Peter Fitzpatrick mans the Louth line at Croke Park. (Pic: Arthur Kinahan)
Age 18, Peter Fitzpatrick was given the opportunity to sign for Dundalk FC, despite having already made his debut with the Louth seniors. His motto in life is ‘no regrets’ and he went on to play in the red jersey for 16 years. Decision made.
There is a regret, though, and it’s like no other. Following the recent Leinster Championship loss to Carlow, Louth’s ongoing wait for a provincial title stands at 61 years when, in truth, it should have ended at 53 years. After all, the man more commonly known as ‘Fitzer’ presided over the Wee County side involved in perhaps the greatest injustice in GAA history.
Where else to start but July 11, 2010.
“I never felt so emotional after a game, the effort the players put in… I don’t mind losing, after a game I always say ‘did you do your best?’ and the Louth players did their best, but I honestly believe that if Meath had any gumption or any balls, they should have given a replay, and they have no luck since…
“I’m a sportsperson and I’ve never won anything that I didn’t deserve to win and if I did, I’d never take it. Meath have a Leinster (title) that they don’t deserve and if anyone in Meath says that they have a Leinster medal from 2010, they’re wrong.
“Psychologically, I feel the experience marked a few of our players and they didn’t play as well after that, but I firmly believe that if Louth had won that game, Louth football would have changed. I think that Louth team could have gone on to win a few Leinsters.”
What more is there to say.
Though not first-choice on the selection panel’s list, with Pete McGrath and Seán Kelly having been offered the ticket before refusing, Fitzpatrick was granted three years at the helm in the autumn of 2009, following Eamonn McEneaney’s four-year leadership. It was the fulfilment of a life-long ambition for the county’s former captain.
O’Byrne Cup holders from the previous year, the Clan na Gael man led Louth to the 2010 decider, despite using the competition to ‘blood’ some new faces. A mid-table finish in the subsequent National League campaign saw the Wee County miss-out on promotion by a mere two points. But avoiding relegation to Division Four was the core objective and that was achieved.
The final round victory, which guaranteed their third-tier status for 2011, was of the watershed kind. ‘Pepe’ Smith bagged a hat-trick as Louth rattled in 5-9 away to Offaly. A few weeks later, they thrashed Monaghan at the opening of Inniskeen’s new playing field. Fitzpatrick knew they were primed approaching the championship.
A trip to Bundoran for a weekend preceded the Leinster opener with Longford. There they encountered Brian McEniff, who took a shine to the group, and the former Donegal manager would be involved in a backroom team capacity for the remainder of Fitzpatrick’s tenure.
After seeing off the Midlanders, Louth faced Kildare in Navan in front of the RTÉ cameras and turned the Lilies over with a stylish display.
“In my three-and-a-half years in the job, I think the best game that Louth ever played was the game in Navan against Kildare. Kildare were really going well that time with (Kieran) McGeeney as manager.
“To score 1-22 against 1-16, I mean I got letters from all over Ireland after that game. The type of football we played that day… We always played attacking football and I feel that’s the reason why we did so well. Shane Lennon that night was absolutely superb. Even before the game, he had to get his hand strapped because he wanted to play, no matter what, and all the players were the same. They worked so, so hard that year.”
Ray Finnegan struck for Louth’s goal in the second half, while Paddy Keenan personified ‘captain fantastic’ alongside Brian White at midfield. It’s a pairing which Fitzpatrick felt was the best in the country at the time. However, it’s the St. Patrick’s axis of Finnegan and Keenan which stood out.
“Paddy Keenan was an absolutely fantastic player and thoroughly deserving of being the first All-Star that Louth ever produced, but in my three-and-a-half years managing the team, one player gave me more than anyone else and that was Ray Finnegan. Ray Finnegan should have been an All-Star in 2010. He would play with one leg or one arm, I’ve never seen anyone with Louth give the commitment that Ray did.”
The semi-final win over Westmeath ended a half-century of waiting for a Leinster final appearance and approaching the decider Fitzpatrick - knowing the effort which had been expended by the players in preparing - was ultra-confident of victory.
In step Martin Sludden, the Tyrone referee who single-handedly changed the course of history.
“At that stage of the game (near full-time), the referee was getting too involved with the players. He got involved with JP Rooney and he sent-off Colm Judge. He just got thick.
“I remember talking to Peter McDonnell before the game and he said: ‘Peter, the person who’s going to decide this game is the referee’, and he was right. He was fully aware of Sludden having been involved with Armagh.
“I looked at the video once after the Leinster final. Joe Sheridan threw the ball into the net and the referee didn’t consult with his umpires, but we had three or four opportunities to clear that ball away,” he said ruefully.
“I can remember walking back to the car and seeing young children crying. I called the referee ‘Dick Turpin without a mask’. He totally and utterly robbed us. History will show that we were robbed, absolutely robbed.”
Dublin would knock Louth out of the qualifiers as an incredible season came to an end.
But Fitzpatrick wasn’t finished and having “trained the living daylights of the team in February, March and April” of 2011, Louth defeated Westmeath at Croke Park to take the Division Three title.
The championship was a disaster, though, with Carlow claiming their scalp in round one at Portlaoise. It was “a hard one to swallow”, while Meath struck for five goals in their qualifier meeting at Breffni Park.
Year three, 2012, saw the Wee County maintain their Division Two status with many impressive performances, perhaps none more so than the “revenge”-driven trip to Meath in the final round where a 2-14 to 1-8 win demoted the Royals whilst catapulting Louth to a top-half finish - the county’s highest league placing in the present format.
The win was dedicated to Louth’s legendary kitman, Charlie McAllister, who died within two weeks of the victory.
Westmeath would be overcome in the Leinster opener, though Dublin were too strong at Croke Park. Westmeath would gain some revenge in the qualifiers, narrowly downing the Wee County, who played the second half with 13 players. It was the final match in Fitzpatrick’s reign, but it was the only one he missed having been forced into hospital to undergo emergency treatment with Gallstones.
Nonetheless, he knew his time was up, but not because of his political commitments.
“You obviously know when your time is up, as such, and when I was lying in the bed in the Lourdes Hospital listening to the game, you just say: ‘I’ve given three-and-a-half years of my life, I’ve given four or five nights a week’. I thought that I’d given enough and that it was time to move on and give someone else an opportunity.
“It was absolutely nothing to do with the politics, but I was coming to a stage where I was nearly burnt out.”
He added: “I’ve no regrets in life and people tell me that I’m a lucky manager, but you can’t be lucky all the time. I’ve no regrets that I played for Louth for 16 years, I’ve no regrets that I managed clubs in Louth, Meath and Monaghan, I’ve no regrets that I managed Louth for three-and-a-half years. But I still have one ambition and that is that I’d love to manage the Louth team again. Maybe it’s a fantasy, maybe it’s a dream, but I still maintain that Louth at some stage will win the Leinster Championship.”
Click here for Paddy Clarke's interview
Click here for Declan Smyth's interview