By Kieran Murphy
IT is hardly unique, but it is certainly unusual for a player to make a senior debut for his club in the provincial championships rather than in his own county competition.
That is exactly what Mark Fitzgerald did back in 2012 when he came into the Éire Óg team as a replacement in their 3-10 to 2-11 defeat to Wicklow side St Patrick’s in the first round of Leinster.
What is more. It wasn’t in defence either. He is the established full-back now, but under then manager Turlough O’Brien he played further up the field.
“A crazy game,” is how Fitzgerald describes that day in Aughrim.
“We kicked a leveller and then they went up the field and got a goal. Naïve on our part.
“My first Carlow club championship game was against Naomh Eoin. Turlough had me at full-forward. A long way from full-back and the way we played that year I found myself around midfield and up in the forwards.”
Coincidentally, that Éire Óg side were beaten in the county semi-final by Old Leighlin who were then managed by current YI manager Joe Murphy.
Mark has been an automatic selection on this three-in-a-row Éire Óg team. With a 16-month-old daughter to look after now, he is as happy as he could possibly be.
“I have a little one, Pippa. It’s brilliant. I have had her there at the last two county finals. Last year she was just four months. It’s great. The family are happy and the football is good,” says Fitzgerald who works locally in Merck, Sharp and Dohme.
He is looking forward to Sunday’s Leinster club clash with Portlaoise.
“Portlaoise are a well-seasoned team. They have won so much in Laois and I don’t think there is any team in the country who has had so much success in their own county. It is a massive game for us: Portlaoise in Portlaoise. There are games to be enjoyed,” he maintains.
Éire Óg topped their four-team group in the Carlow senior championship to qualify for the semi-finals. A defeat to Tinryland was a glitch, but they swept aside any suggestions that they were not playing well when they comfortably beat Bagenalstown Gaels and Palatine to clinch a hat-trick of senior titles in as many years. They are purring at the moment.
“I don’t know what is after happening in the space of a year. Players and management team alike have just come together. Lads are taking pride in their own performance. Even in a training match the effort the lads are putting in. We are training as a group three nights a week. Lads are in the gym. Lads are doing recovery sessions in the pool.”
At the moment, Éire Óg are in a fortunate position that when players get tired they can be replaced by others who would make the starting-line-up in any other club team in the county.
“There must be lads in here who are not sleeping at night. They don’t know whether they are starting or not. That is the quality of the players in there. Anyone could be in,” maintains Fitzgerald.
He knows Portlaoise have a massive tradition but he says Éire Óg will draw on their own tradition too.
“The Sarsfields game was a massive one for us. That was a huge game. Everyone coming out of Kildare is strong. Portlaoise and Sarsfields are brilliant teams with a brilliant tradition. We have a brilliant tradition as well. We are Éire Óg,” says a defiant Fitzgerald.