‘You see life in a different way. I’ve enjoyed watching the games and slipping back in as a supporter’

HE CLIMBED THE steps of the Hogan Stand and lifted the Sam Maguire in 2014, but former All-Ireland winning Kerry captain Fionn Fitzgerald has watched from afar this summer.

Lifting the Sam Maguire with Kieran O’Leary in 2014.

Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The Dr Crokes defender was left in the cold following Peter Keane’s installation as manager and the subsequent overhaul to the squad over the winter months. 

And Fitzgerald is fine with that. 

His exclusion isn’t something he held on to. Life goes on, after all. 

“I wouldn’t be really like that, to be honest,” he says when asked if he held onto it. “I suppose Crokes were going very well at the time. We went all the way to the All-Ireland club final. Crokes really just took over for me.

“Erra, I’d be very much of the mindset anyway that whatever happens, happens.”

The opportunity arose to go to America for the summer, New York for six weeks to play football to be precise, and it’s one he grabbed with both hands.

“I wouldn’t have had that opportunity other years,” he points out. “You get to see life in a different way too. Things you would have missed out on over the last few years, be it social occasions…

“For me anyway, being involved with Crokes meant that most years I went from Kerry to Crokes, Crokes to Kerry, so there was no real breathing space if you want to call it that.”

He got just that in the Big Apple anyway, where he lined out with Kerry New York alongside club team-mate Daithi Casey and countymen Jack Savage and Ciaran Murphy. 

“A totally different summer to what I would be used to over the last whatever six or seven years,” the 29-year-old smiles. “Living in Manhattan, it’s been brilliant yeah. I’ve really enjoyed it.

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“I’m looking forward to getting back to real life now, getting back to work, getting back playing club football and settling back in. It was one of those things where the opportunity came and I would have been mad not to take it up.

“It’s a bit different playing in Gaelic Park on a Saturday night or a Sunday in 35-degree heat! It’s brilliant. There’s a great GAA social outlet out there. The standard is actually quite good as well.

“There’s a lot of county players and club players I would have played with or against. It was nice to keep in touch but at a less serious level over there.”

In attendance at the unveiling of Ballygowan Activ+ as the new Official Fitness Partner of the GAA/GPA.

Source: Sam Barnes/SPORTSFILE

Fitzgerald called Manhattan home for the month and-a-half, with Central Park just a stone’s throw away. A far cry a summer in Killarney, he laughs, but he made sure he kept an eye on what was going on at home all the same. 

He’d call over to a few of the lads on the team’s house to watch all the Kerry games, something he most definitely enjoyed doing every week. 

The Mayo showdown was a highlight, with the clash against Donegal at Croke Park also getting an honourable mention. 

For some, you might think it could still be a touchy subject, all things considered. But no, Fitzgerald talks away, his enthusiasm shining through more and more as he talks of his former team-mates, their journey this year and all things football.

He’s evidently in a good place and pleased with how things are going in his own corner at the minute, so he’s more than happy to look back on what he’s left behind. 

It’s a few days after their semi-final win over Tyrone, so understandably chat of the final and of Dublin comes rolling around sooner rather than later.

“I’m really looking forward to watching the final,”Fitzgerald, a lecturer in IT Tralee, beams looking out on the hallowed Croke Park turf, at an event ahead of Sunday’s hurling decider.

“Looking at Kerry and Dublin, like anything else, I’d love to be playing in it. I think any supporter would feel that like. If I was watching the hurling game I’d nearly feel like I’d want to play in it. That’s what Croke Park does to you on All-Ireland final day. That’s the uniqueness of the GAA and all that, like.

“There’ll be a good buzz. I think the supporters will be very much behind Kerry. They have a combination of youth and experience. I think there’ll be a feeling of really being able to have a go.

“Obviously, a lot of the pressure is going to be on Dublin. Dublin are obviously logically in pole position. I think Kerry are in a position to really have a go and hopefully upset all the odds.

“It will be very, very difficult. But as a player you all believe you can win, I would imagine. As a supporter, I’m hanging on for that little bit of hope as well. But Dublin are just on a different level at the moment, there’s no doubt about that.”

He believes Kerry will be fine with wearing the “underwhelming underdogs” tag, but insists he’s not one bit surprised they’re back in the showpiece.

Fitzgerald made his senior inter-county debut during the 2013 National Football League.

Source: James Crombie/INPHO

From the start of the year, Fitzgerald believed that if the Kingdom got their house in order and could avoid Dublin until the decider, they’d meet them there.

Falling short in the league final taught them lessons too, he adds.

“I genuinely thought that they would be get to the final anyway,” he says. “I think the league was a grounding or a leveling factor for them. Particularly a lot of the young guys got to see the likes of a Mayo [side] up close.

“It looked like there was a bit of a championship feel to it then. They got an experience of it early in the summer, and I think that that was a good thing. Just from looking in then, all the games in the Super 8s and the Munster championship — particularly the Cork team — they had different challenges in different ways.

“I think Mayo was probably by far their best performance. It was a top-class performance and something you’d hope they could reproduce on the day of the final against Dublin.

“Even the Meath game, they probably weren’t at their best and they still dug it out. Tyrone; poor-ish first half, second half then I still wouldn’t say that they were firing all cylinders but they were definitely winning and that’s important because that’s a habit.”

He adds: “I would imagine that Kerry would be happy with where they’re at.

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“I still think there’s a few more gears for them to go. But they’ve been building slowly and the different challenges they’ve come up against have equipped them as best they can be for Dublin.

“Whether that will be enough now, I don’t know. Kerry have nothing to lose. If Kerry can really go for the jugular early and try and unsettle the Dubs some little bit — even though Mayo did that and Dublin bit back quite well — I think Kerry will have a little bit of punch in their forward line.

“Dublin and their game management towards the end of the game, they have a massive bench to unload. My heart would say Kerry obviously, but you’d have to say that Dublin are… it’s going to take a monumental effort from Kerry to flip them.”

His mind wanders back to 2014, and the great day it was. That’s the over-riding memory. And then he realises how long ago it’s been. 

“It seems like quite a time ago now, and I know for a lot of the Kerry players who were involved back then, they definitely wouldn’t have felt that we would have to wait as long,” Fitzgerald adds. 

He’s kept in close contact with the lads, of course, but explains how they don’t really talk football. Staying away from the bubble and switching off that part of his life has been rather important, that’s fair to say.

In action for Crokes last October.

Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“I actually know less than I’d say ye know or Kerry supporters would know at this stage,” he grins. “I’ve enjoyed watching the games and slipping back in as a supporter.”

But what about the door back. Is that a possibility?

“Ach, I’ve never really thought about it like that to be straight out about it,” Fitzgerald concludes. “It’s a young team, a lot of guys have gotten the opportunity, taken it and done well.

“I’ve really enjoyed my football with Crokes over the past couple of months. You’re playing with probably a different perspective on the whole thing and that’s probably helping me a little bit too.

“At the end of the day, even at inter-county level and you forget it sometimes, you play it to enjoy it. And you play it to get excited and get a feel-good factor out of it. I feel like over the last few months I’ve really enjoyed it like that now again. It’s good.”

And that’s what life, and sport, is all about after all; enjoyment.

Fionn Fitzgerald was at hand as Ballygowan Activ+ powered up as the new Official Fitness Partner of GAA/GPA

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