Professional footballer from a very different time

Obituary Arthur Fitzsimons: After decade at Middlesbrough he went on to manage the Libyan national side

Arthur Fitzsimons

Born: December 16th, 1929

Died: May 9th, 2018

Arthur Fitzsimons, who has died aged 88, was a professional footballer who played for Shelbourne in Dublin, Middlesbrough and the Republic of Ireland.

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Born in Ringsend, his first home was at 39 Penrose Street, just a matter of yards from the home of the League of Ireland club where he first came to prominence. Fitzsimons started his career at the famed nursery club Johnville but joined Shelbourne in 1946 , enjoying some success there before attracting the interest of top-flight English side Middlesbrough for whom he signed in 1949 in a joint deal with Peter Desmond worth £18,000.

He would go on to spend a decade in the northeast of England, initially playing alongside the great Wilf Mannion and by the time he moved on, to Lincoln City in 1959, he had scored 49 goals in 223 league games and made quite a few for another of his well known team mates, future Nottingham Forest manager Brian Clough.

He also met his wife, Val, not long after arriving in the northeast and the pair were married in 1955.

Six Day War

After Lincoln he had a brief spell at Mansfield Town. He moved into coaching and on the recommendation of a former teammate landed a job in Libya where he ultimately managed the national team. The family, which now included the couple’s two daughters, Maureen and Jan, enjoyed life on the north African coast over the five years or so they stayed and Fitzsimons seemed set to extend his contract when the Six Day War broke out in 1967, severely unsettling the country’s political regime.

The family was quickly evacuated to Malta while Arthur stayed behind to secure their savings and tie up loose ends. When he eventually left it was on a return ticket with the offer of a new contract still apparently standing but, given the worsening political situation, the offer of a job back at home with Drogheda United provided the timely opportunity for a move to Ireland.

He worked as player-manager for 18 months with United before a brief stint in charge of Shamrock Rovers and would later have more minor roles with UCD and finally his local St Theresa’s Club.

Bobby Charlton

He subsequently had a couple of spells running small businesses before eventually settling into a job at the reception of a city-centre office block. It was home to the radio station Newstalk and Fitzsimons is said to have been in his element meeting the other former players who would come and go for interviews. He stood in for a few himself and it is recalled that when he once greeted Bobby Charlton, a native of the northeast of England, the startled former England star reacted by asking if he was Arthur Fitzsimons.

A popular figure, he will be best remembered as a technically gifted and quick attacking player who started his career as a centre forward but spent many of the years that followed as an inside right.

He himself remembered the 1-1 draw against England in Dublin when then manager Johnny Carey switched him to the left in order to put him up against the great Duncan Edwards as the best match of his career. He scored some big goals, though, against top level sides including the second, to make it 2-0, in 3-2 defeat of West Germany in October 1951, and others at home to Spain and away to the Netherlands.

By the end of his international career, he had scored seven in 26 games, healthy numbers in an era when Ireland played far fewer matches.

They were different times in other ways too. When he was injured while on international duty early in his Middlesbrough career, the club billed the FAI for the eight weeks he was laid up and the association was obliged to pay it £100.

Journeys home

In the book Gaffers by Trevor Keane, he recalled the journeys home to play for his country.

“Peter Farrell and Tommy Eglington were based in Liverpool in those days and they would often get the earlier ferry,” he said. “On the odd occasion, they would say to the head man that I was on the way and ask him to keep a cabin for me because we had a big game the next day and I needed the sleep. It was lovely to get a cabin, and I felt a lot better for the game.

“I would arrive in Dublin at 7am and then I would pop home to see my mother, get a half hour’s sleep and head to Mass before the team all met up in the Gresham at 12 noon for lunch. Johnny Carey would give his team talk to the players and tell us what position he wanted us to play in.”

He spoke warmly of Carey and the group of players then representing Ireland that included Liam Whelan who, like Edwards, would die in the Munich air disaster. He was honoured in recent years by the FAI and the Soccer Writers’ Association and until his health began to fail he was a fairly regular guest at Middlesbrough games, trips he and his family cherished.

He is survived by his wife, Val, and their daughters, Maureen and Jan.