DAMNED if you do, damned if you don’t. Matthew Fitzpatrick knew he had a tough decision to make: Continue to battle for club and county with St John’s and Antrim or take on a new challenge?
Growing up in West Belfast, Fitzpatrick had always a keen interest in soccer having played with Immaculata, while he also featured for Glentoran Youth as a teenager.
When he was called up to the Antrim senior football panel, his soccer commitments took a back seat. At the time it looked as though he’d made the correct call.
A Sigerson Cup winner with St Mary’s University College in 2017, Fitzpatrick quickly established himself as a key player for the Saffrons under Frank Fitzsimons and Gearoid Adams, and in recent season under current boss Lenny Harbinson.
He rekindled his soccer career last summer, however, when Belfast Celtic (formerly Sport and Leisure Swifts) asked him to come on board.
Fitzpatrick linked up with Stephen McAlorum and Paddy Kelly at Glen Road Heights following an earlier than expected exit from the Antrim Senior Football Championship for St John’s.
He flourished during the first half of the season, helping Belfast Celtic reach the Fifth Round of the Irish Cup as-well-as the semi-final of the Steel and Sons Cup when they lost out to Newington following a penalty shoot-out.
His performances with Belfast Celtic put him on the radar of several Irish Premiership sides with Glenavon boss Gary Hamilton paying a visit to Glen Road Heights in November.
However, it was Oran Kearney’s Coleraine outfit who secured Fitzpatrick’s signature with the 25-year-old penning a one-and-a-half year deal at the Showgrounds with the option of another year.
Fitzpatrick knew there was no way he could play in the Irish League and continue to play for Antrim. Something had to give.
That his Gaelic football commitments have been put on the backburner still feels odd to a man whose passion for Antrim and St John’s remains as strong as ever.
“It is strange to be honest, I still love it as much as I did this time last year. I’d still love to be playing. It is hard for me, if I’m being honest,” stated Fitzpatrick.
“If I had have fallen out of love with Gaelic or was fed up, it would have been an easy transition to make.
“If you’d have asked me 12 months ago, how the next 12 would go, I wouldn’t have dreamt of anything like this.
“It has all happened so quickly. I feel like I’ve been winging it for a year!
“I’ve landed on my feet. This time last year, I would have had plans to play for Antrim until I was 35 or 36 and trying to have as long a career as possible.
“Now, I don’t know whether I’m coming or going. I’d love to be at Coleraine long-term. I’d obviously still love to be playing Gaelic, but I can’t.”
Fitzpatrick had planned to return to Gaelic football once his commitments with Coleraine had ended for the season.
With the Bannsiders scheduled to face rivals Ballymena United in the Irish Cup semi-finals, his soccer commitments may have ran on longer than expected.
Yet, with the sporting world on lockdown, Fitzpatrick doesn’t know when or if he’ll play for St John’s this year.
“This break didn’t come at a great time because I’m still trying to get into the Coleraine team and improve. I’ve really only been back playing football since last September,” he added.
“This has given me time to reflect on what I want to do and how I’m going to go about it. In terms of St John’s – I wasn’t even thinking about their season, I was just playing away with Coleraine.
“It is a real spanner in the works because I don’t know when Coleraine’s season is going to get going again or when I’ll get playing for St John’s.”
The Coronavirus pandemic has thrown up plenty of challenges for people in their daily lives as well and Fitzpatrick is one of thousands of people who are currently working from home.
A P.E teacher at Hazelwood Integrated School in North Belfast, Fitzpatrick has had to adapt his lessons for his students, but it has given him an escape from the slagging from the Cliftonville and Crusaders fans in the school.
“I’m working at Hazelwood at the moment and all the kids are either Cliftonville or Crusaders fans, so they’ve been giving me dog’s abuse,” joked Fitzpatrick.
“We beat Cliftonville the last time we played them so I’ve had the bragging rights!
“We are home-schooling at the moment.
“We put all our resources online. For GCSE and A-Level classes, the coursework all goes online. We leave them instructions on what they have to do. They check in and send me it and I’ll correct it and send it back to them. For practical classes, we put up fitness lessons and stuff. It is just to keep them active during the week.”
The last few weeks of football before the Coronavirus outbreak worsened saw the Irish Premiership title fight become a two-horse race.
At the beginning of the year, pundits were hailing a thrilling five-way battle for the Gibson Cup with Crusaders, Cliftonville and Glentoran also in the mix.
Yet, as the weeks progressed, it was league-leaders Linfield and Coleraine who pulled clear of the chasing pack.
With seven league games remaining, Kearney’s side are the only realistic challengers to the Blues and are four points adrift of David Healy’s men – yet it remains uncertain when or if the current season will be finished.
“It was well-documented in January how tight the title race was in the North. There were five teams all in with a chance,” said the Coleraine striker.
“All we focused on was winning every Saturday and keeping ourselves in the mix.
“We weren’t aiming for anyone or aiming for a certain position. We had to take care of our job and we’ve managed to do that so far.
“That’s still our mindset. Although Linfield are top, we have to just keep winning every game, almost as if it is like a cup competition from here in.
“We haven’t been told anything, all they’ve said is that they can’t make a decision because they don’t know when this is going to subside.
“I think they’ll definitely run it off over the summer. Next season can’t take priority over this season when this season is more than 75 per cent finished.
“There is too much at stake, too much money involved in terms of European places.
“There are Irish Cup semi-finals still to be played. I think next season might have to be a shorter season or maybe have less of a pre-season break.”
Fitzpatrick also echoed the words of his manager when he stressed that talk of a possible domestic treble had been non-existent at the club.
Having clinched the League Cup with a stunning 2-1 win over the Crues at Windsor Park in January, Coleraine could make history if they were to overhaul Linfield in the league while they are in the last four of the Irish Cup.
For Fitzpatrick, however, the sole focus is trying to maintain his fitness in preparation for the season recommencing at some stage in the future.
“Oran (Kearney) knows the craic and he knows what he is at. There was no talk of a treble at the club,” said Fitzpatrick.
“At this stage of the season, we had about eight or nine games left and we were just taking it game-by-game – trying to win every game.
“There is a good buzz about the club. It is a good team and all the boys enjoy each other’s company. The buzz at training is very good. When you are winning, it makes it that bit easier.
“We were in good form and we’d a lot to look forward to.
“Now, nobody knows what is going happen. Everyone is just training away on their own.
“They’ve sent us out training programmes, but you don’t know what you are aiming for and when you are going to come back. It is hard to know how to tailor your training for when to peak. I know football is the last thing on people’s minds at the minute, but we still think about it because we are players. It is challenging enough.”
With local football on lockdown for the foreseeable, Fitzpatrick faces another period of uncertainty.
If the current season is completed, Coleraine are well placed to add to their League Cup success and will have a chance to qualify for the group stages of either the UEFA Champions League or the Europa League depending on whether or not they win lift the Gibson Cup.
As with everything else he has embraced during a frantic sporting year, Fitzpatrick says he would relish the chance of playing in Europe with the Bannsiders.
“It would be some change! I love it, I love the unknown and I love a new challenge,” he added.
“I’m lucky in a sense – not many people have had the experiences that I have had. Last season, I was playing for Antrim in the Ulster Championship against Tyrone. Fast forward another year and you never know what competition you could be playing in with Coleraine.
“We could be locked in a title race in the last six games of the season and we could be trying to qualify for Europe. It is exciting times.
“I’m really glad to be part of the squad. I probably haven’t played as much as I would have liked, but that comes with the territory.
“They are second in the league and it is tough to break into the team. I have to be patient and bide my time. That’s what sport is all about. It builds resilience – that’s what I tell the kids at school.”