Fitzsimons in full flow
Cuala man revelling in putting his ‘natural’ craft on display for Sky Blues
ONCE upon a time, the Dublin fullback line was populated by players whose interest in the position was confined solely to senior inter-county duty.
Men considered ‘ball players' – such as David Henry, Paul Griffin, Ross McConnell, Dennis Bastick and even Paddy Andrews – were all lumped into jerseys numbered two, three and four … all with varying and fluctuating degrees of success.
Generally though, when Dublin came unstuck against the best teams boasting the Hollywood full-forward lines, the predictable gripe bemoaning the lack of ‘natural' full-backs rang out.
Last year, Pat Gilroy made a calculated call. No longer would the fancy Dans be converted to inside defenders. Only those who practice the dark arts at club/underage level would be considered.
“Last year, he wanted to play fullbacks who were used to playing there,” explains one of the new breed, Mick Fitzsimons. “Previously, Dublin had played lads who played in other positions in the full-back line. Now, the players that play in the full back for their club predominantly are there.”
The Cuala man is arguably the chief beneficiary of the new policy.
Of the trio that made up his secondlast line of defence last year and in Dublin's first championship outing of this year, Fitzsimons was without doubt, the unknown quantity.
Rory O'Carroll is comprised of that titanium that all good full-backs need and once he turned his attentions exclusively to football, the route to the number three jersey was a rite of passage.
Philly McMahon already had senior experience and was back plying his club trade with Ballymun Kickhams in his more natural corner-back environs. Fitzsimons, though, was the ‘bolter’.
Not mapped at either minor or U21 level, the Dublin management nevertheless spotted Fitzsimons at Cuala displaying a lot of the raw material required for the job.
On the scale of harsh apprenticeships though, corner-back rates somewhere towards the top.
One slip or one mistake could have potentially disastrous repercussions and generally, a ‘newbie' like Fitzsimons finds himself squaring off against one of the game's household names.
“Some people don't like it,” Fitzsimons acknowledges. “It's a big pressure. But some games are enjoyable, some aren't. If you're not in form, you might not like it that much. But if you're in form, you can see it as a challenge. If you're on top, it's a great challenge to test yourself against the best players in Ireland.”
The classic example of which is last year's Leinster semi-final defeat to Meath. The Royals plundered five goals and while Fitzsimons and Co were seeing stars, much of the blame was laid on the collective malaise further out the field.
“It's a weird thing about the fullback line,” Fitzsimons argues. “You can get away with making excuses from all angles. If they're getting loads of scores, you can blame the ball coming in or the pressure out the field.
“But you can be made to look amazing by pressure out the field. If it's good, you can clean up. If not, you can be made to look terrible. If they have loads of space and loads of time, it's impossible to mark a run so many times.”
Fitzsimons, O'Carroll and McMahon played all seven of Dublin' championship matches in unison last year and now that Fitzsimons' injuries have cleared up, O'Carroll has returned from his French sojourn and McMahon has served the term of his suspension, they are in tow once more.
Age-wise, time is on their side but Fitzsimons points out that the experience of playing together has forced each unit of the pack to improve.
“You need to build a trust,” he explained. “Say if Philly is sweeping in a certain position, if I follow my man in, I'm not trusting him. So sometimes, I have to allow my man to go and let him sweep up for me.
“I wasn't used to that sweeping thing. I was always man-for-man at the start. It was one of the flaws of my game.
“Even with my club, when I was playing centre-back, it took me a while to get the whole space aspect of it. It's not always about your man all the time. It is something that has improved.”
Still, men like Fitzsimons who like defending, who revel in the art of disruption are an endangered species.
It's a mostly thankless job. How many times per year, for example, is the performance of a corner-back highlighted on The Sunday Game against, say, that of a rampant inside forward or a high flying midfielder?
“Sometimes I could go a game without kicking the ball,” Fitzsimons admits. “But I don't mind. It's just great to be part of the team.
“I enjoy that. That competitive aspect of just keeping my man quiet.
It won't be that fun if I'm not getting there ahead of him. But if you can break a ball and we go up the pitch and get a score, it's a really satisfying feeling.” A rare breed indeed but, as Dublin have found out a million times in the past, an essential one too.