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Patience of a Saint: Tony Fitzpatrick on mindfulness, positive thinking, and the power of perseverance
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1 day ago / Graeme Macpherson
TONY Fitzpatrick is standing on the recently-constructed platform for disabled supporters at the Paisley 2021 Stadium, the current handle for St Mirren Park (or, as long-suffering supporters like to call it, the Theatre of Screams).
Today it is doubling as the ideal spot for a photograph, its elevated position in the corner of the main stand offering a view of the rest of the stadium, with the Ferguslie Park housing scheme just about visible in the background as the winter sun drops ever lower in the sky.
Fitzpatrick has been patiently, and with good humour, taking direction from the photographer, standing this way and that, arms crossed or by his side, and at one point even climbing precariously on to the top of the barrier for a somewhat riskier shot. Only once does he struggle to do as he’s asked.
“I want a serious one now, Tony,” says the photographer. “Try not to smile”. Fitzpatrick puts on his best stern-looking glare but can’t hold it for long. “Sorry,” he apologises. “I can’t help it,” a smile returning to his face.
Fitzpatrick turned 60 last year but his exuberance and perennially positive mindset give him a far more youthful air. Those of a cynical bent would suggest it is nigh impossible for someone to be this upbeat in an increasingly turbulent and often depressing world but Fitzpatrick provides living proof to the contrary.
It is not that he has lived a charmed and carefree existence. Far from it. For the past 12 months he has been St Mirren’s chief executive, a club in freefall over recent seasons and now in danger of dropping into the third tier of Scottish football for the first time in their history.
Fitzpatrick’s personal life has been plagued by hardship, too. He is divorced, and has struggled financially at times on the back of failed business ventures. Most notably he has been visited twice by the spectre of premature death, his brother Paul losing his life aged just 32 and his son, Tony Jr, dying from leukaemia at the tender age of six.
It is the sort of exasperating chain of events that would take most to a deep and dark place but each time Fitzpatrick has found a way to recover, somehow able to continue looking on the bright side of life. It is not something that comes easily or naturally to him. Instead, having come into contact some time ago with Gavin Whyte, a trainer of business leaders and advocate of positive thinking and mindfulness, Fitzpatrick reveals it has been a gradual process to the point where he now “catches his thoughts” to stop him falling back into the spiral of negativity that too many succumb to on a daily basis.
“Years ago I was in a bad place,” he admits over coffee in the manager’s office deep inside the bowels of the stadium. “In fact there have been a few times in life when I’ve gone to a really bad place like when I lost my son, the break-up of my marriage, losing all my money through business failures and that kind of thing. But you can come back from those things. I went into the world of darkness each time but always managed to find a way back out. There’s always a wee voice in your head telling you good and bad, and mine always has a wee Glaswegian accent! But you have a choice.
“Don’t get me wrong, it’s a constant battle every day. Don’t think Tony Fitzpatrick doesn’t have moments when he’s sitting crying and really struggling with life. I do. But I would stop my thoughts as soon as I was aware of the negativity. I have a process. Sometimes you drift into a negative spin but I catch myself and turn them around.
“I was working with young boys in the east end of Glasgow and in Possil a while ago when I came across Gavin who was working with Jack Black [the Mindstore founder] at the time. He works with leading business people about the power of positive thinking, leadership qualities and those types of things. And he’s become a great friend of mine and mentor, because we all need help.
“There are times during the day when I’ll maybe take time out, close my eyes, take some deep breaths and go into that visualisation process. It’s rest and recovery time so you can go on to be what you want to be.”
It is an approach that seems not unlike Zen Buddhism or some other mystic hippy mantra but Fitzpatrick revealed his guidance comes from other celestial sources.
“It’s not Zen or Buddhism but it is a spiritual thing. I believe in God although I’m not massively religious. But I believe, spiritually, that if you do good things, then good tends to follow you. And the same with negative things.
“It’s a mental attitude. You have a choice. I work with young kids and I tell them the one thing they are in control of is their own mind. If they choose to be annoyed and go into a world of negativity, then that will follow them. If they choose to have a good day and think good thoughts then chances are good things will happen.
“Be grateful for what you have in life. I have a ritual in the morning when I give thanks for being alive. I’m full of gratitude for my family and friends, for my job and everything. It’s trying to teach people about trying to adopt that mindset. Now I’m aware of my thoughts and they are very, very powerful things.”
The power of positive thinking and persisting in the face of adversity is the theme of Fitzpatrick’s recently-released second children’s book. Entitled The Dream: You Can Do This! it follows the adventures of Babakoochi Bear, a cartoon character he concocted in the aftermath of his son’s untimely death, whose path to becoming a professional footballer is blocked by the book’s miserable pair of villains, Doom and Gloom.
“I always remember as a young kid dreaming of becoming a football player,” says Fitzpatrick who would be named St Mirren captain by then manager Alex Ferguson at the age of just 17. The pair remain in touch, with Ferguson providing the foreword for this latest tale.
“And this book is about - no matter what you want from life - the trials, tribulations and challenges we all face as you try to chase your dreams. We live in a very negative world, in this country especially. I went through something similar early in my career when Aston Villa told me I was too small, too frail and not quick enough. They told me I would never be a professional footballer. That shattered me and I know what it did to my family as well.
“So the message in the book is saying to kids: don’t give up on your dreams. In the book there are two characters called Doom and Gloom and they constantly bring Babakoochi Bear down. They tell him he won’t make it, he’s hopeless, and all the rest. This book is saying to kids, “you CAN still do it.” It’s about hard work and not giving up.”
Fitzpatrick’s first book, The Promise – Together Again, was written in memory of Tony Jr, a cathartic experience that focused on the difficulties dealing with death and loss. As well as providing support to him and his family, Fitzpatrick has been touched by the messages he received from other grieving families.
“I was gobsmacked by the reaction to the first book,” he admits. “I met mums and dads who told us how it had helped them deal with bereavement of their own after they lost a kid, and it’s maybe helped explain it to their other young children.
“To get that kind of feedback, while obviously really hard for these families, was great to hear and just helps you further along the healing process. Writing it I was going through every emotion – crying, laughing, anger at times – so to get the response I did was incredible. I hope the second one will do the same.”
Writing the books has not been the easiest of experiences for Fitzpatrick, candid enough to admit that he largely struggled his way through school.
“I’ll be honest and say I’m not much of a writer, I just write down what comes from the heart. I was a Possil boy, poorly educated, and I’m dyslexic too. When I was 12 or 13 I still couldn’t read or write properly, I just wanted to be a footballer. But after Tony died something happened inside me and I just felt I had to write something down about it. My daughter Lorraine was only eight-and-a-half at the time and it was hard to talk about Tony with her.
“When we walked out the house the neighbours would cross the road as they were scared of upsetting us. They didn’t know what to say. So I wanted to write something about bereavement that parents could then read to their kids by way of explanation.”
His willingness to continually embrace new challenges came to the fore again at the start of last year when St Mirren - the club he has twice managed - approached him about becoming their new chief executive. It has not been the easiest of starts to his tenure with the team thrashing around at the foot of the Championship but he continues to face each challenge with typical effervescence and optimism.
“I’ve not had a full season in the job yet so there are still things that I’m learning,” he says. “All the staff have been a great help as a lot of it has been new to me. It’s been tough for the supporters of this club over the past few years but I’m totally confident we can turn things around.
“For any club dropping into League One it will be a tough environment. And we shouldn’t think we’re too big to drop down as Dunfermline and others have been down there recently. But I still have a good feeling. It’s like a runner in a race coming right from the back of the pack and making a late burst for it. We want to stay in this league and that’s what it’s about now. We’re not kidding on it’s about anything else. There are good sides around us so it won’t be easy but I feel we can do it.”
Fitzpatrick, though, as befits his nature, offers a more prosperous long-term vision, too. “This is not just a Premiership club [in waiting], this is a top-six Premiership club. Look at the facilities, the infrastructure. No disrespect to some of the teams in the top six but they’re not bigger than St Mirren. I know everyone here is desperate to get back into the top league. And when we get there we want to thrive, not survive.
“We want to push for the top four and Europe again. Why not have these ambitions? I wouldn’t be back here if I didn’t think that was possible. People say it can’t be done but we’ll drive on and we’ll get there. I’m entirely positive.”
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