The life and times of the multi-talented Matthew Fitzpatrick
A FEW years ago, Matthew Fitzpatrick rolled the dice on his sporting career and switched codes from Gaelic football to soccer.
People within Antrim GAA thought he was mad. In his mid-20s at the time, could he really make the breakthrough in another code?
And why would he want to?
On Tuesday night, Irish Premiership big guns Linfield announced the signing of the west Belfast man from Glenavon on a two-year full-time professional contract for an undisclosed fee.
Others in GAA circles imagined a different path for the happy-go-lucky St John’s clubman as he’d evolved into one of the best forwards in Antrim and indeed Ulster.
Few players in the game could solo past defenders with the ease with which ‘Fitzy’ could and he was also a key player in the all-conquering St Mary’s side that claimed the prestigious Sigerson Cup in 2017 under Paddy Tally.
He loved playing under former Antrim co-bosses Frank Fitzsimons and Gearoid Adams and scored a goal in Croke Park in a NFL Division Four final against Louth in 2016.
A little-known fact is that Fitzpatrick’s first love was always soccer and he only started playing Gaelic football at "16 or 17".
During his teenage years he played for local west Belfast club Donegal Celtic before trying his luck with Glentoran as a central defender.
“I was an Irish League reserve team journeyman at a young age,” he joked in an Irish News interview in 2016.
“My family and a lot of my friends wouldn’t be GAA-orientated, they’re all soccer heads.
“I always seen myself playing soccer until I got more involved with Gaelic and I just followed that route.
“I played Gaelic because some of my mates were playing for St John’s and then I started getting alright at it and I got worse at soccer! So, I said I’d play more Gaelic.”
In 2017, he successfully won an appeal against a highly controversial one-year ban, issued by the GAA, for allegedly “misleading an investigation” when a melee broke out in a game between Antrim and Armagh.
Although he never had to serve the heavy suspension, it was an episode that definitely scarred Fitzpatrick.
He took his place in the Antrim team that played Donegal in the Ulster Championship that summer but was carried off injured.
“I’ve never had a disciplinary hearing before and I got cleared twice and they came back again,” Fitzpatrick said after the Donegal defeat.
“Even now, there is still a bit of me on edge because I don’t trust them; I don’t trust them that it’s over. I don’t know what way it works but I’m pretty sure it’s not supposed to work like that.”
Whether his brush with the GAA authorities had any impact on him leaving the inter-county scene is hard to know.
He resumed his soccer career with intermediate club Belfast Celtic under Stephen McAlorum and still juggled his Gaelic football commitments with Antrim and St John’s.
Lenny Harbinson, who took over from Fitzsimons and Adams, persuaded Fitzpatrick to continue with Antrim in 2018 – but he was earning rave reviews playing for Belfast Celtic and Coleraine boss Oran Kearney took a punt on the striker.
First team opportunities proved few and far between at Ballycastle Road and he was released from his contract.
Glenavon had also shown an interest in Fitzpatrick and when things didn’t work out at Coleraine, Lurgan Blues boss Gary Hamilton persuaded him to sign for the club in July 2020.
Fitzpatrick was one of the best signings Hamilton ever made. A slow burner in his first season, Fitzpatrick began to acclimatise to top flight soccer.
A player with wonderful touch and vision, the goals started to flow – no mean feat when Glenavon were at the wrong end of the table for most of last season – notching 19 league goals.
Crusaders were keen to sign Fitzy in the January transfer window, but Glenavon resisted overtures for their prized asset.
But once Linfield came calling at the end of last season, all roads inevitably led to Windsor Park.
In less than three seasons, Fitzpatrick has evolved into one of the most accomplished strikers in the local game.
A schoolteacher at an integrated secondary school just outside Belfast, Fitzpatrick is expected to take a career break as Linfield are a full-time outfit.
His Twitter profile used to read: ‘Everything I’ve done wrong seemed like good craic at the time.’
The easy-going 28-year-old later updated his profile to: ‘Play a bit of football for Glenavon and Gaelic for Naomh Eoin.
Given the increased demands at Linfield, it’s likely Fitzpatrick will have to pause his club career with the ‘Johnnies’.
People thought he was mad for rolling the dice and switching codes - but Fitzpatrick had a quiet self-belief that he could make a go of Irish League soccer.
He hasn’t looked back since.