HIS Sigerson Cup medal is one of his most treasured possessions, so Matthew Fitzpatrick isn’t particularly enamoured by the decision to run off the competition in a matter of weeks.
The top-tier college football competition will begin on the second weekend of January, with the final provisionally scheduled for Wednesday 29 January, three days after the first round of the Allianz Football League.
The hope is that streamlining the competition (the final was played on February 20 this year) will ease some of the burden on third-level students, but the fear is that intercounty players may instead decide to give the competition a wide berth.
That fear appears to be justified following the news that university teams won’t partake in the McKenna Cup this year, and Matthew Fitzpatrick says it would be a crying shame if the competition’s prestige is diminished.
The Antrim star was a key part of the St Mary’s team which won the Sigerson Cup in early 2017. Pocketing a winning medal was nice enough, but he also says that university football was the making of him – and he also got the opportunity to see what made the likes of Conor Meyler, Cathal McShane, Oisin O’Neill, Kevin McKernan and Kieran McGeary
“University is massive for younger players, and I never would have made it otherwise,” he said.
“It gave me the experience of playing in big games in a county environment, playing with and against county players.
“They don’t really risk you in your first year in a county set-up, but when you’re playing with a university, it really exposes you to playing against top players.
“If you do well you know you’re ready for it and it fills you full of confidence. Players who decide not to field in the competitionw will miss out on so much.
“On a less serious note the craic is unbelievable as well, and you’re going to get to a stage where players will have to put their county career first and not be able to enjoy playing for their university.”
Fitzpatrick, who recently qualified as a teacher, has made a decision of his own recently – he’s withdrawn from the Antrim panel as he’s set to give Irish League soccer a go, but he’s told Gaelic Life that he still intends to return to Saffron colours at some stage. He said that he grew up in a soccer-dominated environment, but that he was immersed in GAA at St Mary’s, setting him on a different course.
“I’m from Belfast and my background was soccer until I went to St Mary’s. I met the likes of Kieran McGeary and Conor Meyler and they lived and breathed the lifestyle. Their mindset and the way they approached things really opened my eyes.
“They helped me massively and once I played with those lads, I knew I’d be able to handle county football.”
Fitzpatrick also says that the decision to bring the competition forward is symptomatic of the lack of regard given to what the players themselves actually want.
“The players don’t get enough of a say, I don’t know one player who was in favour of the advanced mark, and now it’s a rule.
“There’s people sitting in these boardrooms who don’t play anymore who have this opinion of what football should be.
“Why can’t players who actually play now have the say?”
Even the darkest soul can’t have begrudged St Mary’s their success in 2017 when they ended their 28-year wait in 2017 against a star-studded UCD.
Fitzpatrick says it’s his proudest achievement as a GAA player, and he’s conscious that Antrim players don’t often get these opportunities.
“It’s probably my fondest memory of playing Gaelic. They were my mates, it wasn’t just a team that game together. I have the jersey framed in my Ma’s house, it’s a cracking memory.
“I still keep in touch with a lot of the lads, we meet up an odd time and keep in touch on the likes of Instagram and Snapchat.
“The Tyrone lads where were everyone wanted to be, how they look after themselves physically, their mental approach and their ability. We want to slowly but surely get closer and closer to them in Antrim.”