When Ephie Fitzgerald agreed to take on the job of Cork ladies football manager in January of 2016, he had more than one person tell him the role was “a poisoned chalice”.
Cork had won 10 of the previous 11 All-Irelands. Responsibility for keeping this “ridiculous” run going now lay at his door.
There was also the small matter of trying to fill the void left by a man who the players had come to look upon as an almost father figure. Fitzgerald, to his credit, continued on the course which his successor Éamonn Ryan had plotted, guiding the county to All-Ireland number 11.
Come the end of the following year, however, the job didn’t look half as attractive. The 2017 season, despite a successful retention of their league crown, was Cork’s worst in quite a while, such was their failure to make either the Munster or All-Ireland finals.
The slide in fortunes was heavily linked to the decision of Vera Foley, Deirdre O’Reilly, Rena Buckley and Briege Corkery to retire.
Bríd Stack and Annie Walsh would follow them out the door ahead of the 2018 campaign. That equated to the loss of 57 All-Ireland medals and 29 All-Stars worth of experience.
Now the Nemo Rangers clubman had a job on his hands to go out and find the brightest young talents in the county so to begin the process of replacing 11-time All-Ireland medal winners.
Once I was approached for this job, I jumped at it. People were saying to me that with all the success, it was a poisoned chalice. I came in to get the best out of people because that is how we were reared in Nemo. That’s why I took the job,” Fitzgerald explained.
“The job since then has been building a team because more than half the 2016 side has stepped away.
Highlighting just how gargantuan the rebuilding project has been is the statistic showing 13 of the panel don’t have a single All-Ireland medal between them, while the remaining 17 have a combined total of 67.
Current full-back Eimear Meaney and dual player Libby Coppinger were unused subs on the afternoon of Cork’s most recent All-Ireland triumph two years ago. Half-back Maire O’Callaghan and midfielder Hannah Looney, meanwhile, could not make the first 30 and were listed as members of the extended panel.
As for corner-back Melissa Duggan, half-back Emma Spillane and impact sub Saoirse Noonan, they were not even part of the senior set-up at that time.
Spillane, Meaney, Looney and Noonan all won All-Ireland minor medals during the three-in-a-row (2015-17) masterminded by John Cleary. Fitzgerald’s relationship with the former Cork footballer has been vital in returning the county to the concluding afternoon of the ladies football championship.
“A lot of credit goes to John and what he has done with the various minor teams.
John and I would be sharing advice and talking to each other on a constant basis. We’d have a very good working relationship. John would say, you need to look at A, B, and C. I would be largely reliant on his experience.
“In terms of what we look for in girls; you needn’t be the most talented in terms of football, but are you committed, are you going to give it the time, are you a good trainer, are you willing to listen and learn. That’s what I look for. You can work on the other stuff.
“Our players are out five nights a week without any financial recompense. Melissa Duggan comes down by train on Wednesday for training and goes back up at 5am on Thursday morning, at her own expense. Áine Terry O’Sullivan comes from Beara. Nobody sees those things and those committments.
“My attitude is that if you have those kinds of girls making that sort of commitment, they are not going to let you down on the field. They are the qualities I’d be asking John about, rather than can they kick 15 points. Chloe Collins was on and off the minor team last year. She’s been phenomenal with us this year. She’s worked so hard. Being an outstanding minor doesn’t mean you are going to make it at senior, and vice versa.”
Despite the age profile of the squad dropping considerably, the Cork manager was confident last year’s All-Ireland semi-final loss to Mayo wouldn’t leave a permanent scar. He didn’t buy into the “doom and gloom” which followed the county’s first defeat in a knock-out championship fixture in seven years.
“I just thought we threw away that game. It was a game we could have won. It was a learning experience for some of the girls who hadn’t lost a semi-final before. We had won 11 out of the previous 12. That’s ridiculous.
“Coming out of Breffni Park, I was gutted. End of an era, I don’t think so. I knew they would bounce back.”