BY KIERAN McCARTHY
EPHIE Fitzgerald is bidding to become only the second Cork man to lead his county to All-Ireland ladies senior football glory.
This Sunday, Cork will look to win their sixth title in a row and 11th in 12 seasons, and it’s also the first time that the county has contested a senior All-Ireland ladies final without Eamonn Ryan at the helm.
In his place stands Ephie Fitzgerald, the Nemo man taking over as a manager earlier this year, and he has overseen league and provincial success, and only Dublin stand between the Rebels and continued dominance.
Sunday’s game in Croke Park – throw-in at 4pm – is the third year in a row that Cork and Dublin have collided at this stage, with the Rebels holding the bragging rights, and Fitzgerald doesn’t believe that Dublin’s recent defeats to Cork will give them extra motivation for Sunday.
‘There is nowhere else I would rather be than in our position,’ Fitzgerald said.
‘I have never ever once heard Briege Corkery or Rena Buckley or Bríd Stack or Deirdre O’Reilly ever talk about any medals they have won; there has never been a mention of that.
‘Categorically, 100 per cent, the hunger will be there on Sunday. It’s been there all season.
‘We had a game amongst ourselves at training last week and, honest to God, it was frighteningly quick. It was top-class stuff.
‘Hunger is a mental thing. What makes you hungrier – winning All-Irelands or losing them? When I won my first county, I wanted to win my second one and so on. We are blessed with that mentality in this Cork team. It doesn’t matter to them what they’ve won in the past, they’re always thinking about the next game – and that for us is an All-Ireland final on Sunday.’
Fitzgerald is wary of the Dubs, and rightly so, but he has so much confidence in his Cork players, particularly their mental toughness.
They have answered all questions they’ve been asked, he said, pointing to the recent All-Ireland semi-final win against Monaghan (2-10 to 1-10) as another example.
‘Anyone who says Sunday is just another game is deluding themselves; it’s not just another game, it’s an All-Ireland final. We name it as that because that’s what it is,’ Fitzgerald said.
‘At the same time the rules don’t change, there are still two goalposts, but there is a different pressure attached to a final. Regardless of football skills, what I look for is to see if they can take the pressure on the big day. This year we’ve shown that we can play in high-stakes games – the Munster final away to Kerry after we lost to them a few weeks before, and the All-Ireland semi-final against Monaghan are two examples of that. Those games showed me that the girls can take the pressure.
‘Dublin’s forward line is very, very good. They are a big, strong physical team that is very mobile. There is very little between the teams and it will be a tight affair on Sunday, but I think our mental toughness is our greatest asset – these players never know when they are beaten.’
This season has been a learning process for Fitzgerald, his first in charge of a ladies team – but following in the road created by Eamonn Ryan didn’t worry the Nemo man.
‘Pressure? Not at all,’ he said.
‘Pressure is not having work, but for me, football is a pastime. The only pressure I feel is the pressure I put on myself.’
After a rocky start in the league, Cork finished strongly to fight their way into the semi-finals, before winning the final against Mayo (1-10 to 0-10), their fourth Lidl Ladies National League Division 1 title in a row.
The Munster title was reclaimed then with victory against Kerry in July, and after thumping Cavan 3-17 to 1-3 in a quarter-final, they accounted for Monaghan in the last four, as the season reaches its climax.
‘It’s been very refreshing,’ Fitzgerald said.
‘Obviously, I was coming into a very successful team and while there are subtle differences between the men’s and the women’s games, this team trains very hard and they are very meticulous about their preparation. The winning culture that has been there over the years has made it that little bit easier.
‘The one thing that struck me is the humility of this bunch. Obviously they are decorated with medals, but there is never any talk of that, it’s always about the next game, the next training session.
‘They are very driven,’ he added, but so is Fitzgerald, as he closes in on All-Ireland glory.