Boy wonder has matured according to expectations
Paddy McBrearty's rapid march up the ranks is no surprise to those who know him, writes Dermot Crowe
IN 1980, medieval times to a young Turk like Paddy McBrearty, Kilcar won the Donegal senior football championship after a long-awaited breakthrough. Their victory was built around a prodigious scoring performance from another outstanding teenage talent: the McBrearty of his day, Martin McHugh. For years Kilcar were thirsty for scores, then all of a sudden they had them on tap.
McHugh went on to make his first appearance for Donegal a year later and inspired them to an Ulster title two years after that. But they were lean times. It would be another nine years, in the twilight of McHugh's career, before Donegal's All-Ireland dream was realised. They were thankful for it at any time. McBrearty has been born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth by comparison.
Already, at 19, he has pocketed two Ulster senior medals and the coveted Celtic Cross. There is no disputing his talent and exciting prospects but he has been fortunate to arrive at the time he did.
And yet he was only 17 when he came on against Antrim in 2011, having turned out for the county minors the same day. When they were defeated later that year by Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-finals, McBrearty was looking ahead to his Leaving Cert year. Last year he juggled that onerous school duty with his inter-county football commitments, tailoring his training to suit. He had the composure to handle the twin pressures.
"It's torture sometimes," he said in an interview earlier last year. "There are people pulling out of you everywhere. Training's an hour away from where I am in Donegal. We head away at 4.30 and mightn't come back until nine. Then I'd have to study for two hours. Of course it's tough, but there are only a couple of months left."
McBrearty is a rapidly rising star in Donegal's attacking constellation. This year he is emerging from the shadows of experienced luminaries Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden into a leader in his own right. The furore over a heavily-publicised incident in their final league game against Dublin in which there were claims he had been bitten could have stalled his progress but he has handled it well. The proof came emphatically in a man-of-the-match performance against Tyrone, a pressure game if ever there was one. McBrearty, far from being cowed, thrived and grew into a serious player.
He cleverly set up a first half goal for McFadden but the moment most refer to came in the second half after a Seán Cavanagh point had drawn Tyrone level and given Mickey Harte's men much confidence. With 49 minutes gone a ball to the right wing, near the sideline, was gathered by McBrearty with his back to goal. He wheeled around Dermot Carlin and cut through on the outside and followed path in along the endline. A Tyrone challenge from Martin Penrose, arriving diagonally, looked set to halt him in his tracks but he rode the challenge, held his nerve like a veteran and popped the pass with the cover drawn. Ross Wherity finished and the goal was the breaking of Tyrone and the winning of the match. It was McBrearty's creation, a mix of power and vision. McBrearty added two more points and stamped his class on the match.
In Kilcar, they can't speak highly enough of him. Last year James McHugh managed the team and says McBrearty is exemplary, a role model, not interested in pubs but devoted to football. In that sense he could not be further from the former Donegal stereotype which McGuinness sought to destroy and did. Perhaps no player epitomises the new Donegal way better than McBrearty: utterly focused, strong, fit, with good feet. In interviews he is an open and personable sort. Talking of his first introduction as a Donegal player, having scored 1-3 for the county minors against Antrim the same day in May 2011, he said: "It was unreal. I remember warming up and when Jim (McGuinness) told me I was coming on thinking, 'Jesus, is this for real?' I remember walking on then and Michael Murphy shouting instructions to me and Karl Lacey and all those boys. These are the boys I would have looked up to as a child."
He scored 1-3 after starting in the next Ulster championship game against Cavan, and celebrated a first Donegal Ulster title in 19 years the same summer. McGuiness used him sparingly in his first year, not starting him against Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final and taking him off after 26 minutes in the win over Kildare.
"He has a serious burst of pace," says James McHugh. "He has a great attitude towards football. Patrick is probably the most committed player you could have. I don't know if he has ever missed a game for the club. In Donegal, people would be saying he is unmarkable, not just Kilcar people."
His experienced team-mate Michael Hegarty says it has taken time to see him prosper in the Donegal system.
"He has been playing great football for his club for the last couple of years. He is our main focal point in our forward line and the way Donegal are set up he is not the main focal point. He is able to win 50-50 balls, has great pace, power and is very accurate. As good an inter-county forward as there is in today's game."
Martin McHugh talks of his "wild power" and how he did press-ups at home morning and evening to build up his physique.
"The great thing this year is he is taking the pressure off Murphy and McFadden. He is now becoming a central player."
Donegal's counter-attacking style and the space they manage to open up when attacking allows a player like McBrearty excel, according to Brendan Devenney, for former Donegal forward.
"I think Paddy is an all-round player. The way he outstripped the Tyrone defenders for that goal, you don't see that much in modern football with the better teams. But that physical strength and pace is hard to train against."
Down, the latest challengers to Donegal's relentless march towards an historic provincial three-in-a-row, are next up to try.