GAA Football

Antrim ace Matthew Fitzpatrick withdraws from squad to pursue Irish League career

Antrim's Matthew Fitzpatrick will try his luck at Irish League soccer in 2020 Picture: Seamus Loughran

THE Antrim senior footballers have been rocked by the news of star forward Matthew Fitzpatrick's withdrawal from the squad next season.

The St John's clubman informed boss Lenny Harbinson earlier this week that he won't be available in 2020 as he plans to pursue a soccer career in the Irish League ranks.

A number of Irish Premiership and Championship clubs are keen on signing Fitzpatrick who has been in sensational goalscoring form for west Belfast club Belfast Celtic, formerly Sport & Leisure, who currently play in the Ballymena Provincial League.

Fitzpatrick only returned to play soccer after St John's exited the Antrim Senior Football Championship in September and has been a key player in Belfast Celtic's push for honours.

Fitzy's dramatic rise in the soccer ranks have been such that at least two Irish Premiership clubs want his signature and a leading Championship club is on his trail.

Fitzpatrick's absence blows a significant hole in Harbinson's attack, with last season's top scorer Ryan Murray also unavailable due to him moving to Dubai for work once Lamh Dhearg's Championship campaign ended.

However, Harbinson has recruited Cargin's Tomas McCann (31) and Lamh Dhearg veteran Paddy Cunningham (34) for next season as Antrim aim to finally get out of Division Four.

McCann hasn't played for this county since an All-Ireland Qualifier defeat to Sligo in 2017 while Cunningham's inter-county career resumes after a six-year absence. Both McCann and Cunningham were two of the best performers in this season's senior championship.

Fitzpatrick, a Sigerson Cup winner with St Mary's Belfast in 2017, produced a string of superb Championship displays on the inter-county stage in the summer that earned him an Irish News Ulster Allstar nomination.

In their Ulster Championship clash with Tyrone back in May, Fitzpatrick was the one attacker the Red Hands struggled to contain, raising a green flag and assisting for a host of other scores.

A few weeks later, the schoolteacher proved the match-winner in their All-Ireland Qualifier win against Louth – Antrim's first Championship victory since 2014 – bagging two goals in Drogheda.

And although Harbinson's men were outclassed in their next outing against Kildare at Corrigan Park, Fitzpatrick was again a shining light in the Antrim attack.

The 25-year-old had every intention of returning to play for Antrim in 2020 after producing his best year in the saffron jersey.

But the prospect of playing at elite level in local soccer was too good of an opportunity to turn down.

In his teenage years, he played for Glentoran Reserves and occasionally lined out with local club Immaculata in Gaelic football's off-season.

He was invited to play for Belfast Celtic by manager Stephen McAlorum.

Last year, Fitzpatrick's studies took him to Liverpool and despite the logistical difficulties he returned home every weekend to play in Antrim's Division Four campaign.

Antrim have been rooted in the lower division for the past two seasons after their last-gasp relegation from Division Three in a drawn encounter with Longford in April 2017.

Harbinson's men made a gutsy promotion challenge in his first season in 2018, but were pipped by Laois and Carlow while last season's tilt hit the hard shoulder after three games.

Given the high stakes in trying to finally get out of Division Four in 2020, Harbinson will not want to close the door on Fitzpatrick should he want to return to the fold.

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