Ephie Fitzgerald pledged to Cork cause

Sunday, February 7. The first page turned in the next chapter of Cork ladies football.

The reigning league and All-Ireland champions have travelled to Brosna for the second round of the national league. Eamonn Ryan is present in a Cork dressing room, overseeing a Cork team as they prepare for their second league game of the spring. But he’s not in Brosna. No. He’s in Ballyshannon with the men.

Ephie Fitzgerald commands the Cork dressing room in Brosna. He recognises Briege Corkery, and one or two more. That’s it, though. The majority are strangers to him. And he a stranger to this family.

Fitzgerald was appointed to the post a week and a half previous. His involvement with the Waterford footballers, though, meant he missed Cork’s opening game against Mayo at Mallow. The visitors won out by 2-8 to 0-7. Not a great start to life after Eamonn.

Life with Ephie begins today. That he doesn’t know 90% of the players he’s in charge of neither bothers him nor fazes him.

Long-serving defenders Bríd Stack and Deirdre O’Reilly both make their first appearance of the new season, the latter having been touted as a potential retiree. A first positive. The sole positive. Emma Farmer and Ciara O’Sullivan’s green flags are insufficient to prevent a 0-11 to 2-4 Kerry victory, Cork sliding to the foot of the Division 1 table alongside Tyrone and Monaghan. Not a great start to life with Ephie.

“I was approached by a chap in Nemo after Christmas to know would I be interested in taking them over. You get lots of approaches about different things so I said I’d have a think about it,” recalls Fitzgerald.

“I hadn’t any involvement in ladies football. My two girls played football with Nemo so that would have been the extent of it. I would have watched the Cork girls on television if the matches were on but I wouldn’t have been an avid follower of ladies football, so I wouldn’t have known, outside of Briege Corkery and those who would have a high profile, a whole lot about it.

“That was a rotten day below in Brosna and if I was to be honest, I didn’t know who 90% of the girls were.”

So, why then get involved? There were deterrents; the pressure element of being the individual who stepped into Eamonn Ryan’s shoes and being charged with improving on this team’s remarkable record. There was also the Waterford gig. Coaching one inter-county team is surely work enough.

“That fact that it was my own county was the biggest draw,” he admits.

“I’ve been around. I’ve coached in Limerick, Clare, and Waterford over the years. I didn’t get the Cork men’s job [last year] and there is nowhere like home, at the end of the day.

“Their success didn’t come into it. You are not going to win the All-Ireland every year. That’s obvious. I think Kerry, early on, were dominant. Waterford had a dominant period. Cork have had 10 of the last 11 years. There is no one deluded to think you are going to do it every year.

“You can’t improve on their success in terms of what they have achieved. You can try and continue it and develop players, the new ones like Shauna Kelly, Libby Coppinger, and Hannah Looney.”

And that’s exactly what the new management have done. Despite that poor start, the league title was retained. The Munster championship was wrestled back from the Kingdom. Sunday, then, represents the county’s 11th All-Ireland final appearance in 12 years. Valerie Mulcahy left. Orla Finn stepped in. Seamless transitions all around.

“I was made feel ferociously welcome when I arrived. These girls didn’t know anything else but Eamonn for 12 years. They had gone through practically an entire career with just Eamonn.

“Was there a bit of nervousness on the girls’ part [at a new manager]? I don’t believe so. We didn’t change a whole pile. That was the most important thing. Maybe our training is a little different but they get on with it.

“Their humility is the one thing that really strikes me. You never ever hear them talking about what they have won. The press will mention that they have won x amount of medals. You never hear the girls going on about it, though. These player of the match awards are a nuisance to them, they really are. They are so grounded. Briege [Corkery] would tell you there shouldn’t be any player of the match awards. She’d be embarrassed when she’d get them. It is just all about the group and the performance. It is all about getting the best out of yourself.”

In the semi-final against Monaghan, Ephie’s charges were asked more questions than they had been all year. The usual suspects stood tallest in guiding Cork through. Briege Corkery kicked four points from play; Deirdre O’Reilly was colossal at centre-back; Bríd Stack behind her minded the house with familiar frugality.

“The important thing for me was that while Valerie (Mulcahy) did retire, all the other girls stayed on. That was helpful to the younger ones because of the example they show at training. You can’t buy that. Briege might milk 400 cows and while she could be a couple of minutes late, she’d be out there galloping as if it was her first training session and she wanted to make an impression. Rena [Buckley] has a busy job. Deirdre travels a lot of miles to come to training and is running her own business.

“When you look at the commitment these girls give without any recompense whatsoever, that is the phenomenal thing. They don’t ever ask for or receive a penny in expenses.

“That is part of the mystique over what has gone on over the last couple of years.”

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