Monday 20 February 2017

Antrim's fortunes a refuge for Fitzsimons after family tragedy

Declan Bogue

Published 14/05/2016 | 02:30

Antrim manager Frankie Fitzsimons speaks with his players after last year' s Ulster Championship defeat to Fermanagh. They have the opportunity for revenge tomorrow (Sportsfile)
Antrim manager Frankie Fitzsimons speaks with his players after last year' s Ulster Championship defeat to Fermanagh. They have the opportunity for revenge tomorrow (Sportsfile)

One evening last autumn, Antrim manager Frankie Fitzsimons and his right-hand man Pat Hughes were ruminating over a poor 2015 season while working the heavy bag in the gym of former WBA Super Middleweight champion Brian Magee, when they had a Eureka moment.

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A few yards away the respected former player and coach Gearóid Adams was putting himself through a circuits session.

In the corner, Brian Magee himself was working up a sweat.

"And I said," recalls Fitzsimons, "do you know what? Everything we need is in this gym."

They had to do a bit of gentle negotiation. They brought Magee along to the All-Ireland final where he became entranced by the fitness and conditioning of the Dublin and Kerry footballers.

He was instantly sold on the role of strength and conditioning.

With Adams, it took several meetings to get him over the line, but what became apparent was that Fitzsimons had absolutely no ego as he brought the St John's clubman in as a joint-manager, rather than a selector.

"I didn't come into this job for it to be about me," he says in that strong Belfast accent.

"It's about Antrim and the players. I am not even comfortable talking to the press, it doesn't matter to me who gets the plaudits. It's the end result. Everybody is involved in it, down to the clubs."

No wonder Antrim have kept the sunny side out this season, winning promotion from Division 4 of the National League and gearing up for an Ulster Championship battle against Fermanagh at Brewster Park tomorrow.

Along with Adams' coaching acumen, the players talk fondly of Fitzsimons, using his nickname of 'Russ' (he bears a striking resemblance to '80s comedian Russ Abbott) staying how much of a players' man he is.

He is generous in his praise of Magee too: "As you can see he has taken a lot of the bulk off the boys, a lot of the heaviness.

"They will tell you themselves they are a lot freer in running. Sean McVeigh has lost three or four kilos. It's just something different, you are looking for it every year."

There is another man who would be there in the Antrim set-up if the world was fair.

Frankie did everything with his brother Eddie. The two grew up in the bosom of the Lámh Dhearg club in Hannahstown and played for club and county. They enjoyed long summers togging out for the Donegal club in Philadelphia and worked together laying tar on the roads.

That's why it was so sudden and shocking that, on the same night, Frankie was told he was the new Antrim manager, Eddie ended his own life.

"We were very close," he recalls.

"He probably would have been involved here somewhere. Doing gear, or refereeing games or something, but that is the way life goes.

"He was sure that I was going to get the job. I was talking to him a few days beforehand and what happened, happened. Life has to go on. You have to keep as positive as you can."

Football was his refuge.

"I had known nothing other than football my whole life, so if it is taken away from you, you have to replace it with something.

"But it was tough, Jesus it was tough. You have to get on with things though."

He certainly got on with things. Antrim have always had the players, but sometimes lacked the unity of purpose.

Last year, the team were getting ready for their qualifier game against Laois when some players chose to hurl for their club the night before.

The fault lay somewhere between the players and fixture-makers, but either way it wouldn't have been an issue in a more serious county.

It appears they have that now. Getting back on the bus for seven straight wins of the league campaign was sweet.

Last year, they showed potential by nonetheless pulling off a win over Laois. It was their misfortunate to draw Fermanagh again after they had lost in their Ulster meeting. The display was insipid.

"We just have to hold our hands up and be honest about it. They sucked the life out of us," he bluntly states.

"Hopefully that won't happen again this year. There is different personnel this year, coming out of a good league campaign, albeit we are coming out of losing a league final. Still, there is a good buzz about the place."

Being a winner is addictive and Antrim are becoming hooked. Fitzsimons played on enough losing county teams to notice the bubbly atmosphere in camp.

"It's great, especially when you are away down the country and you have a loss, it's very sickening when you are driving back up the road.

"I have been involved in football for years, it's the same if you are with your club or at underage level. You ask yourself questions, 'Should I have done this? Should I have done that?'

"But at the end of the day, that's what sport is all about, taking your chances."

And they have a big chance tomorrow.

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