Antrim need to learn how to finish teams off says Matthew Fitzpatrick
Matthew Fitzpatrick talks to John Martin about his brutal travel schedule and Antrim's struggles to finish teams off when they get the chance...
LET'S be honest, Antrim footballers don’t do it for the glory or the glamour. A total of 86 supporters watched their Allianz League Division Four clash with Waterford at WIT earlier this season. At some of Antrim’s home games at Corrigan Park, the crowd didn’t total many more than that.
The county jersey doesn’t carry the same status that it once did and, for Matthew Fitzpatrick and the rest of the Antrim footballers who have committed to the Saffron cause, their loyalty and dedication is beyond question. Fitzpatrick personified this dedication, traveling back every week from Liverpool, where he is studying for a teaching qualification to line out for Antrim in the league. It was a travel regime he describes as "brutal".
“To be honest, if I had the choice again, I don’t know if I'd do it. I got out of university on Friday, straight to the airport to get a flight and didn’t get home until half-eight or nine o’clock,” Fitzpatrick said.
“I had Saturday off, a match or training on Sunday and then flew back. I didn’t get to enjoy Liverpool or experience what was good about the city.”
At least he had company on the weekly commute, with house-mate Barry O’Hagan also clocking up the air miles to line out for the Mourne county. For Fitzpatrick and Antrim, the league was a frustrating experience. They opened the campaign with a one-point defeat to Derry and went on to lose another two games by the minimum, eventually finishing third behind the Oak Leafers and Leitrim.
“We harped on a bit that we had three one-point defeats, but I think we are a lot better than that," said the St John's clubman.
"I believe we should be beating those teams so, for me, it was a poor league. Our intention at the start of the year was to get promoted and I believed that we would. Leitrim finished on 12 points and we finished on six which, for me, is hard to believe, but they did what we didn’t do – they closed out games. We weren’t able to do that, maybe due to a bit of inexperience.”
Fitzpatrick is in his fifth season in the county colours, having made his debut off the bench against Wicklow in the league campaign of 2015. Championship runs have, thus far, been short for Fitzpatrick. He made his Anglo-Celt debut the following year against Fermanagh, a game Antrim lost before exiting in round one of the Qualifiers to Limerick.
Similar patterns followed in 2017 and '18. With Tyrone and Donegal on the same side of the draw this year, it would take the most optimistic of Antrim supporters to predict a repeat of 2009, when they last reached the Ulster final.
Manager Lenny Harbinson played the league without 12 players from his 2018 Championship squad and Fitzpatrick feels the high turnover of players further expands the gulf between the teams in the lower and higher leagues.
“We lost a lot of players throughout the year, so that’s been hard," he adds.
"I feel sorry for Lenny because it’s not easy. We were basically starting again after whatever was built up last year because there was such a high turnover of players. I can understand it… for some people it’s simply a case that they couldn’t be annoyed [playing county football] and if you said to someone from outside the GAA that you’ll train four nights a week, you won’t get paid and you’re going have to live a certain lifestyle to maintain your performance, most people would think you’re mad. I can’t knock anyone for not committing to that.
“I have mates who play in the Irish League and they train on Tuesday and Thursday, play on a Saturday and get paid hundreds of pounds a week. Even in areas like strength and conditioning, I know we’re miles off the likes of Tyrone and Monaghan, but their season lasts from November to September, they are developing almost all year round while our season has ended in June the last couple of years and we don’t get back together again until November – that’s five months of a break. You can’t build on that.
“I’m not saying it’s unfair or anything. They are there because, first and foremost, they are good players but, once you are on that cycle, it’s easier for them to keep improving. But to be fair, in order to get respect you have to win. The more you win, the more you enjoy it and the more players and supporters will want a taste of it. It’s hard when you’re not winning. To get respect and to get more people to buy in, you need to start winning.”
Fitzpatrick is currently completing teaching practice at Belfast's La Salle College and will graduate in July before enjoying “a summer of golf”. If he is to keep playing football in between hitting the fairways, Antrim will likely need a favourable Qualifier draw.
But first it’s either Derry or Tyrone on May 25, when Antrim are sure to be playing in front of a higher attendance than they did against Waterford in March. Fitzpatrick knows their performance levels will also have to be higher if they are to have any chance of progressing to the last-four, and the 24-year-old is making no rash predictions.
“If it’s Derry, I’d love to play them again because they only beat us by one point in the league," he says.
"If it’s Tyrone, we’ll get a gameplan in place. We are under no illusions that they are a better team than us, but we go out to do ourselves justice and give a good team performance and hope that everyone plays to the best of their ability.
“At times in the league, we did play some class football and maybe the inexperience told at vital times. In a lot of games, we had put ourselves in a position to win games. The positive thing is that we ended the league well and, hopefully, we can take something from that and it leads into the Championship.”
Mentally, Antrim are probably preparing for a quarter-final clash against Tyrone who – all things being equal – should get past the challenge of Derry in the preliminary round.
They will have to adopt an ultra-defensive set-up and hope to frustrate the Red Hand attack. Antrim have proven fairly adept at the blanket defence throughout the league, conceding just six goals, a tally that was bettered by just four counties.
Should Derry surprise Tyrone in the preliminary fixture, Antrim can justifiably go into the quarter-final with confidence in getting a result. They gave eventual winners Derry their toughest game of the league on the opening day of the season and deserved to get something from it.
Like many Antrim teams before them, they can break at pace and found a few scoring options as the league went on, with players like Eoin Nagle, Colum Duffin and Stephen Beatty complimenting regular flag-raisers like Ryan Murray, Paddy McBride and Fitzpatrick. Their ability to break down defences has improved since last season. Antrim bagged eight goals in the league this year, a marked increase on the three green flags raised during the 2018 campaign.
The return of the injured Conor Murray is also a boost.
While manager Lenny Harbinson used 29 players in the league, he is hampered by a dearth of experienced Championship campaigners. When he looks at his bench for game-changers on May 25, he will be met with a sea of eager but inexperienced faces with few Championship miles on the clock.
While their scoring stats are satisfactory – they averaged 14 points per game in the league – the Saffrons haven’t faced opposition from outside Divisions Three or Four since they played Donegal in the 2017 Ulster SFC quarter-final. That game didn’t end well, with Antrim conceding 3-19 and scoring 1-9. Breaking down lower league defences is a different ballgame to facing Championship contenders.
Should Tyrone be the opponents on May 25, it will be difficult for Antrim to go into the game in anything other than damage limitation mode. A match against Derry would impart a very different mindset, but Antrim must learn how to kill off games when in control.
They lost a number of games from winning positions during the league and, against potential opponents Derry, should really have come away with at least a point given the amount of possession enjoyed over the 70 minutes.