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Fitz: season starts here


Dublin footballer Michael Fitzsimons. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Dublin footballer Michael Fitzsimons. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Dublin footballer Michael Fitzsimons. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

HE may seem like the forgotten man of Dublin football, but there's a valid reason why we've seen very little of Mick Fitzsimons during the county's run to a first National League title in 20 years.

Hip surgery last November sidelined the All-Ireland winning corner-back for the opening salvos of Jim Gavin's Sky Blue reign, and he didn't make it back onto the pitch until the closing minutes of Dublin's dramatic draw with Donegal last month.

That brief yet intense cameo has obviously whetted Fitzsimons' appetite, even more so as he didn't feature during the subsequent knockout victories over Mayo and Tyrone.

And appetite, he reckons, will not be a problem this summer – unlike last year when, for all their good intentions, Dublin laboured under the unfamiliar mantle of defending All-Ireland champions.

"Definitely your standards slip," Fitzsimons concedes, looking back. "It's terrible, like. We all thought it wouldn't happen and I thought we'd get through it and we'd be the exact same – we'd commit to it the exact same.

"But you learn some hard lessons," he adds, "and it will stand to us this year, as in we won't let ourselves get complacent and we won't let the younger lads get complacent. So I suppose we have that experience that we can help other people.

"Even the experience of winning the league ... if we won the league in 2011, would we have gone on to win the All-Ireland? We might have just thought we were unbelievable, and losing the league final (then) was probably a good thing.

"But now winning the league this year, with all the lads having been through that, they know to park it and let's focus on that first game."

That first game – against the winners of next Sunday's Leinster SFC opener between Westmeath and Carlow – is now less than three weeks away. Obviously, given Dublin's success in his spring absence, it will be a big ask for the Cuala clubman to reclaim the corner-back place he had made his own during the previous three campaigns under Pat Gilroy. But the fact that he's battled back from surgery underlines a steely determination to do so. The hip (and resultant groin issues) had been causing intermittent grief ever since his promotion to the senior squad for the 2010 season.

"When I joined the panel, pre-season, I started getting a bit of groin pain so it was obviously always there," he recounts, speaking at Dublin GAA's open night in Ballyboden St Enda's last Friday. "It sort of went away after pre-season when the volume (of training) dropped down. Came back 2011, got through 2011, and then 2012 was when it didn't go away, it was constant.

"We went through the conservative approach and really tried to strengthen up that whole area, but the damage was done then."

Eoghan O'Gara, a team-mate on the Dublin junior team that claimed All-Ireland glory in 2008, was labouring under a similar hip complaint last season. "We couldn't train every third session or something, just because if we overloaded it would have broken down completely," explains Fitzsimons, himself a qualified physiotherapist.

But he rejects the notion that injury contributed to his own performance dip last summer, when he endured fraught afternoons against Wexford and Mayo, culminating in his half-time substitution against the Connacht champions.

"I think that would be the easy thing to say. I probably didn't get as much training as I would like but, nah, it was more mental stuff that held me back or (made me) just not play as well as I could," he maintains.

"I was in pain and I didn't train as much, but it was no excuse for the way I performed in some of the games."

Now 25, Fitzsimons admits it was initially tough watching Gavin's team get settled in his absence, but he adds: "You have to get your head around it and just think how you can positively contribute – even when you're not involved."

His one involvement offered a tantalising glimpse into the championship melting pot, albeit at a venue far removed from his Croke Park bailiwick. Fitzsimons made his comeback after 63 minutes in Ballybofey; some 10 minutes later, Dublin had battled back to secure the draw that would relegate the All-Ireland champions.

"There was just a great intensity," he says. "You don't get a load of away games with Dublin – I haven't got an away game in years, because I was injured all of last year; in 2011 I might have got one or two.

"But the atmosphere was great up in Ballybofey. You can say we were playing for nothing (Dublin had already qualified for the semi-finals) but everyone just wants to win when you're away from home and there's that much noise."

Roll on summer...