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Brennan revels in second coming

For Mark Brennan, hopping back aboard the Louth team bus last January must rank as the best decision of his football career.

He had spent the previous two-and-a-half years in the inter-county wilderness -- all stemming, it seemed, from a decision not to board the bus after a Croke Park defeat in June 2007.

The Mattock Rangers man was one of five players consequently omitted from Eamonn McEneaney's squad; in their absence Louth embarked on a redemptive qualifier run and Brennan was never recalled.

But with the arrival of a new manager, Peter Fitzpatrick, came another invitation to hook up with the Louth squad this season.

Brennan, now 26, hasn't looked back. "I'm just kind of that lucky. Everything seemed to go right for us this year, and we seem to be performing well -- so it was a great idea to go back, wasn't it?" he asks.



Dashing

No need to answer that rhetorical question: player and team are preparing for Louth's first Leinster SFC final appearance in 50 years.

In his second coming, Brennan hasn't garnered the same plaudits as the likes of Paddy Keenan, Brian White or Shane Lennon, yet it's easy to see why Fitzpatrick would have craved his dashing qualities on the half-forward line.

Likewise, his eye for the perceptive pass: it was his quick free that released wing-back Ray Finnegan for the vital quarter-final goal in Navan, draining the life from Kildare's early second-half comeback.

All a far cry from the latter half of McEneaney's reign, when he was completely out of the picture, having got his first big break when the Monaghan man took over. "I think I was on a panel or two with Paddy Clarke but I didn't last long that time -- I was only young and I was naïve, kind of," he recalls.

Under McEneaney's watch, he made the team and helped them to a notable league breakthrough, winning the 2006 Division Two title.

But in the summer of '07, after Louth emerged from a titanic three- game duel with Wicklow, it all went pear-shaped as the team crashed to Wexford in a Leinster quarter-final.

Five players who declined to get on the team bus leaving Croke Park were duly jettisoned from the squad. Two of the quintet are now back on the team: Brennan and the veteran JP Rooney.

"There was a lot made out of it," Brennan recalls, speaking ahead of Sunday's historic showdown with Meath.

"Like that's what happened -- we didn't get on the bus. But people like to make things out of other things.

"The way I saw it was I played so long and we were looking forward to the Wexford match, to win and to have a good run in the championship ... and things didn't go right and I just needed a bit of space and stuff like that. But, other people got hold of it and I think people took up wrong opinions -- and that just left me out in the cold then."

Did he miss it? "At the time I went 'no' -- I was happy to go. I went to America that time and I had three months over there and I loved it," he explains, before adding: "It's an awful lot of undertaking when you're winning nothing -- you're trying so hard and getting so close, it's very hard."

In the meantime, Brennan kept playing for Mattock and he skippered his club to another Louth SFC title last October -- their third of the decade.



Batteries

Soon after came an approach from the new Louth boss; but after a long club campaign, and with an injury to heal, Brennan wanted a couple of months to recharge the batteries.

He told Fitzpatrick that if he still wanted him in January, he'd go back and play. The rest is history -- not to mention potential history in the making.

Brennan now accompanies us on Louth's meandering journey to the final. "Even after the Longford match, no one in our camp even thought we'd be in a Leinster (final). We were all psyched up, we thought we were going to play well against Longford -- and nothing seemed to go right. We kind of blamed the hot weather for that," he recalls.

"We knew Kildare would be coming in on a high pedestal and we'd be able to sneak under the radar -- and everything just seemed to go right over in Navan."

Onward to the semi-final: "Westmeath play a different type of football than Kildare.

"It was always going to be tough, especially up in Croke Park and a lot of expectation after beating Kildare ... we just had to grind out a result more than a performance."

All of which may suggest a new mental resolve in this Louth team. "We know in the last 10-15 minutes of any game you're going to have to battle," says Brennan.

"Some years, the Louth team was turned over -- they just didn't want to win it that much. They thought a good performance would do them; they'd be known around the county for playing well and getting so close. But now everyone wants to win. They don't want to be known as losers or nearly men."

The danger, of course, is that Meath's red-hot attack will reaffirm that 'nearly men' tag.

"Ah well, they deserve to be favourites. Even if they didn't win anything for 20 years, they still would have won more than Louth did," Brennan points out.

The most important thing, he concludes, is that the underdogs leave Croke Park next Sunday evening with no regrets.

"Go out and enjoy the day. Don't leave anything on the pitch. Don't be coming off with your tank still 50 percent full," he preaches. "Usually, when everyone puts the whole effort in, you get the right result at the end of the day."


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