Naomh Éanna manager Frank Fitzsimons speaks to Brendan McTaggart
By Brendan McTaggart
The man behind the team. Naomh Éanna’s very own ‘chosen one’. He won’t thank me for writing that, that’s just how he is. Frank Fitzsimons, a Lámh Dhearg man taken to the hearts of the Hightown Road club has led his troops through a history making, ground breaking year.
And they’re not done yet.
On Saturday evening, Fitzsimons will lead Naomh Éanna out on Croke Park with his eye on the prize promised to him by captain James McAuley after defeating Gort na Mona on that autumnal Saturday afternoon in Corrigan Park. The 20th October forever etched into the hearts and minds of the Naomh Éanna club and the Hightown Road men are looking to bring their fairytale run to the ‘dream-come-true’ ending their season has been building to. The ending their season deserves.
All-Ireland medals aren’t given away though. On Saturday they face another monumental challenge. If they are to bring the All-Ireland crown to the Hightown Road, they have to overcome the best Kerry and Munster have to offer, Kilcummin. However if you’re going to win an All-Ireland, what better way to do so than by potentially beating a side from The Kingdom?
After their hugely entertaining, inspirational performance in the semi-final win over An Spidéal, Fitzsimons said he wanted his squad to enjoy the build-up to what is the biggest 60 minutes of their footballing careers: “When I say enjoy it, I don’t mean go out partying!
“They are athletes. The boys had a drink after the Spideal game but it was back to work on the Tuesday night.
“They have to enjoy it because it may never come around again.”
On the squad’s qualities, Fitzsimons added: “To be honest, they are very grounded. They are confident, but they are not cocky.
“There’s none of that. That’s good too because sometimes Antrim teams would be a bit apprehensive about playing teams from certain parts of the country. They are very good that way.” He continued: “They do what you ask them to do and they work hard and they train hard. I said to them if they win the All-Ireland they can party hard!
“I am trying to keep them enjoying it. You don’t want to be regimental. If they enjoying the game, it usually means you are playing well and that’s good for everybody.”
After the An Spidéal semi-final, Ruairi Scott said he felt they had played better earlier in the championship while other players felt they haven’t hit their peak. Fitzsimons agrees: “Without a doubt I don’t think they’ve reached their full potential yet.
“There’s been games when they’ve touched on an eight or a nine out of 10, but there’s plenty left in them.
“Hopefully, Croke Park on Saturday night is when it will show itself.”
Croke Park is the GAA’s theatre of dreams. From the moment you learn to hand-to-toe the ball, you dream of playing on the Jones’ Road. Some thrive on the grandest stage of them all, some get lost in the occasion, the Naomh Éanna manager told us: “As management, that’s up to us. We’re trying to tell them it is just another pitch. Alright, the venue is massive and people can get lost in the size of the stadium, the changing rooms, the cameras and stuff like that.
“Up to now, it hasn’t fazed these lads. Coming through the Ulster semi-final and final at the Athletic Grounds was a big thing. They do things great down there. It is a bigger stadium. If they play the game and not the occasion, we’ll be alright.
“We will try and tell them what they will face when they get down there and it can have an effect on players and then some players just love it and take to it like a duck to water.
“Hopefully that’s what will happen to these boys.”
Saturday will be an opportunity for Fitzsimons to become an All-Ireland winning manager. Despite the undoubted prestige that would undoubtedly come with a win, Fitzsimons gave quite possible the most Frank Fitzsimons answer when asked on his thoughts: “I haven’t really thought about it much to be honest. I am just enjoying it and whatever happens, happens. There are a lot of downs in this game. If we win it, it will be a nice honour to have. No matter what happens, you’ll still be coaching next year.” Never one to accept the limelight no matter how deserving.
Style of football draws praise
The style of football Naomh Éanna have produced during their run to Saturday’s final has drawn praise from all corners. When Joe Brolly purrs and heaps praise, you know you’re doing something right. Even in Cushendall and to use the words of Buff Egan, ‘a hurling stronghold’ they have caught the eye. During the recent press night for their match on Saturday one of the Ruairi’s panel commented: “It’s not the usual football you see. You could actually sit and watch it.”
But for Frank Fitzsimons, it’s about putting things into perspective when it comes to developing a style of play: “It is about making the most of what you have in front of you.
“I can understand it. I was with the county and you are going out against a Donegal or a Monaghan and you can’t play them man-on-man.
“The leagues show that. A Division Four side wouldn’t be going out to play Cargin or St Gall’s in the Senior Championship.
“In my eyes, why should a Division Four team be playing a Division One team in the Championship? I have had this discussion many a time and I think you need to be playing at your level.
“Mullahoran dropped down and that was a massive scalp. It was a very tight game.
“There has been more learning this year at Intermediate. These lads have learned with every game.
“I keep going back to the St Paul’s game. St Paul’s had 10 or 12 years of Senior experience.
“We had words with our boys at half-time because St Paul’s were slowing up the game to suit themselves.
“We needed to express ourselves more and you could see them learning more in the second half.
In every game, there has been something we’ve improved on and hopefully that will continue on to next Saturday night in Croke Park.”
The Naomh Éanna attacking play has drawn all the plaudits but their foundations have been laid with a tenacious defence. Their work rate and numbers of turnovers achieved last day out was incredible and Fitzsimons was pleased to see the work put in on the training ground bearing fruit: “We work on that a lot in training and it is good to see that happening, turning teams over. I think that’s when teams are the most vulnerable – when you turn them over and hit them at pace.
“Our boys bought into it. I am not saying we are a defensive team, but we try and play football as best we can.
“It is all about winning. This game is so fickle at times.
“We weren’t really at danger of being relegated, but if we had have dropped back into Division Two and went out against St Paul’s in the first round, all of a sudden you are up the road!”
The pace of the Naomh Éanna attack has proved too much for the teams in Antrim, Ulster and An Spidéal to handle. In theory, Croke Park’s open spaces and pristine, carpet like surface will be conducive for the Hightown Road side: “Hopefully it will, but I’d say the Kilcummin boys have been sitting looking at our last two or three games and they know we are going to bring pace. They’ll be trying in some way to nullify that.
“Hopefully these boys will keep going for the 60 minutes, If they play to their potential, it is going to take an unbelievable team to beat them.
“If we can get a good performance on Saturday night, hopefully we’ll get a good result as well.”
Their opponents on Saturday scraped through to the final with the minimum to spare over Kildare and Leinster champions, Two Mile House. Philip Casey’s second free of the hour sending the Kilcummin to the decider. Fitzsimons said of Saturday’s opponents: “They are a typical Kerry team – they like kicking the ball.
“They are very strong. They have a couple of good inside forwards and they have Kevin McCarthy who is on the Kerry panel. It is a Kerry team we are playing and there’ll be no passengers on that team.
“It will come down to a lot of man-on-man battles and hopefully we can come out on the right side.”
Fitzsimons has guided Naomh Éanna through unchartered territory for an Antrim team already. They won Ulster the hard way and if they’re going to win an All-Ireland, they will have to beat a team from Kerry. The dream scenario? Fitzsimons added: “It was the same in Ulster. You usually have to beat a Monaghan or a Tyrone team and we did both then beat a Cavan team in the final.
“What a team to play in the final? A team from Kerry.”
A long season will finally draw to a close on Saturday night. The Naomh Éanna squad has been tested to it’s fullest and Fitzsimons but the Lámh Dhearg native has no fears of who will represent the club in the starting 15. He has faith in his squad and that was shown by throwing Damien Gault into full back and the starting 15 for the semi-final: “Damien is very experienced and he is a very good player. You could see it in training, the way he was moving. He is some player.
The last full game he played for us was against Creggan in the league and we were beat by a point. He got an Achilles injury that night and it has been bothering him since.
“He was very good against An Spidéal.”
Fitzsimons gave a clean bill of health for his squad with Ethan Gibson showing no ill effects of an injury suffered in the semi-final win: “He is going to be OK. We have a couple of wee knocks, the like of Conor McAuley and that but they’ll be alright.
“We should have a full hand. I know you want your full hand, but there are 32 players there chomping at the bit. It isn’t easy to say who is and isn’t going to start. You obviously have a few players who would be difficult to replace, but the boys know that the rest of the boys have put the hard work in too. It is all about the 32 lads on the panel and some of them have worked very hard and have gotten no game time at all, maybe just a few minutes in the league. Without those players, training isn’t great so it is massive to have that kind of squad about.”
All-Ireland finals are what dreams are made off and Croke Park is the theatre of dreams in every sense of the word. Where legends are made and history written.
Naomh Éanna are 60 minutes away from creating the perfect ending to their fairytale, their dream. If there is a more deserving club to have the success thrust upon them that they desire and crave, I’ve yet to see them. A club who have come through the worst the Troubles had to offer and still dream. On Saturday, the dream can become reality. Be Big Naomh Éanna, Be Big.