Pathway to success not always the easy route
Patrick McBrearty is glad he followed his Donegal heart, says Damian Lawlor
A LITTLE snapshot of the mindset of Paddy McBrearty. As the people of Donegal celebrated last September's historic All-Ireland title win at the Burlington Hotel, McBrearty took himself away from the madness for a breath of fresh air.
The 19-year-old had been replaced in the 48th minute of the final and wasn't overly pleased with his performance. As countless former Donegal players, many of whom had neither sight nor sound of a medal in their own playing days, shook his hand, the Kilcar youngster tried to retain sight of the enormity of what he had just achieved and how grateful he should be.
In fact, with one All-Ireland and two Ulsters, McBrearty was probably the most decorated player of his age ever to represent the county and also among the elite to have played minor and senior inter-county football on the same day.
Being taken off against Mayo wasn't part of the plan though, and it nagged him throughout the night. "Anyone would be disappointed to be taken off in the final," he admits.
"I kind of strive for perfection all the time. I'm a very competitive person. Looking back, the history books will show that I was taken off which will annoy me to the last. A normal person would say, it's a once-off thing but, for me, I wouldn't say it ruined the day or that, but it kind of took the shine off it. Because nobody likes being taken off in a big final. But we won an All-Ireland final so I can't complain that much."
Still, he approaches 2013 with a slightly greater incentive. It's music to the ears of Jim McGuinness.
"There's an extra expectation on us anyway, but I want to drive on. The All-Ireland is over; our main focus is Tyrone in May in the championship. That game is bigger than the All-Ireland final for us. Whether it be in Ballybofey or Clones, we'll be ready for that one."
The two sides meet today in Omagh and you don't need to be the head of NASA to surmise that this afternoon's Allianz League clash will be a raw, intense dress rehearsal for what lies ahead in summer. Both sides have highlighted the need to lay down a marker or gain a psychological foothold, so dress it up anyway you like – this game is box office.
"Some of the lads consider that they were the toughest we had last year. They ran us to the end and hit the post in the last kick of the game.
"We just want to retain our Division 1 status for the year," McBrearty says. "Maybe we will try new things, bed in new players. The league is important for giving players experience as well. I didn't have that experience. I was thrown into championship football which is probably a bad thing. So it's good to get some of that for some of the young lads, especially Ryan McHugh."
Blessed with sublime talent, McBrearty has passed all tests set for him. Opponents singled him out last season but he was able to operate in a deeper-lying role, proving as crucial off the ball as he is on it.
They love him around the squad. He has his head screwed on; he's studying at NUI Maynooth and hardly takes a drink. That's why, on the night of last year's senior final, he preferred to soak up the special atmosphere rather than downing pints.
With peer pressure and all that, it takes a solid young man to forge his own path in life but no bother to McBrearty in that regard. He also turned down considerable interest from clubs to join the AFL. And as a talented soccer player, he played for Ireland at underage level and also had trials for Celtic. Professional sport beckoned throughout his teens, but he backed himself to stay put when others were pontificating about the life he could have abroad. "Playing for Donegal has always been part of the plan," he says. "When I was 14 and 15, boys might be out or whatever, but on my first night out I had other things on my mind. I wanted to be one of the best footballers in Ireland. I said it at the time. Hopefully, I'm on that track."
His close friend Carl McHugh made it in professional soccer and played for Bradford City in last weekend's League Cup final defeat to Swansea. McHugh has also made the Irish under 21 team but McBrearty harbours no regrets about turning his back on a similar career.
In his formative years, however, moving from Gaelic football would have been the easiest option. Back then Donegal were weighed down by the worries of an increasingly progressive football world that dated their laid-back ways.
Their future looked joyless but, though he had just impressed at an AFL training camp in London, McBrearty listened to his parents' advice. "My parents have given me the best advice in life, and I think any time I've taken their advice I've gone on to succeed in something," he says.
"Things weren't going well – I only won one game in my three years with the minors and I thought, 'Is this really worth it?'" The seniors weren't great either until Jim McGuinness took them over.
"I'd been at a trial with Celtic – I think Gordon Strachan was manager and Neil Lennon was in the backroom – but I was soon drafted into the Donegal senior squad and I won an Ulster championship at 17. That probably reignited my passion for Gaelic football. I haven't looked back since."
His next meeting with Lennon was at last September's All-Ireland banquet. "I went to ask him for a photograph and he said, 'I remember you on trial at Celtic with the other two Donegal lads'," McBrearty smiles.
"It was a bit of a shock that he knew me. But I think I made the right decision personally, like the AFL trial in London – I didn't like the game. I said I'd settle down, get my degree and hopefully go on and win a few more provincials, fight for a few more All-Irelands."
Only a few GAA players were chosen to make that trip to London, which shows how highly he was rated. Seán Hurley, Emmet ó Conghaile, Emmet Bradley and Conor Gough were the others. "It was a good experience and it was also a good thing to be able to say you were in an AFL trial, but I suppose the decision that Ciarán Kilkenny made to return here re-enforces mine.
"Ciarán didn't like the game either. It's too slow. In Gaelic, you might be the focal point and you
might get the ball every two minutes. In Aussie Rules there are more stops. The game is slower and it's just completely different. Plus if I were to go over, I'd be one of the smallest lads there."
A different path beckoned with his first training session for the Donegal seniors. That came on the Tuesday after they'd had beaten Laois in the 2011 Division 2 league final.
McGuinness was looking for young faces and fresh blood and 17-year-old McBrearty looked to be a perfect fit. That night the Kilcar lad was anxious but he wasn't alone.
"That first night was a big reality check. It was a scorching night and there was no big fuss made. Team was warming up and we joined in. I was in fourth year at school and those three weeks leading up to the Antrim game were probably the busiest of my life. I was training with the minors on Monday and Wednesday and the seniors on Tuesday and Thursday and had games with the club at the weekend."
On match day he togged out for the minors but on the final whistle Maxi Curran, a senior selector, quickly rushed him off the field and brought him into their dressing room. He was handed a big plate of pasta and told to eat it. McGuinness then summoned him in late on and he became the first player since Benny Coulter to play minor and senior inter-county on the same day.
"We lost the minor," he recalls, "but playing in both games was an unbelievable experience, something that I'll have for the rest of my life."
It surely won't be the last landmark in this young man's journey.