When he took on the proverbial poisoned chalice of managing Cork’s ladies’ footballers in January 2016, it was easy to imagine that Ephie Fitzgerald might soon be choking on its contents.
The 10-time All-Ireland senior champions had just lost a manager that seemed more ‘sensei’ than coach, and some of their many superstars had one, if not both feet, out the exit door.
Yet in Fitzgerald’s debut season Cork still won the League, Munster, and All-Ireland titles.
2017 was a lot shakier. They lost a few more legends and only won the league.
But last year they were back in an All-Ireland final with a completely remodelled young side, starting only five players who began the 2016 decider.
Two weeks ago they underlined their growing cohesion and confidence by beating reigning double champions Dublin in an extra-time league semi-final to earn their shot at Galway in tomorrow’s Lidl Division One final.
So how did a man who “hadn’t a clue about ladies football,’ not only manage to refill the chalice but with the sweeter stuff?
A sports nut, who is almost as fanatical about cricket and Formula 1 as he is about Man Utd, Fitzgerald can see Turner’s Cross from his house and came close to playing for Cork City.
“I played senior soccer locally and was with City for a bit. Noel O’Mahony was manager then and I did a fair bit of training with them but I just couldn’t marry the two.”
His even greater grá was Gaelic football, particularly Nemo Rangers. He played minor and senior with Cork but it was with Nemo’ that he won three All-Ireland club medals.
He also went on to coach them to four county and two Munster titles, before spells working with the Limerick, Clare and Waterford footballers before Cork ladies’ board came calling.
Yet it is not Fitzgerald’s sporting passions but his day job that defines him as a person, and possibly most shapes him as a manager.
Sport, with its laughably simplistic narrative arcs of zeroes to heroes and tales of redemption and glory, is a world away from the harsh, messy human reality of struggle, neglect and regret that he deals with daily.
He is a teacher at Cork’s Youthreach programme in Mahon, one of 30 such around the country, which provide a last educational refuge for disadvantaged teenagers through vocational training (QQI certs) and support.
Cork’s is run by the Education Training and Welfare Board (ETB), holds 25 students (ages 16 to 21) who stay two or three years, and has a full-time staff of four with additional part-timers.
“Their families are often doing their best but in very difficult circumstances, so there’s not much academic support at home, and it could be drugs, alcohol, abuse - any range of things impacting their schooling and lives.
“Our first thing is to respect them and where they’re coming from and get them onside. They’ve fallen out of school for some reason, so there’s a lot of socialisation needed initially. Everything we do is about respect. We respect them, they respect us.
“There are codes of conduct that come from Head Office but we like our kids to come up with their rules, like ‘what do you think is acceptable?’ It’s student-lead I suppose.”
He insists he fell into this most demanding end of teaching because jobs were scarce when he graduated from UCC with a history/economics degree and a HDip, initially working in St Francis Training Centre for 25 years.
“I suppose I always had a bit of a thing for the underdog,” he concedes.
Now he teaches subjects like work-place safety and health-related fitness in a role that is clearly as much pastoral as educational, and often extremely challenging.
“Long ago I used to bring it home with me but I don’t now. We’ve had so many tragedies. I could fill a room with bodies of young people who have died from suicide or car-crashes and joy-riding - you name it. We lost a young lad last year which was just so sad.”
Yet there are successes and redemptive stories too and he insists “sure it’s not a job at all really. I love working with kids, we have a great crew staff-wise, and it’s about way more than teaching.” In comparison though, sport is fluff and nonsense, no matter how het-up he can get about it.
“Yay, I had to tone it down a little,” he chuckles of his tendency to “be a bit Davy Fitzgerald on the line.”
When he first turned to management he also had to soften up a bit and be less demanding. “You tend to forget you made the same mistakes as the lads are making, so that was a learning process.” He has also learnt to delegate, bringing in the highly rated James Masters as Cork ladies’ coach while he concentrates on “the mundane stuff really, talking to the girls, looking at how we want to play, what we want to do in training and the video analysis.”
Fitzgerald still lives in the heart of Turner’s Cross, literally surrounded on all sides by immediate and extended family, and he and Rose have three children.
“All three were Irish adoptions and it was tough because we were six years waiting at first. They go into every detail of your life and I got sick of it.
“When they called one night and Rose said they wanted to talk, my initial reaction was ‘tell them to go take a running jump’.”
But it was, finally, the news they craved, and twice more they were blessed. Their children range from early teens to 21 and he nudges the eldest on the couch beside him, teasing her with “this one is a bit of a brainbox now, studying psychology.”
So this deeply family man, who never shirks a challenge and loves underdogs, brought a world of life experience to this so-called ‘poisoned chalice’, a phrase that still makes him roll his eyes.
He’ll vehemently defend his players - and sportspeople in general - with trademark Cork flintiness, including one prominent good friend.
“Listening to rubbish from people sickens me. I know John Caulfield really well and think he’s done a fantastic job with City.
“As a society we’ve got completely over-demanding now with regards to the GAA,” he adds.
“We have girls who come from Dublin on Wednesday to train with us who get up at 5 next morning to go back to work. We’ve another who comes from Castletownbere to train, a 200-mile round trip, all just for the love of it.
“They don’t get any expenses and unless there’s an affiliation with the GAA that’s never going to happen. My attitude is, if the girls aren’t getting expenses, then we don’t take them either.”
Retaining Frankie Honohan and the late Bridget O’Brien on his management team helped initially to accelerate his education in the womens’ game.
His backroom has had some enforced changes again this season but continuity is helped by the rich talent rolling off the county’s underage conveyor belt (driven by minor boss John Cleary) and bolstered further by club successes like Mourneabbey and Glanmire.
“These girls are very professional in their attitude and are driven on by real leaders like Ciara and Doireann O’Sullivan and Melissa Duggan.
“If they’ve something to tell you they’ll tell you. They don’t pull any punches and that’s the way I like it. It’s generally Masters they pull anyway,” he laughs. “Actually it’s themselves they pull up more than anything.”
He worries though that the demands on them (training six times a-week, four collectively), may be getting excessive, and also has misgivings about the game getting too physical. “The beauty of ladies’ football is that it’s free-flowing and there’s not a whole lot of fouling going on, but it seems to be getting a little bit over-physical.”
Ladies Gaelic technically, is strictly non-contact. No shouldering is allowed and a player can only be dispossessed when kicking, soloing, bouncing or hand-passing.
While arguing that referees don’t call fouls consistently, he sets off on a fine verbal solo of his own.
“One thing that disappoints me too is that females don’t support female sport more. I think they could get out to matches more. There was very few people at our semi-final with Dublin the last day. That was crazy!” Double-headers, he reckons, are the way to go to build consistent crowds but, “to be honest we don’t take any notice of it. If there was no one there it’d be the same for us. We just face what’s ahead of us.
“I’m making a blanket statement here now,” he says, in full flow. “But I think girls are too accepting of their positions sometimes, rather than fighting for them. It’s like ‘ah sure it’s grand, we’ll get on with it.’
“Maybe that’s because they’ve always had to do that.” Cork are bidding to pass Kerry in the record books tomorrow with a 12th league title that would also be their third since he took over.
Galway beat them in a low-scoring league opener (the Mournabbey contingent were still out) and are bidding to break their long league duck. They’ve lost five finals and their last, in 2015, was a replay.
Like his predecessor, Fitzgerald plays life with such a straight bat that you almost believe him when he plays down the Rebels’ chances, declaring his young side potentially vulnerable to Galway’s experience and greater motivation.
“Losing to Tipperary was our turning point so far. We pride ourselves on our defending and let in a lot that day but, after that, we beat Donegal, Mayo, Dublin, and then Dublin again in the semi-final, so there’s been a big lift.
“We didn’t put a big emphasis on the league, we wanted to find a few player and I think we’ve done that,” he says of youngsters like the Kiely twins (Eimear and Daire), Clare O’Shea and Laura O’Mahony.
But is that not a bit Keanesque when the top end of women’s Gaelic now is also rife with tactics, systems and the kind of detailed video analysis that Cork themselves do every Friday night?
“D’you know what, a lot of that is over-stated. Gaelic football is a simple enough game,” he insists.
“Galway will probably be very defensive because they’ve been defensive all year and yes, we’ll have a system to play against that.
“But football is a battle between you and the girl you’re on and, if you win those, the team will do well. We don’t over-complicate things. We’ll work on three or four tactics every week but that’s it. They have a licence to go out and play as they like, once we have the ball.”
His full name, for the record, is actually Ephraim. “My grandmother gave it to me,” he groans. “I dunno, it’s a biblical thing or something, a Jewish name apparently.” Ephraim, a quick Google search reveals, was the founder of one of the 12 tribes of Israel.
Fitzgerald though is just pure Cork and now leading one of its most beloved sporting tribes.
He’s a father, a champion for sport and underdogs, a rager against inequality and, above all, a teacher who is still learning.
“People often ask me what’s the biggest asset you have as a teacher and I always think it’s your personality. Whether you’re 6 foot 2 or 2 foot 6, if you go in there and they sense you’re on their side and you’re there for them, then generally your life will be a lot easier.”
Sound advice alright, not just for teachers but for coaches and team managers everywhere.