At Tuam Stadium on Sunday, Fitzgerald will line out in the Corofin full-back line for what will be his ninth Connacht club final. To give you an idea of just how long he’s been on the road, he was midfield on the Corofin team which fell to Crossmolina in the 2000 provincial decider. Stephen Rochford was corner-back for the winners that afternoon. Rochford served as Corofin manager when Fitzgerald finally got his hands on the Andy Merrigan Cup some 15 years later.
Fitzgerald’s workload is lighter these days, the 36-year old spending as much time on the rowing machine and bike than he does on the field. He knows to be smart in managing his schedule, surgeries on his ankle, groin, and hip heightening his awareness of the need to mind himself more and more.
That the body required a bit of work is hardly surprising, given he’s in his 18th season with the Corofin seniors. Throw in 12 years with Galway. He’s been around.
“Whenever my season finishes, I’ll look at things, see how I am and see if the hunger is there to go again,” says Fitzgerald. “Since leaving the inter-county scene [in 2011], I’ve been relatively lucky with my club. We’ve been successful. It is hard to leave a good thing there. I suppose if I can stay free from injury, chances are I’ll keep going. But I don’t know about going till I’m 39 or 40, like Gerry.”
Fitzgerald was 18 when Corofin first scored All-Ireland success on St Patrick’s Day. He joined the club’s senior panel a year later in ‘99 and was called up by John O’Mahony to the Galway squad a year after that.
What the club did in the spring of ‘98 (Corofin were first from Connacht to annex the Andy Merrigan Cup), he reckons, was the catalyst for the success that followed at inter-county level.
“The club win in ‘98 was unbelievable. It had been 32 years since Galway had won the All-Ireland. There had been so much heartache for Galway teams going to Croke Park. It would have been the same thing with the club. I remember Connacht teams going up, Salthill, Knockmore, and Castlebar, and always been beaten. It was really new territory for Corofin, for all of us. It gave belief that a Galway team could go to Croke Park and win.
“A few months later, Galway won the All-Ireland. We were back in 2000. Beaten after a replay. Won again in 2001. Caltra and Salthill won club All-Irelands after that. Corofin’s win gave teams that extra belief that we weren’t inferior to other provinces.”
Fitzgerald was corner-back when Meath were held to eight points on the concluding afternoon of the 2001 championship. Nobody could have envisaged that Galway would have to wait until this spring for another competitive victory at GAA HQ.
“It is an amazing stat. That is the way things go. For myself and Joe Bergin to get in on that team [in 2001], we jumped on that bandwagon. Lucky enough to win an All-Ireland. We won an All-Ireland U21 title the year after against Dublin and things were looking good. We were thinking if we could combine that U21 team and the existing senior team, but we never really got close again.”
Keeping the conversation trained on the inter-county scene, Fitzgerald is confident former club boss Rochford can take Mayo back to September in 2018.
“I don’t think what happened in September will derail him that much. There was obviously huge disappointment. They’ll come back just as strong again. They might have to tweak a few things or add a few players. They will be a force again. They are relentless.
“Castlebar have that Mayo aggression. They play high up and are in your face. They’re very good at turning you over.”