What senior success at last would mean for me and Dungannon Swifts, explains emotional Fitzpatrick
The friendly faces at Dungannon Swifts aren't known for being left speechless. Widely regarded as one of the most welcoming stops on the Irish League roadshow, the County Tyrone club could scarcely provide more popular winners of the BetMcLean League Cup.
The prospect of ending the wait for the Swifts' first ever top level national trophy against Ballymena United at Windsor Park on Saturday evening (kick-off 5.30pm) brings on feelings that club veteran Terry Fitzpatrick struggles to sum up.
"I've played for Dungannon for so long and this is only my second final, to go one step further and win it - words can't describe," he said.
Fitzpatrick is the only member of the 2007 Irish Cup final squad still playing for the club. One more Swifts man that took to the old Windsor Park pitch that day remains at Stangmore Park, although Rodney McAree has now progressed from the pitch to the dugout, where the manager sits alongside 2007 assistant boss Terry McCrory, one of those fondly familiar faces.
There's a select group like McCrory who, once they come through the Stangmore Park gates, never seem to leave. It's a 'family', explains Fitzpatrick.
"It's a real family," explained Fitzpatrick. "It's an achievement in itself that we are in the final.
"There's so much excitement and build-up to it. People around the town are really getting behind it - there's even a bakery, Hegarty's, that has made special buns for the final.
😢 Sad times cup cakes are sold out!!! 😊 Happy days fresh batch will be ready Friday morning!!!Posted by Hegarty's Home Bakery on Thursday, February 15, 2018
"This is credit to everyone who puts the hard work in from groundsmen to bar staff and everybody else at the club. It is a family and to go that one step further and achieve a senior trophy for Dungannon - word's really can't describe it."
The parochial nature of the Irish League is a peculiar, endearing thing. After their recent win in the last 16 of the Irish Cup, I overheard a young supporter on the Lakeview Park pitch commentate on his own penalty: "Can he win it for Loughgall?"
It's not quite as glamorous a dream as a Champions League win for Manchester United. But for players like that kid and Terry Fitzpatrick, it's every bit as special (not to mention more realistic).
Dungannon man Fitzpatrick, you see, has played senior football for his hometown club since before their 2003 promotion to the league's top table.
"I went on loan to Armagh for three months when Harry Fay was manager but I never dreamt of leaving Dungannon permanently and other than that have spent my whole career here since joining the Under 12s. I always wanted to play for Dungannon - nobody else," he said.
Now 35, Fitzpatrick still plays a significant role in Rodney McAree's side. He came off the bench late in the extra-time semi-final win over Crusaders and has featured in two-thirds of the Swifts' Premiership games so far this campaign.
He knows Saturday could provide the sweetest success of a senior career spanning over 15 years.
"I actually played left-back the day we were promoted at Armagh because Mark Savage was injured," he recalled, looking back over a career dedicated to the Swifts.
"Promotion came when I was very young though and I had a lot of football still to play. I still had so many games ahead of me when we played the Irish Cup final too - although the buzz around the club that day was brilliant.
"Now to get my hands on a senior trophy for Dungannon, at my age when opportunities are few and far between, would be fantastic."
Dungannon lost that one previous senior final on penalties, 3-2 to a Linfield team who were in the middle of a run of three successive doubles. The Swifts had even led in the shoot-out, Linfield's first two spot-kicks saved by Dwayne Nelson. But his opposite number Alan Mannus would come up with three stops of his own to ensure the Swifts were beaten.
"Linfield were the real team to beat at that stage and to run them so close," he pauses, "unfortunately we didn't take our chance."
Now Fitzpatrick knows Saturday may provide his only remaining opportunity to make up for that close call.
"There still is that cup final experience at the club with myself and Rod, who scored one of our penalties that day," he said. "We have some experienced players at the club but we have a lot of younger players too who maybe haven't experienced anything like this before. Everybody was excited at training on Tuesday and looking forward to it."
McAree, Fitzpatrick says, will keep the match-day build-up as normal as possible, but with the memories of cup final pain still in the back on the senior player's mind, he'll make sure his team-mates are well aware of the game's importance.
"I normally speak in the changing room before the games so I will have something to say about not missing our opportunity," he said. "This is only my second major final so I know they don't come around all that often. Hopefully we can produce the same performance that we did in the semi-final and get the right result."
Can they win it for Dungannon? If they do, the victory will come with a chorus of congratulations from across the Irish League for the welcoming, family club who could for once be left speechless.
Belfast Telegraph Digital