Fitzsi­mons steel forged deep in the heart of Texas

The Irish Mail on Sunday - - THE TITLE - By Mark Gal­lagher

FOR the past eight sea­sons, Mick Fitzsi­mons has called him­self a Dublin foot­baller but it wasn’t a straight road that led him to his four All-Ire­land medals. There has been the odd false start. He has ex­pe­ri­enced what it means to fall from favour and was re­quired to earn the trust of his man­ager. More than once.

But it seems like the Dalkey man has spent his en­tire ca­reer con­vinc­ing oth­ers of his worth. His jour­ney be­gan with the mi­nor ‘B’ team at Cuala and in­cluded a de­tour with the Dublin ju­nior side in 2008, where he won an All-Ire­land medal un­der Mick Dee­gan.

The fol­low­ing win­ter, Pat Gilroy had taken over the Dublin team but Fitzsi­mons was still out in the cold and availed of a J1 stu­dent visa in the sum­mer of 2009. So while Gilroy’s star­tled ear­wigs wan­dered into a Kerry am­bush at Croke Park, a 20-year-old Fitzsi­mons was en­joy­ing the thrills and spills of Sixth Street in Austin, Texas and play­ing a bit of Gaelic foot­ball with the Celtic Cow­boys.

They had ar­ranged to stay in stu­dent ac­com­mo­da­tion on the Uni­ver­sity of Texas cam­pus, and the deal they struck in­cluded three square meals a day. There was a group of Aussies a few blocks away with whom Fitzsi­mons and his mates or­gan­ised a three-game Com­pro­mise Rules se­ries.

Liv­ing next door was a group of lads who played for the Longhorns, the uni­ver­sity’s col­lege foot­ball team. Ser­gio Kin­dle and La­marr Hous­ton were the star of­fen­sive lines­men on the Longhorns team that reached the na­tional cham­pi­onship fi­nal a few months later. They showed Fitzsi­mons and his friends around Austin.

‘We ended up mak­ing friends with a few of the Amer­i­can foot­ball play­ers, they ended up show­ing us around. They would have popped over to our house and taken us around the city.

‘They even brought us down to where they trained, they had a 70,000-seater sta­dium, which was in­cred­i­ble con­sid­er­ing they were stu­dents. They got to the cham­pi­onship fi­nal that year.’

Fitzsi­mons, an NFL fan, has kept an eye out on the pair. Kin­dle (right) was drafted by Bal­ti­more Ravens the fol­low­ing year, but a head in­jury meant he only lasted two years. Hous­ton is still with the Chicago Bears, with whom he signed a $35 mil­lion five-year con­tract al­though two cru­ci­ate in­juries has cur­tailed his in­flu­ence.

‘But Austin was a great town. They have fes­ti­vals like South by South­west and the City Lim­its, which are world-fa­mous. And we played a bit of ball, too.’

Fitzsi­mons came home from Texas, the travel bug quelled, and a de­ter­mi­na­tion to prove to Gilroy that he should be a Dublin foot­baller. The man­ager was re­cep­tive to new tal­ent, con­sid­er­ing what had hap­pened the pre­vi­ous sum­mer and by the 2010 Cham­pi­onship, Fitzsi­mons was a first-choice cor­ner­back, of­ten tasked with pick­ing up the op­po­si­tion’s dan­ger man.

In­deed, his first ma­jor Cham­pi­onship test in Croke Park came in 2010 when Dublin faced Ty­rone and he got up close and per­sonal with Owen Mul­li­gan in the All-Ire­land quar­ter-fi­nal.

‘It was a mas­sive thing for me, I had just been in the Dublin team a few months, and was asked to mark Owen Mul­li­gan, a great chal­lenge. I got to mark him in 2011 again.

‘You get a lot of self-be­lief and would have learned a lot from mark­ing him, es­pe­cially in 2010 be­cause he was very good that day. He is a top-qual­ity for­ward and you just pick up things from mark­ing him. It was a great ex­pe­ri­ence in my first year with Dublin, to mark some­one of that qual­ity, some­one you watched, grow­ing up.’

In those early years in the Dublin team, Fitzsi­mons’ jour­ney to train­ing was a bit qui­eter. He was the only Cuala man on the panel and had to ar­range a lift with Eoghan O’Gara and Rory O’Car­roll, who were on the same side of the city.

‘There was a bit of a buzz, driv­ing to train­ing, be­cause we would get a few de­bates go­ing. Rory was a great man to start a de­bate, not about foot­ball, but about pol­i­tics or any­thing else, ref­er­en­dums and stuff like that. There used to be good craic in the car.’

It’s a sign of how things have changed in the panel that the con­tin­gent from Dalkey has grown in the past few years. Con O’Cal­laghan and Mark Schutte now travel with Fitzsi­mons across the city, dis­cussing the top­ics of the day

Al­though a south­sider, Fitzsi­mons will have to get used to life on the north­side of the city as the stu­dent doc­tor will soon be­gin a clinic place­ment in the Mater Hospi­tal and will be joined by Roscom­mon foot­baller Niall McIn­er­ney and former Dublin hurler Colm Cronin. ‘I am still a stu­dent, I have two more years to do, of clinic place­ments – and I will prob­a­bly spend most of it in the Mater.’

Be­ing based in that hospi­tal will be handy for Dublin train­ing, and also Croke Park, if they do man­age to get past Ty­rone this af­ter­noon.

A lot will de­pend on Fitzsi­mons, who is likely to mark out-and-out for­ward, Mark Bradley. How­ever, since be­ing parachuted into the team for the All-Ire­land fi­nal re­play last Oc­to­ber and leav­ing the sta­dium with the man-of-the­match gong, Fitzsi­mons has de­vel­oped into Dublin’s most re­li­able de­fender. That isn’t a sur­prise to those who watch club foot­ball in the cap­i­tal as he has been recog­nised as the best man-marker in the city for years.

‘I wouldn’t be too wor­ried about a team get­ting a run on us. You would be more wor­ried about your own game. You trust the team to do their job and you just worry about who you are mark­ing,’ he said.

‘But I have had a good run of games and when you get that, it is good, you can adapt to one or two things in your game and work on a few things.’

De­spite be­ing the best player on the pitch for the fi­nal re­play against Mayo, Fitzsi­mons care­fully de­flects any praise. ‘As a cor­ner-back, you are a prod­uct of what­ever pres­sure is out the field. And if a cor­ner-back gets man of the match, it usu­ally means there is good pres­sure on all of their play­ers and there is good sup­port. It is re­flec­tive of a good team per­for­mance.’

Mick Fitzsi­mons may have taken a road less trav­elled to this point, via the Dublin ju­nior side, a sum­mer in Austin and taken time to earn Jim Gavin’s trust, but he is fol­low­ing the same script as each of his team-mates.

It is all about the team. It is what has brought them this far – and may yet pro­pel them to­wards great­ness.

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