Stepping into the shoes of his predecessor Eamonn Ryan was never going to be a simple task but Fitzgerald has carried on the trophy-winning tradition as Cork powered to a fourth successive Lidl Division 1 NFL crown.
It was Cork’s 10th League crown in 12 seasons and they had to grind this one out against Mayo at Parnell Park, eventually prevailing by three points.
Orla Finn was superb for Cork, scoring five of her six points in the second half, as she impressed from play and placed balls.
The Leesiders roared out of the blocks and were 1-3 to 0-0 clear within 10 minutes.
Mayo managed to get within three points in both halves but never closer as Cork warmed up nicely for next weekend’s Munster SFC opener against Waterford.
There was good news at full-time when Fitzgerald confirmed that skipper Ciara O’Sullivan suffered concussion, and not serious knee ligament damage as was first feared. O’Sullivan, who has fallen victim to the cruciate curse twice, was stretchered off in the second half after whacking her head off the turf. Fitzgerald confirmed that she will miss the Waterford game but thankfully, there’s no long-term damage.
Cora Staunton kicked some picture-book scores for Mayo but this was yet another disciplined Cork defensive display, as they coughed up just eight points from play over the hour.
Rhona Ní Bhuachalla’s early goal, palmed home from close range to complete a slick inter-passing move, proved crucial and Martin O’Brien had a pretty routine outing between the sticks for Cork.
Fitzgerald reflected: “It’s obviously a bit of a relief. It was a fair battle, more of a war of attrition than anything. It was a tough, hard physical game, and that was reflected in the scoreline. We started very well and let Mayo back into it, it was tit for tat for a while then. We had a good start to the second half again but we probably didn’t take our chances. Mayo had a couple of goal chances as well. Overall, I thought it was played at real championship pace, real end-to-end stuff.
“Mayo had their homework done but in the second half Orla Finn had a little bit more freedom and she kicked some magnificent points.
“It’s my first piece of silverware and to win a National League, we don’t take these things lightly in Cork. I think it was important for the girls as well, with the change of management. All in all, we’re delighted.”
Mayo boss Frank Browne said: “I thought we had enough possession to win the game. Cork’s scores were coming a little bit easier. They were breaking out and catching us on the counter.
“I have to take my hat off to the girls — they gave everything they have and what else can you ask people to do only that? Every one of them, you have to be proud of them. We had chances, we kicked five into the goalie’s hands. We gave them a six-point start and a team like Cork, what do they do? They keep the scoreboard ticking over and give away nothing soft at the back.”
O Finn 0-6 (3f), R Ní Bhuachalla 1-1, R Buckley, O Farmer & A Walsh 0-1 each.
C Staunton 0-6 (2f), S Mulvihill, S Rowe, N Kelly & G Kelly 0-1 each.
M O’Brien; E Meaney, B Stack, R Phelan; V Foley, D O’Reilly, M Ambrose; R Buckley, B Corkery; R Ní Bhuachalla, C O’Sullivan, A Walsh; Á O’Sullivan, H Looney, O Finn.
O Farmer for Á O’Sullivan (27), E Scally for Ní Bhuachalla (43), S Kelly for C O’Sullivan (inj, 48).
Y Byrne; O Conlon, S Tierney, D Hughes; R Kearns, M Carter, L Ryder; C McManamon, A Gilroy; C Hegarty, F McHale, S Mulvihill; S Rowe, C Staunton, N Kelly.
G Kelly for Gilroy (22), N O’Malley for Hegarty (35), C McManamon for Mulvihill (48), C Egan for Hughes (49).
B Rice (Down)