also beat Kilkenny at the semi-final stage last year. More recently, in this year's National League, the sides drew. It's a special rivalry.
'It is, and I look forward to these games because we bring the best out in eachother,' said Thompson. "I've a lot of respect for them as a team, we've been there long enough and I've played them more times than I can tell. So it's going to be a fantastic final, I have no doubt.'