Frank Fitzsimons far from being an accidental hero at Naomh Éanna
A COLD Wednesday evening and the regulars are upstairs in Brian Magee’s gym, located off Kennedy Way, ready for one hour of serious cardiovascular.
The last time I laced up a pair of boxing gloves was in Ligoniel Boxing Gym under the wistful eye of veteran coach Sean McAuley.
After tasting dusty leather for the first time, I never returned to the gym.
In Magee's class you pair off with a partner.
Pat Hughes insisted I pair up with Frank Fitzsimons.
Pat knew what he was doing.
Brian Magee barked out the instructions.
We started with a simple combination.
Jab. Jab. Right cross. Left hook…Jab. Jab. Right cross. Left hook...
Holding the pads, I’d no problem with Frank’s jab. They were harmless enough.
And his right hook? It was okay. Nothing to write home about if I'm honest.
Things were going okay until Frank landed his left hook right in the middle of the pad. Pin-point accuracy every time.
Boom. Boom. Boom.
My whole left arm shuddered. Shoulder ligaments were awakened by this tsunami.
It was a 60-second drill. It felt like 60 minutes.
Even though you could see Frank's left hook coming from the back of the gym, it carried ferocious power.
That was back in November. I haven't been back since.
I got to know Frank and Pat when they were involved with Antrim.
Frank was manager. Pat was his eyes and ears. They worked perfectly together.
The biggest result they had was overcoming Laois in an All-Ireland Qualifier down in O'Moore Park in 2015.
Later, Frank shared managerial responsibilities with former county defender Gearoid Adams.
Together, they clinched promotion out of Division Four in 2016 and played the League final against Louth at Croke Park.
Championship victories, though, were few and far between.
In their final year in charge - 2017 - Antrim were relegated back down to Division Four after a last-gasp equaliser by Longford at Corrigan Park.
People say the league table never lies but it did that year.
Relegation was rough justice on Antrim.
With so many withdrawals and retirements, Frank and Gearoid were forced into flooding the senior panel with new players.
The average age of the panel dropped from mid-20s to 21.
Fielding a half dozen Championship debutants, Donegal swept them aside in Ulster while Antrim's legs began to buckle in the final 20 minutes against Sligo in Markievicz Park.
It was a disappointing finish to Antrim's summer, but the management team still didn't deserve to be facing into a nominations process.
Up until that point, the new county executive hadn't put a foot wrong.
Experience told Gearoid what was coming down the tracks. You simply don't survive a nominations process when you've been in post a few seasons.
Frank held on a bit longer before he reached the same conclusion as Gearoid, and walked.
Given the youthfulness and rawness of the squad, it was a mistake not retaining the management team...
Long-serving St Enda’s Glengormley manager Decky Steele had taken the club’s senior footballers and returned them to the top table in Antrim.
The Hightown Road club was on the look-out for a new manager – “After four years, the team needed a fresh voice,” said Steele – and it was through a chance conversation with Antrim PRO Sean Kelly when Frank Fitzsimons’ name cropped up.
Frank and Pat flirted with the idea of taking a club in Armagh while a few Antrim clubs made contact.
But St Enda’s seemed the best fit.
It’s the first time Frank has taken a club team outside of his own Lamh Dhearg.
Upon taking the job, backroom team member Thomas McNulty – who coached many of the current panel at underage level – told Frank he would have no problems with them whatsoever.
“You’ll have no hassle from any of these lads," said Thomas. "They are professionals. They train all the time. They set the standard – we don’t set it for them.”
And he was right. Frank and Pat were pleasantly surprised by the team’s fitness levels, to the point where their physical condition rivalled that of the Antrim senior football panel they were in charge of the previous year.
St Enda's certainly blazed a trail through Antrim and Ulster at the back end of 2018 before making a big statement against An Spidéal in last month’s All-Ireland semi-final in Navan.
The Galway champions simply couldn’t live with the intensity and pace of their Ulster opponents.
The great thing about this St Enda’s team is that they back themselves.
They roll the dice every time they go out onto the field.
There is no let up for the opposition.
They will keep running until they break your spirit.
After 15 minutes in Navan the outcome against An Spidéal was never in doubt. They won by seven points but could easily have won by 17.
Modest to the last, Frank casts himself as something of an accidental hero in the club's historic run to the All-Ireland Intermediate final.
“I’m in the right place at the right time,” he said after the semi-final.
There is no doubt he is benefitting from the hard labour of juvenile coaches Thomas and Gerard McNulty who put in a million Saturday mornings with the vast majority of these players from they were knee high.
But Frank and Pat are the finishing school.
On every level, Naomh Éanna are getting a better manager than when Frank assumed the reins with Antrim seniors in 2015.
“You don’t want to be a drill sergeant,” Frank said recently.
“As I’ve been saying all year, if you’re not enjoying it you shouldn’t be playing. The likes of wee [Eoin] Nagle and that, they’re playing with a freedom at the minute.
“When lads like that hit 23 or 24 there’s like a burden comes with playing but not now. There is no pressure on the players. This has to be enjoyed.”
As he brings the club to Croke Park tomorrow to face Kerry side Kilcummin, you’d have to travel far to find someone with better man-management skills.
If you didn’t know him you’d think there is something of the gentle giant about Frank Fitzsimons.
But, always remember, that left hook is not to be messed with.