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Saturday 14 December 2019

Fitzgerald: From first baby to great survivor

FIRST BORN: Corofin’s Kieran Fitzgerald. Pic: Sportsfile
FIRST BORN: Corofin’s Kieran Fitzgerald. Pic: Sportsfile

Kieran Fitzgerald was the oldest man in the All-Ireland club final parade last March. Hardly a surprise: he was 38.

But did you know this? When Galway marched around O'Moore Park before mauling Dublin in the 2002 All-Ireland U21 final, Fitzgerald was also the eldest player on parade, only eligible by a matter of minutes …

"I'm 39 on the first of January," confirms Corofin's great survivor ahead of Sunday's AIB Connacht club SFC decider against Padraig Pearses in Tuam.

Perfect timing, you suggest, for any wannabe underage hero who wants a head start?

"Yeah. I was actually the first baby born in 1981."

First baby in Ireland - he even made the front pages.

"We played Dublin in an U21 All-Ireland in 2002," he adds, "and I remember going around in the parade thinking, 'There's nobody older than me here, this has to be some sort of an advantage!'"

Seventeen years on, Fitzgerald is less inclined to view it as a positive, chasing rivals sometimes half his age. But he is grateful for all the compensations that experience can confer. And few players come close on that score.

After all, his county SFC medal haul now stretches to 14. Not quite a record - Paul Hearty retired with 19 in Armagh, while his Crossmaglen comrade Aaron Kernan won his 16th last month - but still a monument to both Fitzgerald's endurance and Corofin's monopoly on Galway glory.

Moreover, here is a player whose breakout season as a Galway senior - yielding an All-Ireland medal and corner-back All Star award - came all of 18 years ago.

The year before, 2000, he was a non-playing panellist as John O'Mahony's men lost an All-Ireland replay to Kerry.

"To be sitting watching Maurice Fitzgerald warming up in front of you," he recalls. "I just remember Páidí Ó Sé running up and down the line ... it blew my mind."

Then in 2002 came that U21 final against the Dubs; Galwegians in the 18,000 crowd must have presumed the good times would last forever.

But as the decade unravelled, Fitzgerald came to realise the fickle nature of football success. When he quit in 2011, an injury-wracked 30-year-old, he had fallen out of love with the game.

"Ah, fed up of it really," he now admits. "I found it very hard to stay fit, injury-wise. The demands were huge. I was working in Athlone.

"Just lost the grá for it really, to be honest. I had 11 years done at that stage. It was probably the best thing I did. I got a chance to reset.

"No disrespect to the inter-county," he concludes, "but my 30s have probably been my most enjoyable."

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