The lone Ranger loving Limerick life

HE never planned on straying too far from Nemo. Ephie Fitzgerald’s football roots are with the aristocrats of the Cork club game, his playing days spent kicking ball in Capwell and when the time came to hang up the boots, he moved seamlessly into management.

As the club moved to their new home in Trabeg, Fitzgerald oversaw history when Nemo Rangers strung together four successive county senior football titles between 2005 and 2008.

The glorious run had to end sometime. In August 2009, they were ousted in a quarter-final in Bandon by divisional side Carbery. Fitzgerald handed in his notice.

The prospect of throwing in his lot with another club did not arouse his interest. The furthest Fitzgerald travelled in Cork football circles was down the road to Coláiste Chríost Rí, where he helped Aidan Moynihan of John Mitchells steer them towards the Corn Uí Mhuirí in March.

Even at that he was working with Nemo players, the team captain was Kevin Fulignati and the scoring star was Luke Connolly.

But outside the county, his achievements were noted and the process to recruit him began. Fitzgerald had never crossed paths with Maurice Horan before last winter yet he knew a call from the new Limerick manager was coming down the tracks.

“I was tipped off by a fella that Limerick had been asking about me so I was expecting a call,” he said.

“I didn’t know Maurice but he wanted me to come on board as coach with him. We talked and we decided to give it a go. It’s been a breath of fresh air. I’m gone back coaching whereas I was involved more with the management in Nemo. It’s been very enjoyable, working with good quality players and I’m learning all the time.”

At Nemo there is a plentiful supply of winners’ medals. In Limerick there is a plentiful supply of hard luck stories. But Fitzgerald is adamant they have the raw materials.

He has worked with blue-chip forwards in his time and he’s convinced young Limerick duo of Ian Ryan and Ger Collins measure up to those standards.

“Talent-wise Ian and Ger are up there with the best in the country. It’s just about believing in themselves. That’s not easy. When you’re coming from Limerick and you’re 116 years without winning anything, it’s difficult.”

Hopes of making that elusive breakthrough have been hit this year by setbacks. James Ryan switched allegiances to the county hurlers early in the season. As the qualifier series has grown frantic this month, hurling commitments have drawn in Stephen Lucey and Mark O’Riordan as well. And then there is the ruinous streak of injuries that has plagued the squad, claiming their totemic midfielder John Galvin as its most high-profile victim.

“I’ve been involved in football a long time and I’ve never seen anything like the injuries we’ve had. We had to play Jim O’Donovan against Kerry when he was half injured and aggravated it. We brought on Eoin Joy in that game and he was gone a few minutes later with an injury. It’s been that sort of year.

“Losing the experienced lads has been a killer. You might get away without one, but not when you take four away. You can’t replace someone like Galvin, he always puts on his championship hat and performs.”

The task was made all the more difficult with the manner of their opening championship defeat. Limerick have prided themselves in handing Kerry vigorous tests in recent years but last month they were convincingly beaten by 11 points. Coupled with Waterford’s 18-point loss to Cork the following day, it was a weekend when football in the province took a battering. Yet Fitzgerald does not feel those views carry much currency.

“Teams in other provinces aren’t up against the same quality. Munster has the two best teams in the country. Who else is there? Maybe Dublin, Ulster and Connacht are much of a muchness.

“We were very disappointed by the loss to Kerry but it’s not really a big surprise is it that it was the big two in the final this year? Clare are the only one in the last 75 years to have won other than them. That says it all.”

Limerick returned to the training ground after that debacle and got back to work. The fruits of that labour were seen in last week’s win over Offaly and tonight’s battle with Waterford is one Fitzgerald is relishing. This may not have been a job he expected. But it is one he is savouring.

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