The faithful soldier who would not countenance a white flag
Published 19/12/2015 | 02:30
He wore a red vest for luck without ever identifying its provenance or owner. Just picked it up at home one day in 2002 and never really put it down again. Quite why Alan Brogan chose to stick with it, even he cannot answer. In his first nine seasons as a Dublin senior footballer, their summer ended with defeat to the eventual All-Ireland champions seven times. The other two? To the runners-up.
Dublin just could not stretch a melody into September.
By spring of 2011, he was 29 and - inevitably - feeling the press of time. Dublin had become cursed with a name for arrogance and frailty. A team that made the noise of kings in Leinster, but whose thunder frightened nobody beyond.
Three days after a spectacular League final collapse to Cork that year (they'd lost the closing half hour 0-11 to 0-2), I sat to the kitchen table of his parents' Castleknock home with Alan, Bernard, Paul and their father, Bernard senior. There wasn't much generosity in the wind for Dublin that week, their story - seemingly - veering towards parody.
Alan Brogan took no offence though. He suggested that, if anything, the coverage had been "kinder than expected".
We didn't know it then, but the summer looming would justify that kindness. At the time, Bernard junior was reigning Footballer of the Year and the idea of that title staying in the family would have seemed fanciful, maybe delusional even. But sitting at that kitchen table in April, Alan Brogan would not countenance the refuge of preciousness or self-pity.
He'd missed the League final through suspension and expressed a simple hope that "one of these days we'll learn something!"
Five months later, he was king.
The Brogans' story runs to the heart of what it is that gives the GAA such an unbreakable foothold in so many Irish homes. It is wrapped up in lineage and faith and the simple, beautiful energy of wanting to follow a family path. The night before Dublin played Down in their penultimate group game of that 2011 National League, the Brogan boys' paternal grandfather, Jim, passed away.
In a wonderfully warm, intuitive gesture, the GAA provided the extended Brogan clan with a box for the game and a minute's silence was held beforehand, old Jim's picture on the giant screen. Hindsight suggested it was almost as if they had been directed to do so by some prescient force from above.
For Bernard junior seemed to have rescued a draw for Dublin with a last-minute point that set him wheeling away from the Hill end goal, pointing towards the sky. Then, three minutes into added time, you could all but hear a gentle roar come rolling down from the Heavens.
Because Dublin's winning goal carried the exclusive trademark of Jim Brogan's grandsons making a fairytale of their first competitive day out together in the city's blue. It began with Paul making the clearance from defence; then Bernard's high, arcing delivery towards the Down square triggering an orgy of defensive foostering. And at the end of it? Alan lancing venomously to the roof of the Ulstermen's net.
"Unbelievable" was how Bernard senior described the emotion in the box at that moment.
He's never been a harsh, coercive father, never seen his own story as a languid, long-striding hero of 'Heffo's Army' as any kind of reasonable standard for a man to demand of his sons. That's just not how life works under a GAA roof.
You don't get the dysfunction of the sociopath tennis dads or the lunatic golf parent punishing their kid for a missed putt. You don't get the child Beethoven being dragged by drunken hands out of bed to practice.
There is no fortune to be chased here. Just a sense of living.
Alan Brogan followed his father's path because his childhood felt so enriched by what football brought to the community. When Dublin won Sam Maguire in '95, Bernard senior's brother - Jim - was a selector to Pat O'Neill. Alan blagged his way into the dressing-room with Jim's son, James, after that final, the two of them left sitting in a corner, eyes wide and shiny as chrome hub-caps.
Back then so many of their summers drew the Brogan boys to Listowel in Kerry, from where Bernard senior had found the love of his life, Maria Keane Stack.
So football felt the most natural language through which they might find expression.
You played your heart out for club (in their case, St Oliver Plunketts-Eoghan Ruadh) and, if good enough, the county might come calling. That didn't take long in Alan's case. He played wing-back with Dublin's minors for two summers before circumstance changed the course of his football story.
Last Tuesday night, he acknowledged in a radio interview that it had been "really by chance" he became one of the game's most revered forwards. It was Christmas of '01 and a training-game under new Dublin senior boss, Tommy Lyons. Short of forwards, Lyons deployed Brogan to attack, instantly liking what he saw.
A challenge game against Clare at Naomh Bearrog confirmed those first impressions and, so, Alan Brogan started the '02 National League as a corner-forward. A tally of 1-3 in Dublin's opening game against Donegal called time on his days as a defender.
How good would he become?
Well apart from 'Gooch' and Peter Canavan, there's been nobody better over the stretch of his career. Because Alan Brogan's vision, his ease of running, his distribution imparted a fluid, regal quality whilst all about him might look fluster and fear.
He played through the worst of Dublin's immaturities, the vainglorious pre-match marches towards the Hill; the 'Blue Book'; the perpetual sense of the city's team trying to brainwash itself into being better than it was able.
By 2011, he had been a full decade chasing Sam, yet remained untainted by self-pity.
That April day, he said it wouldn't be the end of the world if he never won that coveted senior All-Ireland. The privilege was in simply having played for Dublin in a packed Croke Park. "When you look around the great grounds of the world now," he told me "there's not many places left like Hill 16. Some of the terraces in South America maybe you might get the same feel off.
"But certainly not in England nor in Europe, you don't get anything that looks like the 'Hill."
Alan Brogan would be Dublin's man of the match in all three of their victories through Leinster that summer and only a Donegal team, stopping just short of stacking sandbags around their own '45', would hold him scoreless as Pat Gilroy's men delivered.
Injury did subsequently come tearing through his story and he was never again quite the player he became in that breakthrough summer.
He didn't play in the 2013 final victory over Mayo (when Bernard's 2-3 made the difference) and, if he got just the final moments of this year's coronation against Kerry, it was enough to put the most elegant of signatures on a 14-season glory run.
To kick that final point against the Kingdom, giving his dad "bragging rights" against those old foes of the '70s, not to mention at his own dinner table, surely sounded the perfect, farewell trumpet-line. Because Alan Brogan's trust in his identity and what that represents has never been anything less than pure.
It seemed only fair, in time, that the lucky vest came good.