Fitzpatrick offers perfect template for the triumph of perseverance
Having first appeared in the Mayo colours in 1965, it took Billy Fitzpatrick 20 years to taste success
Three decades have flown by and yet the memories remain clear. Billy Fitzpatrick can picture it still, just like it was yesterday. The rumbling of the masses on Hill 16, the uncertainty of the city supporters infecting their players on the field.
It was 30 years ago. Dublin and Mayo; the 1985 All-Ireland semi-final. A game that had more to it than a politician's handshake. It was the day that Mayo defender John Finn had his jaw broken off the ball by a Dublin player who was never publicly named. Finn, of course, played on.
It was also the day that Mayo reminded other counties that they were finally a force again. The seeds were sown that day for them to become a force in modern-day football. The westerners arrived in HQ more in hope than anything else but once you have hope, you have a chance.
At the rusty old age of 41, Billy Fitzpatrick walked into Croke Park with the Mayo panel as a selector but walked off the field as a player one last time. He had been a prolific but under-utilised forward in his prime but in the twilight of his career the forgotten man of Mayo football was given another chance to make his mark.
With the game in the melting pot and the Dubs on the ropes, he took off his selector's bib and danced onto the field with the same energy that had once propelled him into the Mayo senior team as a teenager. The manager, Liam O'Neill, sent him in to replace Seán Lowry.
O'Neill, father of 1993 All Star Kevin, paved the way for Mayo's revival which, granted, is still awaiting completion to this day. Fitzpatrick commanded all the headlines that day, but it was a short-term blitz. O'Neill's presence, on the other hand, kept the county in lights for the decades to come. Fitzpatrick recalls: "1985 was Indian summer stuff for me, a bit of a blur and a dream because I had been overlooked for so long with Mayo. I still hold the tag of being the oldest player to play in Croke Park although Mickey Linden was worrying me for a while as he kept playing until he was 39!
"But it was no big deal for me, I had been training the lads and I was well up there with the fastest of them, so I agreed to be available as a sub whenever I was needed by Liam."
In the Connacht final against Roscommon, they were comfortably ahead when, as O'Neill issued instructions to the defence to keep its shape, another selector scribbled Fitzpatrick's name on a slip and told him to get out on the pitch while the manager attended to business elsewhere. You wouldn't see it now.
"We had a good laugh at that," Fitzpatrick remembers. "But for the semi-final it was Liam's call only to send me in. And I was on the field only a minute or two when John Maughan landed a rocket down on top of me. I thought I had better do something with it."
Fitzpatrick flashed the ball over from 45 yards. On the sideline Kevin Heffernan danced an angry jig and his players were rattled too. Mayo were now just a point down.
"TJ Kilgallon, our captain, then went through the Dublin defence like a bulldozer," Billy recalls. "No stopping him. An equalising point. And a replay."
The result sent shockwaves through the GAA. Mayo's full-forward line, the one that finished the Connacht final at least - Fitzpatrick, Lowry and Kevin McStay - had a combined age of 100.
"We should have won that game. I was on Mick Holden and he was pleading with John Moloney the referee to blow up. He said Dublin were done."
It was only when O'Neill came on board that Mayo began to believe again. He was one of the first managers to introduce video analysis to an inter-county set-up, focusing on video footage of American football games that he had received from contacts. His Mayo players would replicate game plays and patterns that the leading NFL sides employed. And when they were not re-enacting those plays on the training field they were in the gym building themselves up to cope with the strains that would inevitably come with their new, more intensive approach. Twice weekly, they would train collectively at the old hat factory on the Newport Road. Then they would hit the running track in St Mary's.
"Before then you would only have to get yourself as fit as you wanted. It was purely down to yourself - there was no accountability. That changed when O'Neill came to town. We hit the gym in a big way. That was unknown at the time."
O'Neill asked Fitzpatrick in as a selector in 1984. The new manager had won six Connacht SFC medals with Galway, an All-Star in 1973 and had lost three All-Ireland finals too. Fitzpatrick knew he would be a serious proposition.
Mayo subsequently endured an eight-point defeat in the replay, and Billy Fitzpatrick finally hung up his boots, but a new era was really only starting for Mayo football.
"Don't get me wrong," Fitzpatrick says. "We had some very serious guys with us, talented players too, but you would have seen some lads having a slug of brandy in the dressing room to settle their nerves before games, or having a fag at half-time. But when O'Neill came in, all that went. I would say without any hesitation that the current Mayo team has reached the level and standard they are at now because of Liam O'Neill's pioneering.
"What he did with us had never been done before and it lit the way for the managers who followed. I know we haven't yet ended that All-Ireland famine but we have come close over the years and had some terrific times in between. I'm not sure would any of that have happened were it not for Liam, his approach and the legacy he left."
Between 1956 and 1979 they only won two Connacht titles.
"People were wondering why we made a big deal of this current team winning five in a row this summer," Fitzpatrick says, "but sure they don't rightly remember what we went through. The suffering. The embarrassment at times. Liam changed our psyche and brought that Galway toughness. We were lovely lads in Mayo but we had no mean streak at all until he instilled it. His work paved the way for the 1989 All-Ireland challenge which, under John O'Mahony, we should have won. He came late but he crowned my career and set others rolling."
In between his stints in inter-county exile he tacked on Connacht minor league, provincial junior titles and claimed a Connacht SFC with Garrymore, but it wasn't until 1985 that he won his first Connacht senior crown a whopping 20 years after his debut.
Piecing together the fragments of his career wasn't an easy task. His initial spell in the green and red came in 1965 when he started three NFL games. He gave a good 11 years not getting a route back into the senior squad until he was recalled in 1978. He didn't last long before suffering another cull and assumed his career was over until that sensational recall seven years later.
"I was winning championships with Garrymore and was definitely among the top scorers in the county. I got back in for the NFL final against Dublin in 1978 but we were beaten and we lost to Roscommon in the championship and that was the end of that for me."
He jokes that a series of Mayo managers lost his phone number. At one stage he was on the Mayo senior squad but couldn't make the under 21 team. Another time he scored 2-5 in one Mayo final trial and still the phone never rang.
"A priest was over one of the teams I was going for and he gave me the hint I was seeking. He said, 'Bill, I cannot pick you as you don't go to college'. The fact that I wasn't playing football at Jarlath's or the other institutions definitely went against me. The spell in exile is why I will never forget Liam O'Neill. I have two artificial hips and I'd love to have been more a part of it but I wouldn't trade it in for anything."
Back then football was played man to man. There were no zonal systems, no sweepers. Fitzpatrick has watched the game evolve with much interest and has been particularly fascinated to see how Kerry have adapted against the Ulster teams.
"Kings of the game, but their ways were out of date and they couldn't play their preferred style anymore so they fittingly adapted against the likes of Donegal and Tyrone. They say blanket defences will evolve again but I don't see them being lifted any time soon. I see it at under 14 level in Mayo where they are already using the blanket. They are being programmed from an early age all over the country. It's happening everywhere and I'm telling you people will find it hard get out of it.
"Today's affair may be more open but again tactics will decide it. Like, will Barry Moran be needed as sweeper against Dublin? They don't have a big target man like Donegal did. I think we'll have to re-adapt again."
He remains an eternal optimist which is just as well given what his county has gone through. One wonders, though, how they will cope if another All-Ireland challenge falls short. Billy says that while his faith will be tested it will be restored no matter what.
"I always say that every year brings new hope," he says. "People see us lose and they say, 'I'm finished with that team' or, 'This is the last time I'll go to see them.' All I'll say is we have been trying since '51 to cross that line and we have tried hard to bridge the gap. I only hope that some year we make the breakthrough.
"But I do feel that this team are at the stage where they need to do it now and I think they have timed their run well. They didn't go overboard with training in the league and maybe their timing is right. I also feel that the hammering Dublin gave us in Castlebar in the league will be motivation for the boys. The Mayo footballers have given us great enjoyment over 30 years despite the heartache and I think that those of us who lived in the dark ages have perspective. Our lads go into battle again today but they carry the trust of an entire county with them."
Billy Fitzpatrick has had more reason than most to lose faith in his county but he never did. He persevered and eventually got to reap the rewards. The men of today could do worse than take note of his journey.
Sunday Indo Sport