‘There’s no question fellas want it badly. We know we’re close’
Seven minutes into the Dublin-Tyrone All-Ireland quarter-final, Philip Jordan tried to get involved with Alan Brogan.
After Brogan released a pass to Barry Cahill in front of the Hogan Stand, Jordan checked his run before then trying to draw Brogan into an altercation through a shoving match. Brogan was having none of it, more or less walking away before any simmering tension was brought to the boil.
Jordan didn't stop there because he looked upon Brogan like most opposing teams have viewed him over the years; as Dublin's queen bee, where catching him is often the best way to neutralise the rest of the hive.
Just six minutes later, Brogan was shepherding a stray Tyrone pass over the side-line when Jordan came behind him and pushed him out over the line on top of his head. Still on the ground, Brogan just looked at the linesman Pat McEnaney, shook his head and got up and moved on. In the modern context of the fixture, the incident reflected a significant distance in how far Brogan and Dublin have travelled.
"I wouldn't have thought teams bullied us in the past but they probably distracted us," says Brogan. "I've had a few good battles with Conor Gormley. He's a top-class defender and he knows how to distract a forward. Maybe when I was a bit younger, he succeeded in doing that. He would distract me doing whatever he does and that's his job, to try and throw me off my game.
"You learn how to deal with that as you get older and you can pass it down to younger guys. That sort of messing isn't conducive to playing well or producing good performances. So against Tyrone, we were all so focused on winning the match that none of us were going to get involved in any of that stuff."
Brogan was also able to draw on recent hardened experience. In Dublin's last regular league game against Galway, he was sent off on a straight red card after an off-the-ball incident. Brogan was suspended for the league final against Cork.
"I still think to this day that it was a very harsh decision," he says. "We had no video evidence to prove it but when you get involved with somebody else, you do leave yourself open to different interpretations of what happened. That day, the linesman interpreted that I had struck the Galway defender. Whether I did or I didn't, I learned a harsh lesson that you can't get involved in that kind of stuff. You just need to be careful. You have to be on your guard."
The league final defeat extended Dublin's long wait for a national title while the nature of their collapse, having led by eight points in the second-half, drew uncomfortable comparisons to their collapse in last year's All-Ireland semi-final. Brogan watched the game from the stand and felt more helpless than anyone. It reopened a whole host of unhappy precedents for Dublin but Brogan never felt the defeat could cause long-term damage.
"To lose Bernard (Brogan, to injury with 20 minutes remaining) was a huge blow but losing that game honestly wasn't a huge deal for us," he says. "We spoke about it and moved on from it. I think we have learned from those losses in the past and we probably just lacked a bit of experience on the field in the final few minutes to close it out."
On the day, Alan Brogan and his leadership was never missed as much in a Dublin shirt. It also brought to mind the 2005 All-Ireland quarter-final replay against Tyrone and Dublin's clash with the same opposition at the same stage three years later. Tyrone comfortably won both games but Brogan's departure in both first halves was a psychologically damaging Dublin watershed.
Dublin have leant on Brogan as much as any other player over the last six years. He has raged against Dublin's failure to win an All-Ireland and if you examine Dublin's big defeats in that time, Brogan has always fought as hard as any other player in those games.
During Brogan's career, Dublin have won 76pc of their championship games and he has landed seven Leinster titles. That's a huge achievement in itself but their non-appearance in an All-Ireland final on the back of some shuddering collapses will be their defining memory -- unless this team at least reaches the ultimate stage.
For all the talk about winning an All-Ireland, Dublin have still to break through that frontier. Tomorrow will be Brogan's fifth All-Ireland semi-final and the previous four have been lost in harrowing circumstances; three were one-point defeats, the fourth was by two points.
"Some of those defeats have been absolutely devastating," says Brogan. "For a lot of guys like myself, Barry Cahill, Stephen Cluxton, we know we only have a couple of years left. There is a sense of urgency that we haven't even got to an All-Ireland final yet, let alone win one, and we're running out of years. So we know that we can't let anything else get in the way of that at this stage."
Despite being one of the best forwards in the game over the last decade, Brogan has still sometimes been unfairly tagged with Dublin's failure on the biggest stage. There were occasions when he drifted out of games but they were so rare that they were magnified when they did happen.
"I've always tried to do my best for Dublin and that's all you can do," he says. "Of course there have been times when I have gone out of games or haven't performed as well as I should have but you just gotta keep going and keep trying to improve your performance.
"People say we've had a lot of bad defeats but we've had a lot of great wins as well. I've had a lot of good personal performances as well as bad personal performances. It's not something I dwell on. I don't overanalyse matches. I think guys who do, it wears them down when they come to that stage again."
Part of the beauty of Brogan's development as a forward is that Dublin had him pegged as a defender for years. He played in the half-back line for the Dublin minors in 1999 and 2000 but it all changed one Saturday in Tommy Lyons' first year as manager in 2002. Brogan was playing corner-back in a practice match in Westmanstown when Lyons ordered a role reversal with Brogan and Mick Casey, who was also a defender. Brogan kicked four points from play in 20 minutes and they played him at corner-forward against Clare in a challenge match the following day to test what they had seen.
He torched a career corner-back with another four points from play and they plunged him into the National League, where he scored 2-9 in his first three games. He took Meath's Mark O'Reilly for three points on his first championship appearance at Croke Park before bagging 1-2 in the Leinster final against Kildare. That summer, Dublin flew and Brogan soared. He's been soaring ever since.
Given that he's not a free-taker, scoring 11-113 in 51 championship matches highlights how prolific Brogan has been. He has only drawn a blank in six of those 51 games but two of those blanks came last season, when Brogan managed just nine points in seven games. This season, he's hit 0-11 in four games and his form has made him a front-runner for Footballer of the Year.
"People have said to me that I'm playing far better than last year but I honestly don't see where or how I'm playing better," he says. "I have increased my scoring rate so maybe that puts a finer gloss on my performance. But all I'm doing is working hard and trying to get on as much ball as I can to try and feed the guys inside. It's very similar to what I was doing last year.
"I think a lot of it is perception. Last year, Bernard was getting most of the scores and he's being double-teamed a little bit this year and he's setting up more scores now. Myself and Diarmuid Connolly are on the receiving end of Bernard setting up more scores and maybe we're getting a bit freer because he's being double-teamed."
Brogan was excellent against Tyrone, scoring three points. He mostly operated from the half-forward line when the vast majority of his 24 plays were made from that sector. He still alternates between centre-forward and corner-forward and that was Dublin's great conundrum for years -- where to play him. Dave Billings, the former Dublin selector, first suggested moving Brogan to centre-forward in 2002 and once Paul Caffrey became manager in 2005, he suggested it to Brogan. Taking their most lethal finisher out of the full-forward line was a gamble but they landed a windfall.
Brogan revelled in it because he liked getting the ball and passing it and he had the pace to get in and take the return pass. When Dublin's forward line moved like a carousel during 2006, Brogan could have won an All Star in three positions but placing him at centre-forward reflected the pivotal nature of his role all year. He also won his second All Star the following season in the half-forward line.
In the meantime, Bernard's arrival as a marquee finisher has further facilitated his elder brother's capacity as a playmaker. "Bernard is a better shooter than me," says Alan.
"While I was a good score-getter when I was playing inside, we never really had an out-and-out inside-forward. That's what he has brought -- we now have a man that is very dangerous in there."
His workrate off the ball has dramatically increased in the last two seasons but Bernard's scoring brilliance has also alleviated much of the scoring burden that Alan was forced to carry in the last decade. "For a few years in the middle of the last decade, I was the primary score-getter from play, maybe along with Conal Keaney," he says.
"If one of us had a bad day, we probably were struggling. It never would have been something that I really thought about but I knew I was an important score-getter back then.
"We have guys who are prolific score-getters now so it's not as important for me to be kicking three or four points a match, whereas back then, if I didn't kick three or four from play, we were probably struggling to score enough to win games."
There were rare occasions when it just didn't happen. In the 2004 All-Ireland quarter-final against Kerry, Brogan had six shots at the target and missed them all. Yet he didn't hide, he didn't offload the responsibility, he didn't recoil from a bad afternoon. In adversity, he stood up, was knocked down and stood up again.
He's still standing up, still craving that elusive final appearance. Only then can he begin thinking about winning an All-Ireland.
"There's no question that fellas want it very badly," says Brogan. "I'm sure at the back of each of our minds, we do think about it when we're lying in bed at night, 'jeez, will we ever get to this All-Ireland final'. But I don't think you can look at it that way either and fulfil your potential. We can only concentrate on what's ahead of us now.
"In past All-Ireland semi-finals, especially against Mayo and Cork, we've gone to sleep for 20 minutes and that cost us a place in the final. But I think if we played those games this year, we would win them. We know we're very close. We know we performed well against Tyrone and if we can produce a performance like that against Donegal, we will be very close, no matter how well Donegal play.
"You don't want to over-think it but you just desperately want to get there. It doesn't get any easier. You have aches and pains and you take the auld anti-inflamatories to keep you going. I have a couple of years left in me and I'll just play it year by year. I know for sure I won't be playing until I'm 35 or 36. Hopefully I'll have the All-Ireland in the bag by then. If we win it this year, I could disappear into the sunset."
A smile flashes across his face because he vicariously experienced that ultimate feeling once before. When Dublin last won the All-Ireland, Brogan's uncle Jimmy was a selector. As the supporters poured on to the field, Alan and his cousin James were swept out with them. Jimmy scooped them up and deposited them in the middle of the dressing-room. The Sam Maguire Cup was gleaming, its belly glinting against the light.
Sixteen years on, that sight is still lodged deep in Brogan's mind's eye. Now he wants to get closer to touching it. And experience it for real.