Kerry All-Ireland winner Fitzgerald moving on with the club
By Michael Devlin
Fionn Fitzgerald was the last Kerry man, indeed the last man who wasn’t Stephen Cluxton, to hoist aloft the Sam Maguire Cup at the summit of the Hogan Stand steps on All-Ireland final day.
That was back in 2014, the last All-Ireland win that wasn’t celebrated in shades of blue.
“It seems like quite a time ago now, and I know for a lot of the Kerry players who were involved back then, they definitely wouldn’t have felt that we wouldn’t have to wait as long,” he tells GAA.ie.
Fitzgerald was sharing captaincy duties with Dr. Croke’s club mate Kieran O’Leary that year, as per Kerry club champion tradition, and again was nominated by the prolific Killarney club last year to skipper the Kingdom’s footballers.
Kerry failed to emerge from the fledgling All-Ireland Quarter-Final Group Series of 2018, and manager Eamon Fitzmaurice took his leave from the post as Dublin collected their fourth successive title. In came Peter Keane, who deemed Fitzgerald surplus to requirements at the start of the season, and he was cut adrift from Kerry county football at age 28.
It wasn’t something that harbored great ill-will at the time for Fitzgerald, and it still doesn’t. He was recently married the December before, and come the new year he threw himself into club football with Dr. Crokes who were gunning for a second All-Ireland club title in three years.
“I wouldn't be really like that, to be honest,” says Fitzgerald. “I suppose Croke's were going very well at the time. We went all the way to the All-Ireland club final. Croke's really just took over for me. I'd be very much of the mindset anyway that whatever happens, happens.”
After the club campaign, and out of life in the Kerry jersey, Fitzgerald went and lived. He made for Manhattan in the summer, playing ball with Kerry New York along with county compatriots Daithi Casey, Jack Savage and Ciaran Murphy. It was an opportunity he said he “would have been mad not to take up”.
“It's different playing in Gaelic Park on a Saturday night or a Sunday. In 35-degree heat, it's a bit different! Yeah, it's brilliant. There's a great GAA social outlet out there. The standard is actually quite good as well. There's a lot of county players and club players I would have played with or against out there.
“It was nice to keep in touch but at a less serious level over there. Being in a good place, I was living in Manhattan so two blocks from Central Park and all that goes with it. It was a different experience than being in Killarney in the summer or whatever. You'd probably be leaving things like that for later in life so.”
It's back to porridge now and having just landed back on Irish shores in time for the build-up to next weekend’s final, Fitzgerald reflected on his American stint as a novel experience, having spent the previous six summers at home tied to the green and gold.
“I wouldn't have had that opportunity other years. You get to see life in a different way too. Things you would have missed out on over the last few years, be it social occasions, for me anyway, being involved with Croke's meant that most years I went from Kerry to Crokes, Crokes to Kerry. So there was no real breathing space if you want to call it that.
“For the first time in my senior career I feel like now I’m recharged a little bit. Back to normal, and really looking forward to getting back playing with Croke's again. You look forward to going back to the club, giving them something and just moving on.”
Fitzgerald didn’t switch off from matters at home entirely while Stateside. Obviously linking back up with Dr Croke’s was always on his mind, but he kept up with Kerry’s progress to the final too, watching games each week in the Manhatten house with his Kerry New York teammates.
“I really enjoyed the Mayo game particularly. The Donegal game was good as well actually. I've enjoyed watching the games and slipping back in as a supporter.
“I'm really looking forward to watching the final. A lot of the guys I would have been very friendly with and I would have played with all the way up, and I was only involved with them all last year. It's good to have that interest.
“Realistically, looking at Kerry and Dublin, of course, like anything else, I'd love to be playing in it. I think any supporter would feel that like. If I was watching the hurling game I'd nearly feel like I'd want to play in it. That's what Croke Park does to you on All-Ireland final day. That's the uniqueness of the GAA and all that, like.”
“Winning an All-Ireland in Kerry, if you play football it’s one of those things. Obviously, it was a dream to have the opportunity to win one, and obviously winning one afterwards with the club. Croke Park is where you want to be at for any Gaelic footballer or hurler, to be there on the biggest day. I’d say a lot of the Kerry guys are excited in the next couple of weeks, and rightly so. It’s a very special time in your life.”
Fitzgerald was 24 when he co-captained Kerry to Sam. His club-mate Gavin White skippers this year’s side aged just 22 in what is a Kerry team bristling with youth. Short on experience but ultimately loaded with footballing gifts, the prodigious talents of David Clifford and Sean O’Shea are examples of young players who jumped out of Kerry’s successful minor teams and into the senior setup with remarkable ease.
“No-one had done it since maybe Gooch in Kerry,” says Fitzgerald of the duo’s breakthrough in the past 18 months. “We had no real bolters. Obviously Seanie came with a massive reputation, and David came with the biggest reputation from minor. The last I can remember was maybe Barry John Walsh, a massive reputation. The two lads just took to it like ducks to water.
“After a couple of weeks they settled in, it was like they were there all their life. Very mature guys, very high game intelligence. Good guys full stop. They are good leaders, and you just know they are used to being in strong positions.
“And they love the game, they genuinely love it, you can see that in the way they play. They have good attitudes when things have gone against them in games. It’s a good sign of a young player. They seem to battle on as best they can.”
Invariably for Fitzgerald, looking through his Dr. Crokes lens, he will be facing up to the young phenoms in Kerry club football in the coming years. He was once the young whippersnapper biting at the heels of Kerry greats in club games.
“That’s the way it goes. That’s the beauty of it too like. When you’re young and old, you get to play against everything. I marked some of the legends of football when I was 18 or 19. It probably goes full circle now, you’re running around after younger guys. Club football in Kerry is a very high standard too, you get to play with and against a lot of these guys.”
Speaking to Fionn Fitzgerald, by no means on the scrapheap at age 29, it’s clear he feels he still has plenty left to offer. Dr. Croke’s is his core ambition now, retaining the Kerry and Munster crowns and launching another tilt at an All-Ireland club title. He’ll be back lecturing Sports Science at Tralee IT for the new semester soon, where Clifford and White are among the students. A new €19million sports complex was unveiled earlier in the year that has whet the appetite of the college’s sporting society.
“Exciting going back now, new gyms fitted in and halls and all that. Looking forward to getting stuck into that and looking forward to playing with Crokes as well. I’ve had a nice break now in the last couple of weeks. In the summertime, bar a few county league games, there isn’t a huge amount of football going on. So, I haven’t missed anything major so far.
“I’m looking forward to going back as usually you’re going back tired after a season with Kerry. This year hopefully I’ll be that bit fresher. It’s all about enjoyment and I’m really enjoying it at the moment.”
Does he feel there is a door back into Kerry football again for the county’s last All-Ireland winning captain?
“Ach, I've never really thought about it like that to be straight out about it. It's a young team, a lot of guys have gotten the opportunity, taken it and done well. I've really enjoyed my football with Croke's over the past couple of months. You're playing with probably a different perspective on the whole thing and that's probably helping me a little bit too.
“At the end of the day, even at inter-county level and you forget it sometimes, you play it to enjoy it. And you play it to get excited and get a feel-good factor out of it. I feel like over the last few months I've really enjoyed it like that now again.”