Fitzsimons steel forged deep in the heart of Texas
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.