Thursday 22 August 2019

Dub centurion Fitzsimons has come long way from his 'Mugsy' mugging

Mick Fitzsimons keeping to defensive duties. Photo: Sportsfile
Mick Fitzsimons keeping to defensive duties. Photo: Sportsfile

Frank Roche

Maybe it's no surprise to learn that a man who has just kicked his first point from his very first shot on his 100th county appearance spends most of his big match build-up devoted to the art of score prevention.

Mick Fitzsimons - who marked his century of Dublin 'caps' with that elusive maiden point in garbage-time against Louth - is not about to announce his conversion into a wandering full-back.

Why? Because the six-time All-Ireland winner knows that his strengths lie in disciplined destruction, not creative embellishments. And because he has more important business to focus on - such as keeping the shutters up against Kildare in tomorrow's Leinster SFC semi-final at Croke Park (4.0).

Fitzsimons enjoys the "analytical side of things" - the challenge of studying his next opponent, examining his strong points on tape and figuring out how to prevent him from translating that into real-time scores.

"But it can be frustrating at times as well when it doesn't go your way," he admits.

Which brings us back to 2010, his breakout year in blue. Fitzsimons had never played minor or U-21 with Dublin but won an All-Ireland junior medal in 2008.

Debacle

He was one of several unheralded names promoted by Pat Gilroy in the soul-searching aftermath of Dublin's 'Startled Earwigs' debacle against Kerry. And alongside Rory O'Carroll and Philly McMahon, he quickly established himself as part of Dublin's brave new full-back world.

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It wasn't a linear march to glory: his were among the fingerprints located at the crime scene that was Meath's five-goal rampage in June 2010, Dublin's last provincial defeat.

Gilroy's full-back unit regrouped, survived the qualifiers, then faced a familiar nemesis in Tyrone. That quarter-final remains a significant watershed in Dublin's evolution, but was a taxing day for Fitzsimons.

Asked to identify the best player he has marked, he immediately cites that game. "Owen Mulligan in 2010 was very good. It was one of those games where I just couldn't catch up with it," he admits.

Mulligan was fouled by Fitzsimons for Tyrone's opening score and later took him for 0-3. But Dublin survived, as did their rookie corner-back.

"Even that year there was a certain style of player that you might struggle with," he recounts.

Some of the stiffest examinations came behind closed Dublin doors.

"Mossy Quinn and Alan Brogan were very smart - they weren't necessarily fast but they were experienced and knew that someone young, coming in, just wanted to get a hand in," he says.

"They'd lead you into little traps and Mulligan would have been the same back then... just via movement, as in knowing that I might be faster than them so they wouldn't put themselves in that situation."

Back then, he was a 22-year-old inter-county rookie. Now he's a 31-year-old veteran who has survived the slings and arrows of Dublin's outrageous selection fortune. How would the current Mick Fitz fare against the 'Mugsy' of 2010?

"Well," he ponders, "he was so sharp then, his movement was very good. You'd like to think you'd be better but it's so hard to tell. I would have learnt a lot from marking him."

Away from the on-field spotlight, Fitzsimons is similar to many of this current Dublin generation: a team of high achievers and knowledge-seekers.

A qualified physiotherapist who decided to become a doctor, he sat his final medical exams in UCD in late April and will start his hospital internship next month.

Role models

"We've had a lot of role models," says Fitzsimons, citing the example of Paul Flynn, who began his Dublin career as an apprentice plumber and finished it as CEO of the Gaelic Player Association.

"You can slip into, 'Oh, I'm an inter-county footballer' and think it's all about football and have a terrible balance."

At various times since 2013, Fitzsimons has traversed the rungs of Jim Gavin's pecking order: out, then in, and out again. His recall for the 2016 All-Ireland replay and subsequent tour de force kick-started a new phase of favour.

Towards the end of Dublin's four-in-a-row campaign, however, he was back in the role of 'first defender in' - as a first-half replacement for the hamstrung Cian O'Sullivan against Galway and Tyrone.

A new summer brings with it a tantalising shot at history. Fitzsimons started and finished (with a scoring flourish) against Louth; yet second-half cameos from McMahon and O'Carroll reaffirmed that security of tenure can never be assured.

For now, though, he is the man in situ. It helps that he rarely gives anything away. But in this interview he did drop his guard once, recalling how he started his GAA career as a kid in Confey, across the border in Kildare, where his parents made home until he was "about five or six".

Any conflict, then, playing your 'home' county in Croker tomorrow?

"Ha!" he chuckles. "Don't be spinning that line! I'm Dublin through and through."

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