Monday 24 July 2017

Inspirational Brennan leads Banner surge to new heights

Clare’s Gary Brennan in action against Sligo’s Niall Murphy during their qualifier victory. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Clare’s Gary Brennan in action against Sligo’s Niall Murphy during their qualifier victory. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

Michael Verney

"If you wrote away for a footballer Gary is probably what you'd put together in the request."

High praise but the words of Clare football boss Colm Collins ring true as skipper Gary Brennan has been the driving force which sees the Banner standing on the verge of Croke Park and an All-Ireland quarter-final place.

His name is regularly thrown around as the No 1 target in the mythical world of a GAA transfer system. Big, strong, athletic and with an ability to consistently deliver brilliance when it matters most against the game's finest.

Clare are now in touching distance of football's elite and having succeeded in becoming a top 16 team after taking Division 3 honours en route to the league's second tier, something you couldn't have envisaged when Collins took charge in the winter of 2013.

More than any other player Brennan has helped lead that renaissance.

"Gary is an amazing guy, a fantastic leader and a fantastic person around the panel. And then he walks the walk on the pitch. A fielder, excellent at carrying the ball, excellent scorer, a good free-taker and he tends to say the right thing when you need it said," Collins says of his inspirational captain.

"We're very lucky in Clare to have him. He raises the level of the people around him as well because they react to that kind of leadership. We've got an excellent bunch of players and he's been a very capable leader for us."

Case in point their league decider with Kildare in April when a superb fetch and offload from the edge of the square in the dying minutes led to Dean Ryan's all-important goal which allowed him to walk up the Hogan Stand steps and collect the spoils.

Tomás Ó Sé regularly waxes lyrical about his ability having played alongside him at Railway Cup level while many make comparisons with Ó Sé's older brother Darragh for his remarkable ability to field high ball.

The St Flannan's College PE and Irish teacher is considered one of the perfect prototypes of what's needed to excel in the current era and having come up against the Ó Sé's in his early inter-county days, he admits his role as a midfielder has changed radically and he must regularly adapt to deal with the game's changing demands.

"I was coming up against guys like Darragh Ó Sé and Mick Ahern from Waterford and I was just getting pushed around physically, I wasn't able to compete with these guys in the air because I wasn't physically developed enough," Brennan says.

"A bit of work went into the physical development to be able to compete but now it's gone back to... there's very few contests in the air or much fewer anyway. It's all about being able to move, recover quickly and go again.

"There's less work on that physicality of being able to deal with jumping with two men in the air and more on getting around the field and getting there quickly and then getting back at it as fast as you possibly can.

Decreased

"Body shape has changed, weight and muscle mass have decreased again in the last couple of years whereas before that you would have been looking to increase for a man around the middle."

Fulfilling his dream of donning a Clare jersey was more overawing than the prospect of tackling one of the game's giants and something he never takes for granted after remarkably being unable to make underage county development squads from U-14 to U-16 before representing his country at U-17 International Rules level.

Two years ago a possible call-up to Davy Fitzgerald's All-Ireland-winning hurling squad was mooted but Brennan, who plays his club hurling with Ballyea alongside 2013 Hurler of the Year Tony Kelly, acknowledges that "football will always be my first love".

Spirits were low after Clondegad's disappointing Clare SFC semi-final exit last autumn but he opted to accept Joe Kernan's urgings and shot the lights out with his commanding International Rules performance at HQ - "a day I'd love to replicate with Clare" - and his star has continued to soar throughout 2016.

After successive qualifier wins against Laois and Sligo, they collide with Connacht finalists Roscommon and Brennan comes face to face with former Banner coach and mentor Liam McHale, who he credits with instilling huge belief in his own ability.

"I enjoyed working with Liam, he was always a very bright presence and encouraged us to go out and play and express ourselves. He gave me a lot of confidence at the time but I know equally he's a good man to give his own players confidence," he says.

"He's in the other corner now so we'll have a chat after the game, I'm sure but we won't be talking too much this week. I learned a lot from him about the mentality of approaching a game and he was a man who was well able to win ball himself so he has definitely encouraged me to go and express that part of my game."

A Division 1 hurdle will be "a big ask" but with Brennan in tow, they'll believe that anything is possible. Clare have already made huge strides and Roscommon's six-day turnaround presents a golden opportunity to catapult their meteoric rise.

"I've been in situations where we've been really questioned as to whether we should be competing at this level and it's nice to be looking forward to this challenge," he says.

Irish Independent

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