Defensive rock central to Dublin's game plan
Ger Brennan's job is to man the barricades in the Dubs' backline, writes Marie Crowe
ALTHOUGH he was only six years old when Dublin and Meath played out their four-game saga in 1991, Ger Brennan had a sense of the occasion.
"I remember my dad bringing me into those games in Croke Park but don't ask me the score," says Brennan.
"It was just great to be in Croke Park, getting a bag of sweets. You heard of the great battles between Meath and Dublin and that Meath games were massive challenges and lads would kick lumps out of each other."
When the two sides met in the Leinster semi-final in 2010, Brennan had graduated from face in the crowd to man on the pitch, but it was Meath who marched on. They put five goals past Stephen Cluxton that day and went then on to beat Louth in the Leinster final. It was a day that he'd rather forget.
So Brennan has been reared on the rivalry, but when he takes to the field today against the Royal County, past battles won't occupy his mind.
"It doesn't matter who we are playing. Once you have a Dublin jersey on, you are representing the history of Dublin football and you have a responsibility to that, it doesn't matter if it is Meath or anyone else – from Donegal to Kerry to Meath – it is the same effort for every game."
That effort Brennan speaks about is something that defines him. A character trait that sets him apart from many of his counterparts, he will rarely be found wanting. When he puts on that Dublin jersey his never-say-die attitude comes to the fore. It is win at all costs.
Since Jim Gavin took over the Dublin squad at the end of last season, Brennan has been one of his chief lieutenants, filling the centre-back role and doing whatever is asked of him. But although he is a leader he doesn't call the shots, that's not Dublin's style under Gavin. Instead all the players share the load, always backing each other up and working hard.
"If there is a Dublin fella in a better position and you have the ball, you are expected to give it to him. There are times when I might be up with the play, and someone has to cover me or I might cover for the wing-backs.
"If you see wing-backs bombing on, you instinctively stay in position because you want to help out your full-backs when you can. If there is someone leaving the half-back line then that is a cause for concern, you have to get someone back there with you."
This makes communication vital for Brennan and it's one of his strengths, something he has been good at from a very young age. He's sharp too; he can see where the danger lies, where his side might be vulnerable and is quick to react. It is a lot of responsibility but Brennan doesn't let it get to him.
"If you dwell on it too much, you can get overawed by the occasion and even playing for Dublin, the honour that it is. If you think too much about it, you will under-perform."
But under-performing is not something that has befallen Brennan too often. He's more likely to raise his game. Against Kildare in the Leinster semi-final, he was sublime. Even though a head wound forced him off after 50 minutes, he was still one of Dublin's best players. Knocks and injuries are almost a given for the number six; he's a physical player who plays a physical game.
"Defenders, centre-backs, they are lads who would traditionally enjoy the physicality of the encounter and that is something I certainly relish. It is nice to get a good hit on someone, nice being hit as well because it wakes you up and brings you to life.
"It comes down to having an edge. If your man wins the ball in front of you or takes a score, you will be annoyed about it for a split second but you wouldn't dwell on it too much, because the next battle is there to be won. You try to outdo him that time. If you can stop him getting the ball, if you can turn him over or push him back, that is good.
"It's good to lay down a marker. Traditionally forwards get more flak than defenders do – think that is true of some of our lads anyway. If you think you are going out to batter lads or physically intimidate them, you could lose focus. For me, Mickey Whelan was a great influence on my career, and he always told me to focus on the ball. Get it out of the way to get the ball."
The 2011 All-Ireland winner recently turned 28, and he's one of the older players in the starting 15 but he is feeling happy and healthy; his body and mind are good and he needs both going well to be at his best. There are several young players coming through and Brennan welcomes them. They bring a huge amount of enthusiasm to the set-up and some healthy competition too.
Despite Dublin's back-to-back 16-point victories over Westmeath and Kildare, Brennan has no concerns about a gulf forming in Leinster.
"I'm no historian but if you look back to 1920s, '30s and '40s – there have always been top teams, teams in the middle and lower tier. If you change the structure to give teams more games, it's still going to be the same four or five teams who are going to come to the top."
There is a mural of the centre-back painted on a wall in Dorset Street where Brennan grew up, a stone's throw from Croke Park. Brennan was once the kid who went to watch his heroes play, now he's one of the heroes.