Dublin's shining light
On the night that Dublin defeated Offaly in the 2006 Leinster final, Ray Cosgrove, Ross McConnell and Bernard Brogan drained the last drop out of the day in the Sunnybank Hotel in Glasnevin.
Drink had obviously loosened tongues and inflated expectations but around 4.0am, Cosgrove turned to Brogan and told him straight out: "If you keep working hard, you will be Footballer of the Year in a few seasons."
At the time, it wouldn't have been an outlandish claim for Cosgrove to make, but it would have been difficult for Brogan to believe. He was in devastating form during training games that summer, but he still never saw a minute's game-time. Dublin made 15 forward substitutions during five championship matches and Brogan still wasn't considered an option.
It was '07 before Brogan made his championship debut and '09 before he first showcased his potential as one of the best finishers to emerge in the last two decades. Cosgrove's prediction came to pass last season, but Brogan was 26 by then and had served one of the longest apprenticeships in inter-county football for a player of his class.
So what took him so long? Why was that apprenticeship so drawn out?
"He was absolutely shooting the lights out during training games in '06," says Cosgrove. "I felt that he should have even been starting ahead of me. Anyone who was watching him was thinking, 'How is this fella not getting a game?' But for some reason, Pillar (Paul Caffrey) lacked faith in him."
Management had a stack of reasons to support their stance: Brogan didn't always take the right option; he didn't work hard enough off the ball or defensively track back enough; he was often only interested in getting on the scoreboard; he was impulsive pulling the trigger. That was evident from a Leinster U-21 championship match when he kicked six wides in succession against Louth.
Most of the players still felt that Brogan's training form merited inclusion in '06 but management didn't feel they had to justify it. David 'Dotsie' O'Callaghan was going equally well and he barely got a look in either. Moreover, Dublin felt that they had the balance right in their forward line and that Brogan just didn't fit into it.
Brogan had the talent but he was still trying to fully develop and plane the edges off his game. Although he scored 0-12 for his club St Oliver Plunkett's/ Eoghan Ruadh against Naomh Barróg in '05, Brogan hadn't arrived into the Dublin panel as a precocious underage talent. Growing up, he was skinny and was more interested in soccer than football. In fact, he was almost regarded as a better hurler than footballer.
"He was a fabulous hurler," says Dermot Kelly of St Oliver Plunkett's/Eoghan Ruadh. "I'm not saying he would have played senior inter-county hurling, but there would have been a great chance if he had played more hurling."
The biggest setback of Brogan's football career though, was tearing his cruciate knee ligament in '04.
"He developed a little bit later than Alan (Brogan) but people who were watching the club's juvenile section closely always knew that Bernard would come through," says Kelly. "It took him a while to adapt at senior level but the cruciate injury definitely set him back."
Brogan kicked four points from play in Dublin's All-Ireland U-21 semi-final defeat to Down in '05, but he still hadn't developed a name as a marquee finisher when he arrived into DCU for a postgraduate course that autumn. When DCU won the Sigerson Cup title for the first time the following February, Brogan was wing-forward and the college's two main strike forwards were Cavan's Seanie Johnston and Mayo's Conor Mortimer.
"He may not have been scoring as much as others but he was still a huge part of that team," says Johnston. "He only got a point in the final but it was an absolutely brilliant score. It was obvious back then that he was a super talent but it just took him time to refine it. If he had one drawback at the time, it was that he was sometimes just too quick to shoot."
Brogan always backed himself to score, which is a sign of his deep confidence, but he'd been so used to dominating games at club level that it took him a while to develop the rounded style required for inter-county level. He had a tendency to overplay the ball and not bring other players into the game.
"I was just used to the ball being banged into the full-forward line (at club level) and I'd turn and kick it over the bar," he said in '08. "And it just took me a while to get into the team vein."
Brogan had finally nailed down a permanent place on the Dublin team by then, having ended the '07 season as an All Star nominee. Yet he failed to build on that progress in '08 through the frustration of injury and suspension.
He was suspended for two months for his part in the brawl against Meath in the league that April before tearing his hamstring after only 17 minutes of the Leinster semi-final against Westmeath in June. Brogan didn't start any of Dublin's remaining games, but he was still their best player after being introduced for the capitulation to Tyrone in the All-Ireland quarter-final.
Apart from his brother Alan, he was clearly the most naturally talented forward in Dublin by that stage.
"He probably lived in Alan's shadow too for a long time," says Cosgrove. "Because Alan had been so prominent and was so prolific since '02, it was always going to take something special for Bernard to take some of that limelight."
By the end of that season, Brogan finally showcased a predatory instinct and finishing ability which exceeded his more exalted brother. The timing of the '08 Dublin county senior final draw and replay between Plunkett's and Kilmacud Crokes had forced Brogan to give up his place on the International Rules squad for the trip to Australia and he played like a player possessed in the replay. Plunkett's were looking for their first county title and Brogan almost won it single-handedly, landing 10 points, seven from play, out of their total of 0-13.
And yet when Pat Gilroy took over as Dublin manager that winter, he still had doubts about Brogan.
"When Pat came in, Bernard wouldn't have been first choice in his mind," says one former player close to Gilroy. "He always had something special but was it going to come out? He would still have been regarded as having wing-mirrors and not going hard enough for his own ball. That's why the previous management played him in the half-forward line."
Brogan's phenomenal upper-body strength had facilitated that transition to the half-forward line but he was built for short bursts of exceptional pace and the new management were intent on playing him closer to goal.
He began the '09 league in serious scoring form and carried it into the summer. He finally delivered the kind of scoring performance with Dublin which he had long been threatening with 2-8 (2-3 from play) in the Leinster semi-final against Westmeath. In the final against Kildare, he was brilliant, landing seven points, five from play.
However, Gilroy's attempt to keep him more grounded -- a concern the previous management also had -- were still evident at that time. During that Westmeath game, one member of the back-room team went in and told Brogan to stop over-celebrating his scores. It's possible that management also coaxed Brogan to admit in print before that Leinster final that he overdid the celebrations.
His demeanour has completely changed in the meantime; when Brogan kicks a score now, his immediate focus is on setting up again for the kick-out.
Gilroy drilled that discipline into him. After Kerry hammered Dublin in the '09 All-Ireland quarter-final, it demanded a serious ideological re-evaluation of Dublin's style, and defence became their priority. Brogan was never wild about tackling but the defending had to start with their best finisher for the system to have any credibility.
Brogan's workrate improved dramatically because Gilroy dogged him. He demanded more from his star forward, both on and off the field. He even dropped him at the start of the 2010 league, but Gilroy's approach worked because Brogan was easily the best footballer in the country during last year's league and championship.
"He (Gilroy) did torture me the first part of the year," admitted Brogan last September. "He'd pick on me the whole time, and eventually that got through to me. Before, I'd maybe stay in the full-forward line and just try to get the scores. That's what I thought my job was, but Pat wanted more. He wanted me out hassling for ball. He hugely improved my game, and my option taking."
That was evident during this year's league when Brogan gave the last pass for four of Dublin's six goals against Cork and Kerry. Against Kerry, Marc O Sé handled him really well, but Brogan still evaded him to kick the winning score in injury-time, an absolutely brilliant point off his left foot.
"The amount of work that Bernard put into himself to become what he is was phenomenal," says Dermot Kelly. "His left foot is manufactured in that he didn't have a natural left foot like 'Gooch' Cooper. Bernard had to work extremely hard to develop that left foot."
That dynamic scoring ability is what separates Brogan now from most forwards. "He's always able to get his shots off despite being under incredible pressure," says former Dublin team-mate Collie Moran. "He can just kick scores with his back to goal, off balance, leaning with a fella hanging out of him, or with minimum drawback on his kick. That's his outstanding attribute. And he has great confidence and belief that he doesn't get fazed if he misses a couple."
A hamstring injury curtailed him slightly in early summer and despite scoring three points in the Leinster final against Wexford, it could have been 10: he hit five wides, dropped four shots short and had two more blocked down. Yet he was clearly being double-teamed in most games, which freed up space for Dublin's other forwards.
Excellent against Tyrone, Brogan showed a completely different side to his game against Donegal. Despite being double-teamed by Neil McGee and Mark McHugh, and consistently swarmed by the defence, he was fouled for three converted frees and set up two more points.
"Given the pressure he was under, I thought he was unreal against us," says Donegal coach and selector Rory Gallagher. "He became Gooch-like in his influence on a game that day. He kept his composure and I thought he showed more leadership than I've seen anyone show in the Dublin team over the last 15 years.
"I always felt that Gooch and Peter Canavan were the greatest forwards I've ever seen, but Bernard Brogan is different in that he's so dynamic. You could argue that their decision-making is slightly better, but he's more lethal and dangerous in that if you give him 10 balls, he could score 1-7. If he gets early ball on a one-on-one situation, he is almost unmarkable.
"There were days in the past that you might have felt that if Bernard wasn't going to be brilliant, he wasn't going to be good at all. But while he wasn't brilliant against us in the way people associate with brilliance, he was still the most influential player on the pitch. That's what the greatest players have and he has that at the minute."
Brogan didn't have time to celebrate that win because he began his final accountancy exams the following week. He is as serious about his job as he is about his football, but he has matured into an extremely grounded person.
Moran describes him as a "really likeable guy and very down to earth", while Cosgrove says that "he's a very confident individual, but by no means egotistical".
Johnston lived with Brogan for two years and they remain close friends. "He's an unbelievably sound fella," says Johnston. "Bernard is really serious about his football and he loves Dublin. But when he lets his hair down, he lets it down. If you went out with Bernard, you'd have a serious night's craic. He'd be the life and soul of the party.
"When we were in DCU, I'd always be slagging him about looking at mirrors and eating Coco Pops. But he was always in the gym or down kicking footballs in the local pitches in DCU. We'd always be slagging him too as Alan's brother and it used to drive him mad. Then when Alan got married last year, his best man introduced him as Bernard's brother. It was a bit of craic, but it showed just how much Bernard had come full circle."
Five years ago, Cosgrove looked at the caterpillar and pictured the butterfly. That spark of potential has ignited into a bushfire and Brogan is now the shining light through which a county's hopes are reflected. That coming from a county like Dublin has heaped inordinate pressure on his shoulders, but it's a load Brogan is fit to carry.
"I perform better when I'm under a bit of pressure," he said in April. "This year it's a bit different because I'm a marked man, but that's what I'm there for. If it's the last couple of minutes and we need a score, I'm trying to get the ball. Some people might be nervous to take that last shot, but I thrive on it."
The pressure will never be greater tomorrow. Neither will the stakes. And Dublin will need Brogan to absolutely revel in it.