Five reasons why Cha walked away from Kilkenny
FIVE years ago he was a prodigy, the unanimous 'Young Hurler of the Year', and just two years later, he captained Kilkenny to an All-Ireland senior title.
That is why James 'Cha' Fitzpatrick's decision to quit the inter-county game yesterday came as such a shock.
Fitzpatrick's swift transition from the county minors in 2004 to start in the All-Ireland final that summer was so meteoric that few could have imagined he would call time on his inter-county career so quickly.
A winner of the 'Player of the Tournament' at Feile na nGael (the national U-14 competition) in 1997, he was back without his young clubmates a year later to win the 'individual skills' title.
At 26, he has already won five senior All-Irelands, three National Leagues and three All Star awards and captained Kilkenny to both U-21 and senior titles.
So why does such a talented player, who has amassed so many honours with club Ballyhale and county with Kilkenny, and is not suffering from significant injury, suddenly decide to quit?
Fitzpatrick couldn't wrestle back a regular starting place in the Kilkenny midfield this year and admitted that this particularly frustrated him.
No hurler on the Kilkenny senior team ever takes a starting place for granted because manager Brian Cody selects players strictly on form.
For a player who started in midfield in the 2006, 2007 and 2008 All-Ireland finals and again in the 2010 decider, finding himself on the outside grappling to get back in was particularly frustrating.
"No matter what I did in training last year, no matter how well I played, it didn't seem like I'd get a go at all," he said.
"If I was to go back next year I'd find the motivation very hard because, deep down inside, I felt that no matter what I did in training it didn't seem like I was going to be picked."
2. Illness and injury
In 2008, Fitzpatrick lifted the Liam MacCarthy Cup for Kilkenny when he was just 23, but the following season he contracted a particularly virulent strain of mumps.
Less than two months later, his club contested the All-Ireland club semi-final against Portumna and Fitzpatrick unselfishly rushed back from illness to make it.
It was largely accepted that he came back far too quickly and that added months to his full recovery.
He also broke a bone in the palm of his hand subsequently, which proved tricky to heal and the combination of illness and injury meant he never refound his form in 2009.
3. Competition for places
Cha's illness and injury in 2009 left the door open for others to stake a claim for one of Kilkenny's midfield spots and through 2009-2010 Carrickshock's Michael Rice made the best of that chance. At 6ft, and alongside Michael Fennelly (6ft3ins), Rice has given Kilkenny a power-playing midfield duo that has proven hard to displace.
Rice won an All Star this year and Fennelly not only won his second All Star in a row but won national 'Player of the Year'. Fitzpatrick couldn't break back into midfield ahead of this dominant duo.
4. pace of the modern game
Fitzpatrick's greatest talent was his first touch and ability to read and pick up breaking ball, but knew he had lost some pace and feeling it, even in training.
"One of the things against me was the lack of speed," he acknowledged. "I remember during the year, doing drills against Michael Fennelly and Michael Rice, and they're powerhouses.
"For every step they took I'd take three, I'd find it hard to keep up with them. They'd run up and down the field from 21-yard line to 21-yard line effortlessly. I had great hurling, great vision but the way the game has gone, there are just huge fitness levels and speed and everything and I suppose that is one area that has gone against me."
5. The game plan changed
Fitzpatrick got back in to start the 2010 All-Ireland final, but was hauled off as Kilkenny failed to contain Tipperary's rampaging blue wave. The way that Tipperary outmuscled Kilkenny that day surprised many and the Cats have concentrated particularly since then on having big athletic men in midfield.
They now feature big rangey midfielders who are capable of dominating aerially, running all day and driving forward powerfully to break up teams who were beginning to match their physicality. That is not Cha's natural game. Even when Micheal Fennelly was injured for the league final this year TJ Reid was preferred in midfield and Fitzpatrick was started at wing-forward.
... And what next?
It would not only be a loss to Kilkenny, but to hurling in general if such a talent as Cha would be lost to the game at 26.
He has cited travel as one of the reasons for hanging up his inter-county hurley, but surely, the Dublin-based teacher would be a viable option for Dubs boss Anthony Daly to turn to?
Daly has successfuly integrated Tipp native Ryan O'Dwyer into his squad of league winners -- why not ask a man with senior All-Irelands to come on board?