Antrim's free-styling Matthew Fitzpatrick ready for Down clash
IF the GAA’s disciplinary chiefs had their way, Matthew Fitzpatrick would only be returning to the playing field this month after a year’s suspension.
The Central Competitions Control Committee charged the St John’s man with “misleading an investigation” after an incident in a League game between Armagh and Antrim in March 2017.
After a couple of daft disciplinary turns, common sense eventually prevailed. Fitzpatrick was exonerated for the third – yes, third – and final time.
The cloud hanging over the free-styling centre-forward had been lifted – and it showed in his first half display in Antrim’s Ulster Championship clash with Donegal a year ago.
He gave Frank McGlynn the runaround before an ankle injury on the cusp of half-time ended his afternoon.
A few weeks later, he was fit enough to resume and ran himself into the ground in Antrim’s defeat to Sligo in the All-Ireland Qualifiers at Markievicz Park.
It’s Antrim’s press night in breezy Randalstown.
In between signing autographs for the young Antrim supporters, ‘Fitzy’ banters with his St John’s club-mate Patrick McBride and Rossa’s Stephen Beatty.
“What a difference a year makes,” he smiles. “My mum mentioned that to me recently. She worries about everything. She said: ‘You’re going into a big match with no worries’. And I said: ‘I’ve still a week to go – so don’t speak too soon.’
“I’ve forgotten about the whole thing from last year.
“It was what it was. It was a mess. It’s better to move because you’ve nothing to gain from holding grudges. It’s mad to think if I had been suspended for a year, I’d only be coming back now to play.
“I would have missed so much.”
With a roguish grin, the 23-year-old adds: “From that and watching the first two series of [American legal drama] Suits, I learnt a lot about the judicial system!”
Fitzpatrick appreciated the support he received from the Antrim management team last year – Frank Fitzsimons, Gearoid Adams and Pat Hughes.
He misses not having the trio around and believes they were treated harshly.
But he still sees a lot of Fitzsimons and Adams. The latter is coaching him at St John’s while also doubling up with the Down seniors and he works in La Salle school where Fitzsimons is caretaker.
“Frank is much older than me but he’s like one of my mates,” says Fitzpatrick.
“He works in La Salle as the caretaker and I have some craic with him. I do miss having him about [with Antrim], but having Gearoid about with the club is good, so I still see quite a lot of them.”
He can’t disguise his fondness for last year’s management team. He describes Adams and Fitzsimons as the “perfect mix” and points to how well the pair are doing in Down and St Enda’s, respectively.
“Those two boys will not be stuck for jobs.”
Fitzpatrick knows Adams will have told the Down players every single nuance of his and McBride’s games. After all, the pair are two of Antrim’s main attacking threats ahead of tonight’s intriguing Ulster Championship clash in Newry.
“Gearoid has taken Paddy and me since we were U16. What can you do? He knows us. But there’s only so much he can do – he can’t go on and mark us. In saying that, if he did, he might still skin me!”
While he enjoyed working under Fitzsimons and Adams last season, he has great time for new boss Lenny Harbinson.
Both manager and player hit it off instantly. It helps that they are two big Barcelona and Pep Guardiola fans.
“Lenny loves Pep Guardiola. He’s always sending me links about Guardiola. He likes to take different things from other sports, even basketball. For him, it’s all about learning. He says he’s still learning, and he’s won All-Irelands.
“Lenny gets his message across and leaves no stone unturned… He has every single base covered.
“We go to training and complain about how much we’re doing and then he goes home and does 10 times more work and relays it to us in an hour.
“Getting to work with Lenny, Brendan [Treanor] and Oliver [Lennon] has been brilliant.
“There is nothing more the management team can do. They give us all the information we need. It’s up to us after that.”
Apart from the CCCC’s eccentric and ultimately failed disciplinary procedure last season, 2017 was a good year for the happy-go-lucky west Belfast man.
He won a Sigerson Cup with St Mary’s and reached a county final with St John’s. But the former Glentoran player is hungry to achieve more at club and county over the coming seasons.
“I haven’t won a championship with my club so I don’t know what that feels like, and the same with Antrim. At the minute, winning Sigerson is my biggest achievement but I would hate to end my career and still it to be my biggest achievement.
“I would like to achieve something else. I’ve parked Sigerson from last year. I’ve got the medal and I want to do something else.”
Toppling Down in Newry this evening would be another sizeable achievement in the fledgling career of Matthew Fitzpatrick.