Sunday 19 November 2017

Mrs Brogan's boys... feeding All-Ireland winners

What fuels a family of All-Ireland winners? Dublin star Bernard Brogan and his mum Maria talk about hunger on and off the pitch. Photography by Patrick Bolger

Cooking up a storm: Maria and Bernrad Brogan. Photo: Patrick Bolger
Cooking up a storm: Maria and Bernrad Brogan. Photo: Patrick Bolger
Bernard Brogan. Photo: Patrick Bolger

Leslie Ann Horgan

'So what do you feed All-Ireland winners?" Maria Brogan laughs. "They were reared on regular dinners, there was nothing unusual," she says. "Plenty of meat, plenty of vegetables, plenty of spuds and pasta. Curries, bolognese, shepherd's pie - all the usual things a mother makes."

If GAA fans across the country were hoping for some insight into the make-up of a household that boasts four All-Ireland medal holders - Maria's husband Bernard Snr and their three sons Bernard, Alan and Paul - that answer may well be a little disappointing.

Surely there must be more to it than following Delia and Darina?

"Well nowadays, instead of the potato I'd use sweet potato," Maria confesses. "We're all carb-conscious," Bernard Jnr interjects with a laugh.

"They're quite disciplined in their food," his mother continues. "I can put 10 cakes and chocolate in front of them and they'd leave it there. They'd eat fruit and nuts." With a model diet like that, small wonder that we're here to talk about SuperValu's Good Food Karma campaign. Aiming to encourage families to cook and eat together, the campaign is fronted by the 31-year-old Dublin star Bernard and his mum (who declines to give her age but confesses to having celebrated a 'significant' birthday recently).

And it seems that the Irish supermarket chain couldn't have picked a better family to act as its ambassadors than the close-knit Brogans. "It is easy for us to talk about it because it's actually real - it's what we actually did," Bernard says. "Mam used to make us turn off the telly and put away the phones and sit together for dinner. It's only 15 or 20 minutes but it's a very sociable time," continues Maria. "And when they were younger, going to school, it was the only time you'd a chance to ask them: 'How are things? Are you alright?' Not that they'd tell you anything but you'd know by looking at their faces. It was a very important time for us when they were growing up."

Given that Bernard Snr won two All-Ireland medals with the legendary Kevin Heffernan side of the 1970s, and his three boys followed his lead playing for Oliver Plunkett's club on the Navan Road, one would presume that the talk around the table was all GAA?

"No," says Maria firmly. "We still don't talk about GAA. You might have a few words about a match but not much. We don't tend to dissect games. The lads know when they've had an off-day so they don't need me discussing it at the dinner table. When you have football every weekend and all week, it's nice to take a few minutes and talk about something normal."

Normal is a word rarely applied to the Brogan family. Take Bernard, for example. As of last weekend, when Dublin overcame Cork in the league final, he has two All-Ireland wins, three national league titles, eight Leinster championships and three All-stars to his name. In 2010 he was awarded the GAA's highest accolade, player of the year.

Away from the pitch, he's the president of the Irish Federation of Sport, and a qualified accountant who runs his own sports consultancy, Legacy Consultants. And then there's the fact that he's the level of good looking that you don't want to look directly at lest you blush or giggle involuntarily - especially not when his mother is watching on.

It might be a different story in Copper's after a big win, but today Bernard's as normal as any other lad having the law laid down by his mother. (We're discussing what you do with an All-Ireland medal. They're locked away, but Bernard says that he'd love to have some sort of a portable memento. The Kerry team had rings made last year and he felt it was a nice touch. Perhaps Dublin could go one better with matching tattoos I suggest? "No!" exclaims his horrified mammy. "There will be no tattoos, not until I'm dead and gone!")

Does he ever dream of normality away from the demands of intercounty football I wonder. Surely the training and diet and early, sober nights must get boring? "No, it becomes the norm," Bernard says. "It's actually become very productive. When you're off the drink and waking up on weekend mornings, you get things done, you go different places, go to the cinema in the evenings.

"That's not to say that I don't like to go out for a few pints with my mates, but I do find that when you're off the drink and training and feeling fit, it just makes you feel so much better about yourself."

The need for time off is a hot topic in the GAA at the moment, stoked by Sunday Independent columnist Joe Brolly's calls for players to be allowed to socialise without fear of reprimand. What, I wonder, are Bernard's thoughts on that contentious debate? In answering, he slides the conversation back to the SuperValu campaign. Impressively on message, if a little off the point.

"The Home Truths report that SuperValu commissioned said that four out of five families are sitting down five times a week and taking that bit of time. Even if it's only 15 or 20 minutes - and you could be rowing or giving out or not talking - but at least you're there around the table and there's a few minutes when you can get the phone out of your hand."

At the mention of phones, Maria throws her eyes up to heaven.

"With my new business there's always something happening so I have my phone in my hand every minute of the day," Bernard says. "My mam would be telling me to put it down and Keira (his girlfriend of two years) would be shouting at me to put it down for a few minutes in the evening."

Does he use social media? "I've a decent following on Twitter, but I'm a terrible tweeter. When you're playing sport at a high level you don't want to be saying anything about what you're doing, because your team work together and you keep everything in the group - you're a unit, and you bring that out on the pitch so you never talk about sport or about the game or anything like that. I'd be worried that I'm boring people too."

Does he feel under pressure to be a role model for young GAA fans both online and beyond? "I would have always been involved in GAA camps and meeting kids, and with Legacy we do Lenovo GAA camps for 13- to 15-year-olds. They're at an age when they're looking at you and they're very impressionable.

"They'd be coming up to you and asking what you're doing and sending you messages on Twitter, and you have to be aware of that. You have a responsibility towards the kids - and the public and the GAA - to be seen in a certain light and behave in a certain way. You don't want to be misguiding kids."

Is he happy to do that I wonder? It's a lot of added responsibility that comes with what is, at the end of the day, a hobby.

"It's not anything that I'm not doing anyway," Bernard insists. "I'm a normal enough guy. I don't do anything massively excessive, I don't have any massive opinions on anything that would drive conversation. So I just be myself.

"But I'm very conscious that kids look up to Dublin players. I'm not trying to not behave badly, I'm trying to be as positive as I can and show kids what I'm passionate about - whether that's exercise, or diet or nutrition or products that I endorse."

Maria interjects that what's expected of intercountry players has changed enormously since her husband's days on the Dublin team. "It's not just a case of running up and down the pitch, it encompasses their whole life now, whereas back when my husband played you trained Tuesday and Thursday and Saturday morning, played a game on Sunday and it was kind of forgotten in-between. Whereas now it's basically professional."

Which brings us on to Joe Brolly's other crusade, a call for the GAA to ensure its amateur players have careers to fall back on once their days on the pitch are over. Bernard has previously said that if he were to do things over, he would have made more time for career at a younger age.

"Sometimes people take their eyes off the ball career-wise," he says now. "The likes of Darren Fay, who would have been very open about it. There's hundreds of guys like him who would have been infatuated with the game and when it finishes up they don't really have a plan.

"You can lose yourself in the GAA but there's also so much to be gained from it. I learned so much about what I'm doing now, in business and marketing, through the GAA and in my ambassador roles."

One could argue that Bernard is the exception rather than the rule on that front. Three years ago, he set up Legacy Consultants with his cousin James Brogan, a solicitor. The firm offers talent management and marketing, both within the sporting arena.

"We're a niche marketing agency that offers solutions to brands in the sports entertainment space," Bernard says. "Brands who see sport as their medium to communicate with their audience.

"The likes of AIG, who are on the Dublin jersey. They would do that sponsorship as an awareness tool but they also want to connect with the grassroots of the GAA. That's why any brand gets involved with the GAA, because it's in the community.

"We work with Lenovo, a PC manufacturer from China that does gaming. There's that difficult age group, from 13-15, when kids are lost to computers and leaving sport, so Lenovo wanted to give a bit back. So we do GAA camps with them and underage soccer all around Ireland with Volkswagen."

Maria herself enjoyed a long career as a nurse - skills that were put to good use at home as well. "I know how to manage an auld pulled muscle - cuts, bruises and stitches, you manage all those things," she says. "The lads are not very demanding on those things, they were very stoic. The only thing now, is that the washing was horrendous. The smell off the bags…"

Hailing from Listowel, she laughs that she hasn't been disowned by her Kerry brethren for washing Dublin jerseys - not even after her sons beat them in the 2011 All-Ireland final. Not that Maria saw much of that or, indeed, any other match.

"We go to every game. I can't take the pressure or the stress, so I go off walking and chat to the stewards. I see the first half generally and then the last five minutes depending on what's going on.

"When you walk Croke Park there are screens everywhere, so you might glance up at them. I often go up around the concrete stairwells where there's nothing. You'd hear a shout and be wondering whether it's the Hill or the Canal end."

If she can't bear to watch the games, how does she cope with the analysis that follows? "I get cross with Joe Brolly when he calls my lads names and tells me they're stupid and useless or whatever. I'm human the same as everybody else and it's hurtful when you hear your child being talked about if they've had a bad day.

"And Joe Brolly and the lads up there are well paid to talk about your child who isn't being paid anything at all. It gets on my nerves, but that's the way it is. The boys play because they love it, they do their best when they go out there and I wouldn't ask anything more of them.

"We're very proud of them and if everything stopped in the morning it doesn't matter to us, we've had marvellous times."

If it really were all to stop in the morning, what else are the Brogan family good at?

"Well not music," they answer in emphatic unison. "I bought every instrument going - the guitar, tin whistle, recorder, piano - and it wasn't for any of them," Maria says.

"And we're not singers," Bernard adds. So Gaelic's prettyboy never considered going the boyband route? "Listening to them maybe," he says with a grimace.

Best to stick to the football, so - for however long more it lasts.

"I'm a firm believer that if you play football you have to enjoy it," Bernard says. "There was a lot of talk about Alan coming back with the Dubs this year, and whether he should. When he asked me I said 'you should come back if you have something to offer' - which he had, we all knew and Jim (Gavin) knew as well. He had massive experience and is a big game player so he could add something to the team.

"The way I feel is that you play until there's someone else to take over the mantle and you can't offer any more, or you play until you fall out of love with it."

In line to take over that mantle some day are the next generation of Brogans - Alan and his wife Lydia have a six-year-old son, Jamie, and new baby Harry. Far from wanting to continue the family legacy, however, Maria says that she doesn't mind if her grandsons never play GAA, although she would like to see them play a team sport of some sort for the friendships and lifestyle it brings.

Having grandchildren is 'marvellous'. "I'd like about 15 more of them but there's nobody obliging so far," she says with a dramatic roll of her eyes in Bernard's direction. Embarrassed he mutters something about being "too busy at the moment".

As with all grown-up families, their busy lifestyle means that the Brogans don't get together for dinner as often as they'd like. The traditional Sunday roast dinners were long ago moved from Sunday - when Maria says she'd prefer to be on the side of a pitch somewhere - to Monday nights.

"We still come home when there's a nice roast in the oven, she can still coax us back with that very easily," Bernard says.

"One of these days they're going to cook it for me," laughs Maria.

Can he cook? "I can yeah," comes the less than convincing reply. "We're going to do the Good Food Circle, so I'm going to invite mam and dad and Keira and the lads and their families over and start a bit of a Come Dine With Me where we all take turns to cook."

Perhaps he might uncover a hidden talent off the pitch after all. "I know what I'm gonna do, I have my plan," he says with a wide smile. "There's a couple of dishes that I have practised and I fancy myself at so I'm going to give one of them a go."

For recipes and cooking tips from the SuperValu Good Food Karma campaign, visit

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