IN THE 50th minute of Sunday afternoon’s game, Páidí Fitzpatrick was summoned to the sideline at Semple Stadium.

The Clare defender gestured with his fist as he ran off, saluting David McInerney who was coming on as a replacement. The message was clear.

He had put in a huge shift to help establish a winning platform for his team as they were nine points clear.

Now the focus shifted to supporting the rest of the team as they attempted to finish the job.

Ultimately Clare were successful by four points. It was a victory to savour for their team to kick-start the 2021 ambitions but for Fitzpatrick it held a deeper meaning, this was an experience that he had waited some time to share in.

A first senior championship start for Clare at 30 years of age, seven weeks shy from his 31st birthday.

It was almost 13 years exactly, since he had previously started a championship game of any description for a Clare team.

On 25 June 2008 he featured in a Munster minor semi-final against Tipperary.

On 27 June 2021 he featured in a Munster senior quarter-final against Waterford.

It was a notable journey from one point to the other. His maiden competitive senior appearance for Clare arrived on Sunday 1 March last year. He acquitted himself well in a nine-point league win over Dublin in Ennis but any aspirations for channelling that momentum were soon wrecked. The country shut down 11 days later and the pandemic ripped up everyone’s plans.

Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Well done to Paidi Fitzpatrick who made his competitive debut for Clare in the National Hurling league versus Dublin in Ennis at the weekend. Joined by club mate Cathal Malone as the other wing back. #clareseniors #paidifitz #sixmilebridgegaa

— Sixmilebridge (@SMBClare) March 2, 2020

When the 2020 inter-county programme of games resumed, Fitzpatrick made the bench for Clare’s four winter outings. He got pushed into the action in Portlaoise last November, a championship milestone arriving in the 60th minute of their triumph over Wexford.

2021 brought league starts against Wexford and Dublin before the big chance arrived on Sunday. He seized it, blotting out the threat of Waterford’s Jack Fagan to announce himself on the senior stage.

“It’s an amazing story,” admits Syl O’Connor, the Clare FM GAA commentator and Sixmilebridge club-mate of Fitzpatrick.

“Páidí would have been looked upon as one of the best man-markers in the county at club level. No question about that.

“Some of his greatest battles were marking Conor McGrath, when he was in his prime. The ‘Bridge and Cratloe were very prominent for a period, playing each other. Conor was one of the top players, Páidí always got the task of marking Conor.

“He probably has a unique style as well, he’s a real man-marker. He’d probably never run 100 yards and pop it over the bar. But the man that’s on him, won’t do that easily either.

“He’s a massive player from the ‘Bridge point of view. Very influential and very well got with the team.”

Back in 2008 he moved from club underage ranks to fill the centre-back spot for the Clare minor hurlers in a team powered by the inside attacking duo of McGrath and Darach Honan. It was a campaign where they made a rousing start by beating Cork but were then knocked out by Tipperary.

Fitzpatrick was on the fringes of the county U21 squad in 2010 and 2011 without ever managing to break into the first fifteen.

Then followed a long spell away from the inter-county game yet his hurling never declined. He focused on his work with the club and prospered.

When Sixmilebridge lifted the Canon Hamilton Cup last September, it ensured Fitzpatrick would pick up his fifth Clare senior hurling medal since 2013. He had started in all five final wins, captaining them in 2017, while covering a range of positions including full-back, wing-back, midfield and centre-forward.

Source: Lorraine O’Sullivan/INPHO

In his homeplace they appreciated his worth as a golden age for the club was enjoyed.

“I’d often think of the example of Shane Prendergast in Kilkenny,” says O’Connor.

“Came in the first year and won the All-Ireland (in 2015), he was captain the next year for the All-Ireland and was gone the following year. He was 29 when he came in.

“Look, everybody would be surprised to see you make your senior championship debut at 30 years of age. There’s no doubt about that. But you’d have to look at it and say, how did that happen?

“I think he’s come into the scene now, based on the type of player that I believe Brian Lohan looks for. Big men and trying to get power into the team. Páidí has fallen into the category then of making his championship debut at 30 years of age.

“That half-back line is a massive unit with himself, John Conlon and Diarmuid Ryan. The size of Páidí is a big plus and his man-marking ability.”

Playing club hurling at an elite level gave him a strong grounding, to the fore for a dominant side in Clare, then testing himself in Munster against heavyweights like Na Piarsaigh and Ballygunner.

His older brother Stiofan was midfield on the Clare minor team that lifted the All-Ireland crown at the expense of Clare in 1997. His father PJ has been a club coach of renown in the county, a long-serving principal in Clonlara National School where he was one of the early influences in the hurling careers of current Clare stalwarts Colm Galvin and John Conlon.

Cathal McInerney and Páidí Fitzpatrick in the 2019 Clare county senior final.

Source: Lorraine O’Sullivan/INPHO

Fitzpatrick spent some time travelling as well, switching careers around 2016 from chartered accountancy to mobile and web development.

On the day of the 2019 All-Ireland hurling final, he was lining out at Treasure Island in San Francisco to help Na Fianna win the senior hurling final against the Tipperary club. Wolfe Tones player Rory Hayes was a team-mate that day, now they are both part of the Clare defensive unit.

And this week they’ve a Munster semi-final to prepare for.

Back in 2006, Munster’s U16 inter-divisional hurling tournament culminated with East Clare pipping Mid Tipperary by a point in the final. Páidí Fitzpatrick was on the winning side, Noel McGrath on the losing team. Given their general positioning, they’re likely to renew acquaintances on the pitch next Sunday.

McGrath’s inter-county career exploded to life after that game 15 years ago, Fitzpatrick’s has taken a bit longer to take flight.

“It’s unusual nowadays to be starting so late,” admits O’Connor.

“But then again there’s nothing unusual nowadays about a fella blazing a trail of glory at 18 or 19 and then he’s gone. Maybe for a change, it’ll go the other way for a while.

“He stuck at it. The worst thing you can do is stand beside Páid Fitzpatrick, you’d only be looking up at him. He’s a massive lad.

“And if there’s a job to be done on the hurling pitch, he’ll do it.”

– First published 06.00, 29 June

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