A year ago this week, Down footballer Clara Fitzpatrick packed up three and a half years of her life in Australia and returned home.
After immediately breaking through back into the county setting, he aimed to help Down get back into the senior ranks again.
After representing Morne County for several years before he emigrated to Australia in 2016, Fitzpatrick, 30, continued to play Australian Rules socially and professionally, before the Covid-19 outbreak proved to be a trigger to return home. .
He remains unsure where his long-term plans lie, but for now, he’s determined to take his second chance with Down.
“I was planning to come home last May for the holidays, but with all that happened we decided to get up and go,” said the Bryansford club player.
“It’s a bit chaotic, three and a half years wrapped up in three days. That’s so packed up and saying goodbye.
“It’s great to come home. I feel like it was the right decision. I’m not sure if I can play with the club again, you don’t know when your last game was or how many years you have been away. Last summer was brilliant, got a little bit of football. with the club and my old teammates. To be honest it’s like I never left, which is a good feeling.
“Just being close to my family, that’s a big thing that Covid has shown us. Family means everything, so being at home with family and friends, you can’t replace it.”
Since he returned with his traveling companions – sister Laura and friend Aoife – Fitzpatrick has returned to work in his local community. Her physiotherapeutic skills are in high demand, rehabilitating patients in the postoperative community, and she admits she loves being able to go out and meet people under exertionary lockdowns.
Playing with St Kilda club in Melbourne, Fitzpatrick had a very successful first season at the AFLW, but being unable to work in his trade under strict sports visa restrictions meant he was in no position to play a second season.
“Most Irish girls go on a sports visa, but I was sponsored to work as a physio there and I gave up on going on a sports visa to play. I gave up a lot, ”he explained.
Towards the second year, St Kilda had offered me a sports visa to return, but I wanted to have the opportunity to work as a physio and play so I applied for a permanent residence permit. Australian girls can work and play, but because of our visas we are very limited in what we can do.
“St Kilda are very good, they pressed me to get extra time, but we have to cancel it by mid-November at the latest. They put me on the inactive list and not delete me, in the hope I will come out to play next season.
“If it weren’t for Covid, I might still be in Australia. In an ideal world, the plan is to come back in September or October, but with Covid, things are very unpredictable. In the way that is lost it is very difficult to make plans. I’ll see how things go over the next few months and play it by ear.
“To be honest I would love to play any football this year. After the last few months, nothing in terms of collective sport, it would be great to get out of training and be able to play matches any description again.”
After playing past the underage class for Down, Fitzpatrick moved up to the senior team at the turn of the last decade. He quickly nailed his place in the middle of the field, a role he returned to at the most recent championships.
A two-point loss to reigning champions Meath marks the end of their 2020 season, but he thinks the team has the potential to achieve great things under the management of Caoibhe Sloan and Peter Lynch.
“It’s great to be back in. Peter and Caoibhe are amazing for Down Ladies, they have an unrealistic arrangement. They are focused on developing the young players who are coming. They set high standards; an impressive set – to come in,” he said.
“As a team, we were a little disappointed with Meath’s game. Meath was a very strong contender and then did really well in the end, but we couldn’t catch them and we lost a point or two. We can only learn from them and we can go on. go ahead and fix our weak points in the game. “
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Although his exploits with oval balls have attracted attention in recent years, Fitzpatrick pointed to his success representing Australasia at the 2019 GAA World Games as a career highlight.
A serious knee injury cost him the chance to play in the 2014 Down Intermediate All-Ireland success, but winning any title at Croke Park is hard to beat.
“It was incredible. Any female footballer’s dream is to play at Croke Park. I had missed opportunities there before with Down and now I am 30 years old, so having the opportunity to play at Croke Park is incredible,” she said.
“I have known several girls from playing college, district and provincial football over the years. It was so awesome, just a great experience from start to finish. To get the results we do is definitely one of the most important things in my life. “
“Getting back to Croke Park and winning there with Down is priority number one now,” he said.
“Collectively, the big goal is to win the intermediate title with Down. “Team Down is a youth team, we have some real young talent,” he said.
“We want to be a senior team in the next few years, we want to move on to Division 2 and then to Division 1. It will be a year of hard work and, individually, everyone has been amazing during the close. Once we get back on the pitch again, it will be. It’s great to be able to do it together again. “