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Vincent Hogan: Dublin GAA's 1st family

As farewells go, it had an eloquence not often found beyond the pages of fiction. They'd put old Jim Brogan's picture up on the giant screen for a minute's silence beforehand, maybe 40 members of his extended family billeted in a box, courtesy of the GAA. Then the game itself took on a peculiar intimacy.





Bernard Jnr's point looked to have rescued a draw for Dublin, just when it seemed Down had done enough. He wheeled away from the Hill, pointing towards a soot-black sky in a grandson's simple prayer.

Up in the box, eyes glassed over, the light pouring up from the inside of the stadium like cool air from a fan. Old Jim, they knew, had a smile on his face.

But then the coup de grace. A goal with the family copyright -- Paul clearing from defence, Bernard spooning a high one towards the Down square, a little outbreak of butter-finger defending and, quick as a snake's strike, Alan lancing high to the net. Another salute to the sky.

There were 73 minutes gone and, on their first competitive day out together in a Dublin jersey, Jim Brogan's three grandsons had just sealed their county's place in the National League final.

Are these things directed from a control tower above the clouds?

They sit with their father at a kitchen table in Castleknock now, recycling the emotion. Alan, the oldest, has been around long enough to know that life seldom closes deals to order. If nine years fighting the Dublin cause has taught him anything, it is that.

The gods have their names on some of the meanest walls erected.

But that night of April 2 in Croke Park? It was something. "If you tried to write a script, you probably wouldn't be able to write it any better than it turned out," he says.

Bernard Jnr concurs. "We'd been around family all that day and the night before and people kept asking the question 'Will ye play the game?' There was never a doubt we would. Grandad would have wanted it. I think he'd have clipped us across the ears if we didn't.

"I wasn't starting, but it was the first time the three of us were going to be playing a competitive game together for Dublin. So a lot of big things happened that night. How the GAA looked after the family, I don't think we could have asked for anything more. Then the way the game finished, I'm told the emotion in the room was unbelievable. It was a huge occasion for the whole family."

Bernard Snr sits at the table, a rumour of a smile on his lips. This is a house with a powerful sense of lineage. Out in the drive, his wife's Renault bears large, almost gaudy stickers, promoting the glories of Listowel Races.

When Bernard himself was playing with the Dubs, one of many Kerrymen he befriended was Jimmy Deenihan. For a time in the early '70s, Bernard had an engineering posting at the power station in Tarbert and he used to train with Deenihan on a hill behind the local school or, on occasion, the dunes in Ballybunion.

One night, they went to the carnival in Finuge and Jimmy introduced his Dublin friend to a local girl.

Maria Keane Stack was of Listowel but, by September of '76, had been sufficiently accepted in the Brogan household to join in Dublin's All-Ireland celebrations. Bernard's brother Jim swapped jerseys with Sean Walsh after that final and, that night in a pub frequented by Oliver Plunkett's people, the Breffni on the Navan Road, Maria was carried about on Dublin shoulders, wearing Walsh's jersey.

Bernard was a mainstay of the Dublin team that, under Kevin Heffernan, rose from obscurity to contest six consecutive All-Ireland finals between '74 and '79. Yet, unlike many of his team-mates, Brogan didn't initially submit to the journey through a shared zealot's will to avenge the '55 All-Ireland final defeat to the Kingdom.

Why would he? He'd only been born in '53 and, when the call to take up arms arrived, he actually demurred.

"I was playing junior football with Plunketts and they came to see me in a game in maybe September of '73," he recalls. "I was in my final year in college and turned him down. Told him I was studying, that I didn't have time to play.

"You see, all the hype that's there today? There was none of that. Dublin had been getting beaten in the first round of the championship most years. I mean our first championship game in '74, against Wexford, was a curtain-raiser to a league final. There was nobody there.

"So it was a different time, a different regime. When Heffernan asked me to go in, my feeling would have been 'Why should I?' Then he asked a second time and I remember we went training in the gym in Finglas. I'd say 50 or 60 guys went through that gym and 20 or 30 of them just couldn't be bothered.

"Didn't like the training and left."

Paul listens to the old stories with the look of an Xbox kid watching a black and white movie. Nothing in his football life is compatible with the world depicted by his father.

At 23, he had already ruptured two cruciates and become accustomed to a hard, lonely rehab that only the most committed could ever hope to endure. He did it unquestioningly. To his generation, Dublin football is a star in the sky to chase.

"I suppose there were far fewer newspapers back then and very little sponsorship stuff," he says impassively. "At least nowadays, you can get some sort of recognition for what you're trying to do."

They've watched videos of the old marquee games, the gilded battles with Kerry that had a nation so in thrall. They've seen the 'Decade of the Dubs' DVD and can recite, verbatim, Micheal O'Hehir's "digging for oil" commentary on their father's goal in the famous '77 semi-final.

Bernard, at the time, was working on the building of an oil-rig in New Ross. The rig was floated across to Cherbourg for completion, where he then spent eight weeks "pretty much working around the clock" to get the job finished.

"I was travelling back and forth every weekend to Dublin training," he recalls. "I worked in London and Paris for a while. But I was never away for long periods."

This, remember, was a time when Kevin Moran could dip out of pre-season training with Manchester United to help Dublin's championship cause. In other words, a different planet to that now occupied by Pat Gilroy and his team.

Heffernan's Dublin are routinely credited with re-writing the DNA of Gaelic football. They stepped away from the traditional high-kicking, high-fielding model to a more innovative style, one built upon space creation and athleticism.

"I think they did," Bernard Snr says to the suggestion that they changed the game. "But things like television changed football too. When I started playing, there was only black and white television. The whole thing of people watching matches at home was only starting.

"We played seven games to win the All-Ireland in '74. There was no-one at the first. But the last game was just electric, unreal. And that went on for the next six years."

He finished, eventually, in the league of '84, knocked unconscious against Kildare and ferried to hospital, still in his playing gear. The only contact received from the county board was a subsequent phone-call, requesting the return of the jersey.

Years later, a championship Sunday in the late '80s he reckons, he was going in the back of the old Cusack Stand, with Alan up on his shoulders, when a stranger stopped him.

"You're Bernard Brogan, aren't you?"

"Yeah."

"I've got your last Dublin jersey."

Turned out Bernard had given it to a nurse in the hospital and she subsequently emigrated to Australia. Before leaving, she gave the jersey to a friend. The county board still whistles.

When Dublin won their last All-Ireland in '95, Jim Brogan was a selector. Alan remembers getting into the dressing-room afterwards with Jim's son James, and the two of them sitting in a corner, watching the bedlam flow.

"Looking back, I probably didn't realise the importance of it to everyone in the city," he says. "Not like you would now."

He was 12 at the time and destined to be centre-stage -- seven long years later -- the next time Dublin won a Leinster. From the outset, Alan's star shone with a pyrotechnic fury. He became the first Dublin captain to lift the All-Ireland U-21 trophy in '03 and has now six Leinster snr titles to his name.

Bernard, by comparison, was a slow-burner. Because of injury, he never played minor and, although Paul Caffrey had him on the snr panel in '05, it would be two more years before he made his championship debut.

And Paul? The story of that cruciate triggers a cascade of anecdotal pain.

"Ashling did her cruciate again last night," he announces of a camogie-playing cousin. "That's twice now!"

Bernard Snr shakes his head in disbelief. In '74, he hurt his knee in the Leinster semi-final against Offaly and did not play again until the following May. "Mine was the cruciate too, but at the time..."

"There were no cruciates," interjects Bernard Jnr, with a smile.

"That's it," says Bernard Snr. "There was no scan. They just went in and dug around for half an hour or whatever it was. I was in hospital for two weeks, in plaster for six weeks. Paul had his cruciate done, in and out in an afternoon."

Paul: "No, it was overnight."

Bernard snr: "Well overnight, but keyhole surgery. James, that's Jimmy's young fella, did a cruciate. My sister's son David did it. My brother Stephen, his daughter Laura did it. I don't know whether there's some deficiency there, but there's been a lot of knee problems alright. My brother Ollie gave up because of knee trouble. Kevin, another brother, gave up football because of his knee."

Bernard Jnr: "And I did my knee when I was with the U-21s ('04)."

Paul: "Alan had two knee operations as well."

Alan: "Ya, just cartilage though, simple enough job now."

Multiple tapping of the wooden table ensues and we move on, quickly. It is three days after the league final, a cruel single-point loss to Cork in a game they had been leading by eight. The days since have fizzed with tough media forensic. How did Dublin blow it?

Alan says, if anything, the coverage has been kinder than expected. The Dubs are accustomed to a level of scrutiny ratcheted somewhere close to the moon. Pressure?

Alan: "People talk now about the pressures of trying to win an All-Ireland. But I think a lot of the guys who played from, say, '96 to '02, would have felt more pressure to win a Leinster championship than I feel or we feel to win an All-Ireland.

"Because, by not winning Leinster, you were under-achieving. If we don't win an All-Ireland, I don't think we'll have under-achieved. We might have been unlucky, or shot ourselves in the foot a couple of times, but I don't think we'll have under-achieved.

"Whereas winning that Leinster in '02 was a huge weight off the shoulders of the older guys, like Ciaran Whelan, Jason Sherlock and Peadar Andrews."

Bernard Jnr: "The way we look at it, the coverage we get is over the top. But I'm sure Kerry would say the same about the situation they've had with bans and that. We try to use it to our advantage, like most counties would. Try to use this thing of 31 (counties) against one. It's kind of standard at this stage.

"We expect that. We don't get anything too easy. We kind of feel that we have to work 20pc more to get a result."

Alan: "Most inter-county players now, particularly Dublin players, would steer clear of reading papers. That's coming from sports psychologists who'd say that reading that stuff can interfere with mental preparation.

"But the way I look at it is, in Dublin, we can kind of disappear into the crowd because of the size of the city. But in Kerry, Mayo or Galway, everybody knows the inter-county footballer. So it's probably a lot harder for them to disappear on a Saturday night than for us."

Bernard Snr: "The question is whether that's better or worse though? Country towns have a feeling of parish that's disappeared in the city. The city now is just one big entity. When we were playing football, we were Oliver Plunkett's. There was a real sense of parish. When we played against Brigid's, it was us and them. That's gone.

"It's still there down the country. You go down to Kerry. If Killarney are playing Tralee, that rivalry is still there. And that creates a different impetus in the county team. I think it does anyway. And that's a problem for the city. It's how to get that competitive mentality.

"I mean there is competition in Dublin. But there's rugby, there's soccer. Basketball. All these other sports. So it's not like we have a million and a half people all playing Gaelic football. We don't. We've got probably 20 teams at a level where the guys are capable of playing county football. Very few guys come up from junior football. But they do in the country towns.

"You go down to Kerry, there's a good few guys on the county panel off junior teams."

He is, he admits, a poor spectator. Always, the father in him supplants the supporter. He finds himself sitting, monitoring individual performances, sometimes almost to the exclusion of keeping score. If he has a consolation it is that Maria suffers more.

"She just leaves, goes off smoking," he says. "She wouldn't sit down and watch a match to the end. She just gets hyper."

He is careful, too, when strip-searching a result. The last thing Dublin's management need is a father offering intemperate analysis. So Bernard is cautious with his language.

"Too many cooks can spoil the broth," he says. "So I try to be pretty balanced in what I say after a match. Sometimes I'd be looking at games and I wouldn't necessarily agree with the way the team is playing. But whoever's in charge of the team, that's what they do. Managers manage."

The team of the '70s made an occasional trans-Atlantic crossing, most famously for a toxic fund-raiser against Kerry in New York, shortly after winning the National League in '78. But they were never invited to Washington.

Bernard Jnr's status in the national consciousness soared to new heights with his brilliance in 2010, yet he was startled to get a call from the US Embassy, inviting him to the White House for St Patrick's Day.

He travelled over with Tipperary hurler Eoin Kelly, and they got to shake the president's hand.

Then, when the commotion had died, vice-president Joe Biden came out splashing friendly greetings. "He chatted away to us for a while," reveals Bernard.

Had he perhaps enquired after the Dubs?

"No, but I did give Mr Obama a couple of Dublin jerseys so, hopefully, he'll have them if we go all the way."

Bernard Snr chuckles that a glamorous trip in his day was to Listowel Races "and we had to pay for ourselves to go".

The generational divide again. Bernard Snr finds that the uncommon scrutiny of Dublin football takes its wind from unpredictable places.

"We all analyse it," he says. "Take the league final. Jesus, how could we lose when we were eight points up? Flying. They (Cork) got 10 points, we got one. Shouldn't happen, but it did.

"You can say we had three fellas come off injured, but they did too. I don't know. The hype these days... people have things like Facebook... it's so easy to get a message out. All that's changed. Camera phones."

Social media?

Bernard Jnr tweets, but says he does so on his own terms. He understands the perils. Recently, he exchanged some banter with boxer Bernard Dunne over the eruption between Stephen Cluxton and Jason McAteer in a charity soccer match.

As he suspected, the media picked up on it. "It was just a bit of fun, so I didn't mind," he says. "I knew exactly what I was doing. I tend to keep it PC and wouldn't throw any huge opinions out there that might get me in trouble. It's just a bit of craic.

"I like to follow the likes of Rio Ferdinand, and Wayne Rooney's on it now. I've a few followers, but I wouldn't be throwing anything too major down. Put it this way, they won't be getting the ins and outs of my private life."

Paul says he is into Facebook "a small bit". Twitter? "Nah, wouldn't be tweeting or any of that stuff. Be afraid I wouldn't get enough followers (laughing)."

Alan does neither. "He's too old now," chuckles Bernard Jnr.

Dublin and the All-Ireland is an image they keep at arm's length. "You think about it, but try not to," says Paul. "Because if you're thinking about winning an All-Ireland before the championship even starts, you're not really in the right frame of mind."

"Thinking about it only upsets you," agrees Bernard Jnr. "I mean the three of us believe we have an All-Ireland in us. Last year, it was literally a bounce of a ball from getting to the final, a sideline that should have been ours, but went to Cork and they got a goal from it.

"To win an All-Ireland, you need to get that bounce."

Alan is of a similar mind. "I think the Dublin group is quite mature from that point of view," he says. "I don't think we're fretting about winning an All-Ireland because you can't win it in the next couple of months, but you could lose one if you don't do your business properly.

"Do we dream about winning an All-Ireland? I don't think so."

Bernard Snr says that, by comparison to his sons, his football life was "a fairytale". If it hadn't been for Kerry, who knows the titles they'd have stockpiled? "We didn't go through what the guys are going through," he says. "We went from here (pointing to the floor) straight to the top and stayed there for six years. It became a way of life.

"I mean, not being facetious, we would have been the best if that Kerry team hadn't come along. But, when we played them in '75, their average age was 21. So they lasted 10 years. By '78, some of our fellas were 35. Old men."

The sun scrubs the green at the front of the house now and kids' voices fill the air like birdsong. Soon, Dublin will be back in that giant, suffocating closet of championship in Croke Park.

Bernard Snr hopes to have three boys on the field when it happens. And somewhere overhead, old Jim Brogan will be doing what he can.