Tony Fitzpatrick on his tumultuous life and extraordinary career
Tony Fitzpatrick interview by Paul English.
When Tony Fitzpatrick stood at the top of the Love Street terracing as a 12-year-old boy, he had a vision.
“I knew this is where I wanted to play football,” says the Buddies’ Chief Executive half a century later, having not only played for, but managed, the team of his boyhood dreams.
However he’s also had to endure what most would consider the stuff of nightmares: violence in the family home, a father sent to prison, suicidal thoughts as a child, being taken into residential care, enduring the death of a young son, divorce, depression and bankruptcy.
Yet to speak to Tony Fitzpatrick today is to speak to a man ever-thankful for life’s blessings.
The 63-year-old’s incredible journey is charted in unflinching detail in the pages of a new autobiography, Fitzy: The Story of My Life, written with Norman Macdonald.
“He asked me 15 years ago to do it,” Fitzpatrick recalls, “but it wasn’t until I came back to St Mirren that it seemed like the right time. To be honest, I still find it difficult to say why anyone would think I had a particularly interesting life, or a life which is more than just a football story. But Norman seems to think I have.”
It’s clear Macdonald was right. Fitzy is a classic tale of triumph over adversity, beginning in the family home on Eagle Street, aka Evil Street, in Glasgow’s Possilpark.
“You were either a would-be footballer, a boxer or you were into serious crime,” he explains. “I wanted to be a footballer from an early age. I’m not judging anybody, because if I hadn’t made it in football then I don’t know what path I’d have gone down. Even at that age, you have to learn to survive somehow.”
“My family are huge Celtic fans, and they were always raging with me for knocking them back. But I’ve always had St Mirren in my heart”
Adversity bred resilience, tenacity and focus, qualities which would go on to define his football career. He turned in 351 appearances for St Mirren, where he was first taken to train as a 12-year-old playing for Possil YM. He won a First Division title in 1976 and was part of the Scottish Cup winning squad of 1987.
Fitzpatrick’s memoir scores high on upbeat football anecdotes. There are tales of chasing cars with Saints legend Frank McGarvey, of learning at the knee of Sir Alex Ferguson and proudly turning down his family’s beloved Celtic on three separate occasions.
However, at the book’s core are several traumatic stories. In one of its many remarkably candid sequences, Fitzpatrick recalls how he contemplated taking his own life as a child, before coming across a statuette of the Virgin Mary.
Even today, he describes his faith as “the most important thing in my life.” Such devotion has been profoundly challenged, though. “There was a time when I went away from my faith and lost all belief, but I believe Our Blessed Mother brought me back in.”
He admits he found the experience of sharing every cough and spit of his life for the book a gruelling one. “I was going home shattered sometimes, because it felt like reliving some of it.”
His son Tony Jr died from leukaemia in 1983. “You never get over the loss of a child,” he laments. “I still haven’t recovered, but you learn to deal with it. There are things in life you never want to go though, like the loss of a child or the break-up of a marriage. That was one of the hardest things to deal with.”
Despite such hardships, or perhaps because of them, Tony has become a motivational figure away from the footballing sphere. He’s delivered talks on positivity, confidence and self-esteem in a range of environments from BAE shipyards to Heathrow Airport.
He’s published two children’s books on motivation around the central character of Babakoochi Bear, and worked with disadvantaged young people at Glasgow’s Violence Reduction Unit.
He continues to write, despite a diagnosis of dyslexia in his fifties, and talks openly of being helped by those around him when it comes to clerical duties. “That’s been difficult for me at times in my life,” he admits. “It’s still there, but it’s amazing how things have changed in that regard now. If you tell people, they tend to help.”
As far as football goes, that 12-year-old on the Love Street terraces was appointed to run the club in 2015.
“I’m just delighted to be back here,” he says. “My family are huge Celtic fans, and they were always raging with me for knocking them back. But I’ve always had St Mirren in my heart. I’ve no regrets there.”
Fitzy: The Story of My Life by Tony Fitzpatrick and Norman Macdonald is published by Macdonald Media Publishing. Follow Paul on Twitter at @PaulEnglishhack.