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Antrim GAA ace Fitzpatrick relieved his reputation is intact after 'nightmare week'

 

By Declan Bogue

A week that began with a puzzling request to travel to Croke Park to revisit a case he had already been cleared in twice, ended with Matthew Fitzpatrick limping over the threshold of his home on a pair of crutches on Sunday night.

The Antrim footballer and his battles with GAA officialdom had gone from being a sub-plot in the build-up to the Championship defeat against Donegal to becoming a much bigger issue where an amateur sportsman was handed a 48-week ban from GAA activities, before it was rescinded on appeal.

The incident, already well documented, arose in the Saffrons' National League match against Armagh, when the Central Competitions Control Committee chose to make an issue over some footage submitted by the Orchard side.

The severity of the ban immediately caused widespread disbelief, given it would effectively rule Fitzpatrick out of two entire seasons.

Fitzpatrick twice successfully appealed against the charge of striking, before being charged with 'misleading an investigation,' with news bulletins and headlines concerning the 48-week ban handed down last Monday, but overturned by Wednesday.

The trainee teacher in La Salle, Belfast is glad his reputation will not be tarnished.

"I won my appeal, it was an allegation. You don't want that beside your name. I am glad that my name is cleared now," he told the Belfast Telegraph.

"Going to St Mary's and aiming to be a teacher in the future, it isn't good to have something like that on your record. I am just glad that people documented how I won the appeal just as much as when I got the ban. So I am not worried now because it's out there that I have been cleared.

"To be honest, I was just tired and bored of the whole thing."

Writing in his Sunday Independent column, Joe Brolly - who helped construct the appeal notes for Fitzpatrick and his county managers Frank Fitzsimons and Gearoid Adams - detailed how the Saffrons ace's mother grew concerned for the mental health of her son, although the man himself is more phlegmatic about the week he endured.

"I think myself that I will be alright. It could be worse. That's my thinking," he stated.

"In terms of my mother, you know what mothers are like! There are only so many times you can reassure her that things are alright.

"But she worries about it. She worries about how it might affect me. And people have a point when they are saying it can affect you.

"But in my own head, I think I will be alright. It was a nightmare week, don't get me wrong. My head was working overtime, but now I am just glad it is over.

"It was just a hassle that I did not need. The reason I did not say anything before the match was because I didn't want people thinking I was making excuses or feeling sorry for me.

"It was frying my head. Now that it is over, I am content."

The St John's clubman, who won the Sigerson Cup with St Mary's back in February, paid tribute to managers Fitzsimons and Adams for the support they gave him.

"They are salt of the earth, and Pat Hughes, the kitman, he was with me the whole way. He is a character. The only thing is that he is hard to listen to, going up and down to Croke Park four times!" he laughed.

"Terry Reilly, who is county vice-chairman, came down with me. He was brilliant and he helped me a lot. And then Joe Edwards was pivotal, Joe Brolly too, I can't thank those boys enough."

Late night commutes to Croke Park were hardly the ideal preparation for an Ulster Championship match, but for the first half against Donegal, Fitzpatrick was one of Antrim's busier players, just narrowly missing a goal chance before injury required the use of a stretcher to remove him from the Ballybofey pitch just before half-time.

He attempted to grab a loose ball in midfield but an opponent had the same idea, falling over Fitzpatrick in the process. With his ankle swollen, he is currently recovering from ligament damage.

At present, Fitzpatrick is undertaking teacher training in La Salle, where he helps out with some of the school teams.

He came late to the GAA as he played soccer for Irish League side Glentoran all the way from Under-14 level to the reserves. It was only during his studies at St Mary's that he played Gaelic football and before long he received invites to join up with the county team.

When the swelling goes down and his ankle recovers, he is still targeting a long summer with the Saffrons, pointing to their decent first-half showing against Donegal as cause for some optimism as they face into the qualifiers.

"It just shows you that there is something there. If we get all the best players in the county out then I know for a fact that we will not be in Division Four. We should be pushing other Ulster teams," he added.

"Antrim, we have always been able to pull off wins and it's always been that way. It's what keeps people coming back. They know that the potential is there, we are just not consistent enough."

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