Making his mark in the job he loves so well
Unorthodox or not, John Brennan wants to put the buzz back into Derry football, writes Damian Lawlor
Published 17/07/2011 | 05:00
JOHN BRENNAN pours a steaming cup of coffee from the pot, pushes his two mobile phones aside and shoots a piercing look. He has just been asked, what did you say in that huddle?
If you missed it, after Derry's win over Armagh in the Ulster semi-final, Brennan gathered his players in a huddle and addressed them like a proud general welcoming victorious troops back from battle.
But as the television camera zoomed in on the huddle, it became clear this was one with a difference: the Derry players were doubling over with laughter. As their manager walked away he turned around with a smile and concluded the speech to a huge roar.
What did you say in that huddle?
After an eternity, he sips his coffee, looks you in the eye and caves in. "I told them to head off and enjoy a wild few drinks because that's what I was going to do."
And there in a nutshell is John Brennan. Just when you think he's about to explode, he goes the other way. They say he can be notoriously gruff with the media but when he sat down in the Greenvale Hotel in Cookstown on a bleary Tuesday morning, he couldn't have been more helpful.
"Ah, some boys ask the most stupid questions," he sighs, "I just say: 'I can't do an interview because I don't know you, or what you've said there is downright crazy'. You just have to nip it in the bud."
Somewhere in his mid to late sixties (he's stopped answering what age he is because he's asked so often) he's completely at peace with himself. Assured with his status in football, having delivered seven senior championships in three different counties, his professional career was enriched and saw him appointed a senior contracts manager with British Telecom before his wife Anne died and he was forced to retire to look after their three young children.
They called him 'The Beast' in honour of his prowess as a young rugby player, a nickname that was enhanced by his no-nonsense demeanour on the sidelines as a GAA manager. But it's only a label. Brennan is pretty soft behind it all.
When he speaks about Anne's brave battle against a brain tumour in 1991, it's clear that time hasn't been a healer. "Unfortunately, my wife will be dead 20 years on July 26," he says. "We met in Belfast when I was playing rugby for Rainey Old Boys. She was from Carrickmore in Tyrone; a schoolteacher. She would have loved all this (Derry reaching an Ulster final) because her family were football fanatics.
"Everything changed when she passed. Sinéad, our youngest girl, was only 10 and wouldn't take a lift to school with neighbours because she was attached to me. I had to give up work, it wasn't that I wanted to, but familywise it was the best thing I ever did.
"We saw many bad experiences but my wife would have done exactly the same for them had I been in trouble. It was tough times. A friend of mine, the former Derry player Danny Quinn, recently lost his wife and is in a similar situation. I've been talking to him about the whole thing. Maybe time is a healer, but if I started to talk about my wife I'd find it difficult. I don't talk a lot about it to people.
"I use football as therapy and I make no bones about that. But now I have three grandkids and I'm devoted to them."
After they beat Armagh in the Ulster semi-final newspapers ran a picture of Brennan hugging one of them, áine. It's hard to tell whether the manager was happier with the result or seeing his grandchild.
"I used to see other grandparents looking after their children's kids and say 'Jesus, how can you go through all that rearing again?' But I understand fully now. They're a blessing. You take the other stuff in life on the chin and you must go on. I've seen so many families where one person has lost a partner and they take on board someone else and their families. That's fine, but it wasn't for me. I'm no oil painting, nor am I camera-friendly, but through sport there might have been opportunities to meet other people. But it wasn't for me."
His farm keeps him occupied 12 hours a day. He comes off the land feeling shattered but has a wash, pulls on a tracksuit and goes training feeling like a new man. Every hour of his day is accounted for.
"I think tactics there because it's often a lonely place, particularly in winter. But the flip side is you have no-one bullshitting in your ear."
When they played Armagh, he reckoned one of their water carriers was hogging him a little too closely so he came up with a daft plan to withdraw one of his most promising attackers James Kielt to wing-back and shove midfielder Enda Muldoon into full-forward. As Armagh's undercover agent trod down the sideline armed with this little nugget, Brennan chuckled mischievously to himself.
"All that rubbish goes on," he says. "People say I'm old school and I don't use laptops. Well, I can't be too bad if they're trying to hear what I'm instructing my team."
Brennan won with Lavey (1988 and 1993), two with Antrim side Cargin (1999 and 2000), one with Tyrone's Carrickmore (2001). He delivered the goods with Slaughtneil (2004) and Loup in 2009.
They still pay tribute to him in Cargin. There they've only won four titles in their history and Brennan masterminded two of them. Slaughtneil's 2004 success was possibly his greatest achievement as it was their first and only senior title.
On those pit-stops his principles have remained the same. Total, expansive football and game-related training. The Derry players say he's also a brilliant, old-school manager that can deal with people. Brennan admits he draws on his experience as a senior executive with BT.
"There are certain players you must take aside, deal with them privately," he says. "You can't address them before the whole panel. I talk to them man to man. When I worked at BT they bought a quality management package from Harvard and gave me 15 lever arch files to get through. One of the terms they used was 'taking corrective action' and getting everything to 'flow full circle.'
"Some of it I found hypocritical, but I was pretty articulate and able to get the message across to other staff, so I was brought to Edinburgh to roll this out to other managers. I used the 10 per cent of the package that I found good. The other 90 per cent was pure bullshit.
"I adapt the same principles with Gaelic football. I've gone to changing rooms from Swatragh to Carrickmore. You must be comfortable in any dressing room and know what game plan is right and not right for them.
"With Derry, we have two dentists and two doctors in the set-up; accountants, teachers and bricklayers. Two fellows have no work at all. But my approach is no different to them. Whether a lad drives up to training in a Rolls Royce or mobile home makes no difference to me. I compare it to a hospital ward. Everyone is the same there."
Again, though, there are complexities attached: he's not the players' best friend either. He rarely visits the houses of his players, although that's hard to believe from someone who resurrected Conleth Gilligan's career and earned the complete trust of the two Bradley brothers, Paddy and Eoin.
"Apart from the four players from my own club, Lavey, I was never in one player's house over the years," he insists. "I don't have a clue where Conleth even lives, I know Paddy lives in Claudy but I've no idea where.
"My biggest challenge in general management would be dealing with certain players who have just left home for the first time and went straight to university. They think they're in the Holy Land so I have to chew the balls off them. They probably wonder who 'that old bollix thinks he is' but they're inexperienced, too smart. Anyone can be smart with a jibe but experience carries through in the end. I just need to get them to see that.
"With Derry it's been fine, though. The only issue we've had was with Fergal Doherty who is not on our squad. He had a bad season last year with injury, leased a pub and their big night is Saturday night. I texted Fergal and left an open door but he never got back. You move on."
Both Bradley brothers are missing today with cruciate injuries and Brennan is gutted about that. Upon being appointed Derry manager, he was advised to get rid of the brothers after difficulties with previous regimes. He never even considered it.
"One of first things I was told at an Ulster Writers' function in Cavan was to get shot of them. But after Paddy won four man of the match awards in the league I asked that same person what he thought now.
"Last year Paddy and I had a long conversation in a very quiet spot. All I asked was to become more of a team man and be even more respected. Until he got injured, Paddy was making loads of passes and was en route to a second All Star. He'd started back training in October with the hope of making the International Rules team too. Eoin is still only a kid and a lovely lad. I'm devastated for them and we'll want to win for them, but there's no point in feeling sorry for ourselves because nobody else is."
Brennan's varied background helps him see the bigger picture. His formative years were spent playing rugby with Rainey Old Boys and Ballymena. He played at Ravenhill against the likes of Willie John McBride in an era when it was unusual for a Catholic to be in those circles. His family lived in Broagh, just off the A6 motorway in the parish of Lavey; one of only three Catholic clans in the area, along with the Scullions and Chivers.
"It was weird," he says. "I grew up with the rugby boys thinking I was one of them and then I worked every Monday morning with BT in areas of Derry that wouldn't know what a Protestant was. That's how ridiculous it was. But I thoroughly enjoyed rugby and still follow it closely.
"At that time, we had showers and meals after games, everything was laid on but we hadn't even changing rooms at Lavey GAA. It's not that I was better than anyone else -- I loved Gaelic football but there were no structures. In rugby, we were as well looked after then as many GAA club teams are now. So I played rugby."
In the 1980s, he toured the Bahamas with Ballymena and defeated teams from Toronto, New Orleans and England in an international tournament and was voted player of the tournament.
By then, however, he'd also started dabbling back in the GAA, winning a championship with Lavey in 1977 at centre-forward. He played a few league games for Derry but hadn't the interest to progress to championship level.
"I turned to coaching at Lavey but only because no-one else would do it. We were lucky that during the mid-'80s, players like my nephew Henry Downey and the McGurks all stayed at home and got work. The coaching started from there."
His CV soon took shape and Brennan was deemed a shoo-in for the Derry job on a number of occasions. Six years ago, he was certain of getting the job and sat in Paddy Crozier's house one night until 1.30am compiling a dossier on every senior footballer in the county just 10 days before his Slaughtneil side played a county final. He didn't need the hassle but felt the Derry job warranted that attention.
An interview ensued. In front of 17 people. He immediately thought 'ambush'. "It was like the Last Supper -- 17 people. I didn't know about that format and told them I hadn't expected to give a team-talk. But I introduced myself and did a wee presentation; asked if there were any questions and left full sure that I got it. We'd even heard that verbally.
"Next thing Mickey Moran gets in on a 9-8 vote. I learned a lot about the politics of Derry football there and then. I also heard it back that I would never be in charge of Derry as long as certain people were involved. On more than one occasion."
Brennan felt it was futile canvassing for the job again when Moran's tenure ended a couple of years later but he was nominated by several clubs and pushed into representing them.
"It was embarrassing, so I told the county board I was only there for the clubs. Paddy Crozier is a good person and he got the job, but again I felt it was anyone but John Brennan, Henry Downey and the Lavey people. After Paddy, Damien Cassidy went in but in my book he wasn't ready for that job even though he's a good fella.
"By now, people had stopped going to Derry matches. Had I not been involved this year, I wouldn't have been at Derry-Armagh myself. There was anger all over the county on a number of scores. I knew what was happening behind the scenes and yet people expected me to keep putting myself into frame."
Eventually, however, his time came. He had forged a good relationship with administrator John Keenan over the years and he realised Brennan could transform a bunch of underachievers. He knew that the relationship between the manager and board would be far from cosy. But the two have a mutual respect and in Sean Gunning, Brennan has a reliable liaison man.
Changes have been plentiful. Players understand that change in attitude and positioning is key. Substitutions have been made as early as the 18th minute under his reign. In previous years, players would have walked. "But now they realise it's all for the team. Last year, players were not even getting basics like proper gear whereas this year the place is coming down with gear."
It's taken five months to shape his structures. He still has to go to battle for players over administrative stuff but he's laid down the law to everyone, players and administrators. Now he reckons it's high time the players and supporters were rewarded for a decade of underachievement.
"I think we can bring the buzz back," he says. "I don't hear much of what's going on outside which must mean that we're doing the right thing."
The Derry team under Brennan are finally getting the chance to express themselves. He may be unorthodox but you're a fool if you think for one second that he's a throwback to the past. If anything, for Derry to thrive again, he's key to their future.
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