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Tuesday 22 August 2017

Dalkey's dogged defender always fought for place

Four-time All-Ireland winning corner-back convinced that "small twists of fate" changed his path from starting with Cuala's minor 'Bs' to becoming key Dublin player

Dublin's Michael Fitzsimons lined out in Croke Park yesterday to officially launch the 22nd Annual Asian Gaelic Games sponsored again this year by FEXCO
Dublin's Michael Fitzsimons lined out in Croke Park yesterday to officially launch the 22nd Annual Asian Gaelic Games sponsored again this year by FEXCO

There are times, says Mick Fitzsimons, when it's impossible not to reflect on the "few simple twists of fate" that turned his sporting life back to front.

Like, for instance, when Maurice O'Callaghan, Con and Cian's father, presents Fitzsimons to then of the Cuala underage teams and the years later uses it as an example of how anyone - anyone at all - can make a go of this football lark so long as they try hard enough.

"He's telling your story and basically slating you," Fitzsimons laughs, "saying, 'I never thought this lad would be any good!'

"I know I've been very fortunate."

Fitzsimons isn't being modest either.

His path has been a meandering one.

From his minor 'B' team with Cuala to four time All-Ireland senior medalist in roughly a decade.

In that time, he has seen players fall away from the scene for no good reason and others hammer out careers from themselves armed with nothing more powerful than determination and a bit of luck.

"If you do one or two good sessions that could be the difference between you staying on the panel or being dropped," he explains.

"Like, I had one or two games playing corner-back for my club and they stick me in that position and I stayed in that position."

"Someone shows a bit of trust in you it makes a massive difference."

Margin

He cites Mick Deegan, manager of the Dublin Junior team that won the All-Ireland in 2008 as one such trustee.

"I played full-back, and I was very, very light," he recalls.

"People were thinking this lad is just going to get brushed over. Mick Deegan probably had people saying, 'what are you doing?'

"But he trusted me that I was going to be able to deal with the physical side of things at full-back and that obviously made a massive difference.

"It gave me a taste that I could play at a higher level than just club football and then at UCD Dave Billings showed a lot of belief in me as well.

"When you reflect then you know it can be any sort of fine margin and you mightn't have gone this way and on this journey which has obviously been massively enjoyable.

"You wouldn't have had any of these challenges which have been great.

"So yeah, when you reflect you realise that it might have been a few simple twists of fate that got you there."

Which is why he swallowed hard for large parts of Jim Gavin's reign whilst stuck mostly to the Dublin bench.

The transition from Pat Gilroy to Jim Gavin saw Fitzsimons move from 'most trusted marker' to 'not starting defender' in the blink of an eye.

At different stages in Gavin's tenure, Kevin O'Brien, Davy Byrne, Darren Daly, Jonny Cooper and Philly McMahon were chosen above him.

Fitzsimons admits: "I always think I should be starting" but adds that in this, he is not different to anyone else in the Dublin squad.

"You'd obviously be annoyed, but if you weren't getting in I'd look to myself and see where I could improve and try to get as much honest feedback as possible," he outlines.

"You'd be focusing on what you can control to improve yourself so that even if you weren't playing you had a healthier attitude.

"I know it's a cliché, but you're trying to control the controllables and to look at what I can do.

Dragging

"I'd understand that if I don't get in I'm still benefiting my game and the lads around me, by pushing them on in training games and trying to challenge them to improve.

"You have to look at the bigger picture. It is a team game so if you're a sub you really can't be dragging the team down.

"Or if you're not playing you can't be dragging the team down with your own personal issues."

Now, he's back marking the opposition's best forward, a master in the crafts of disruption and distraction.

His performance from reserve in last year's drawn All-Ireland final got Fitzsimons a start in the replay and logic would suggest his Man of the Match effort therein got him the run of League matches which secured his spot in the Dublin all summer.

As it stands, he is short odds bet for an All Star now, still tagging the opposition's best forward and still revelling in the individuality of that particular role.

"I enjoy it, it's a good challenge," he explains.

"Some people get put in there but they want to go back out the field.

"It's a battle of minds, you're trying to limit your man. If you're fortunate enough you get to mark top forwards as well."

Not that he was expecting anything from Gavin after his performance last October.

"I don't think I was always going to get this run," he insists.

"I feel very fortunate to be starting with the team that's out there and the lads on the bench.

"As in, Darren Daly has been flying. Davy Byrne, too….I don't want to name names because there are so many of the backs who are going well."

"I think I had a good run of games in the League, which is always good because it helps you coming into Championship.

"I probably learned a few things during the League and I've been able to add them to my game a bit."

Hellish

This season has seen a greater impact from Dublin's bench than at any stage before.

The likelihood is that they will start with Bernard Brogan, Paul Flynn, Kevin McManamon, Michael Darragh Macauley and probably Diarmuid Connolly in reserve against Tyrone on August 27.

The role, Fitzsimons says, has changed. Players no longer consider a spot on the bench to be the hellish fate it once was.

"It is different when you're a sub now," he explains.

"The attitude isn't, 'oh I'm sitting here watching the game, I'm probably not going to get on'

"The attitude is 'I'm ready to get on, I could be called at any moment'.

"Especially with the black card, Davy Byrne coming on in the final so early last year and another year I came on for Rory when his nose was split open.

"So it isn't as much of a....it isn't as frustrating as it might have been.

"It's never doom and gloom when you're a sub. People are quite optimistic now.

"They know that there's a big role potentially," Fitzsimons concludes.

"That mindset is shifting."

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