Tuesday 21 November 2017

Still desperate to be part of the mix

Eamon Fennell has led a rollercoaster existence for the past few years but playing for Dublin remains his number one goal, as he tells Damian Lawlor

LAST Saturday afternoon Pat Gilroy drove away from a rain-soaked Bohernabreena with a wry smile after watching his squad play a training match.

There are times before crucial games when players stick their heads above the parapet and signal that they are ready for war. And after watching Eamon Fennell and Ross McConnell tear lumps out of each other in a probables v possibles challenge, Gilroy was satisfied that both men were nicely on the boil.

With Michael Darragh Macauley hampered by a foot injury, the two players sensed there was a place up for grabs. Macauley starts today, of course, but there is huge competition in the midfield and both Fennell and McConnell will want to be the first Gilroy turns to if he seeks to make a change.

Fennell is especially keen, lying fifth in the centrefield pecking order and failing even to secure a place on the bench all season through injury. After making 15 appearances for the Dubs between 2006 and 2008, the 26-year-old's career has stalled a little with injuries and a suspension following his controversial drawn-out switch from O Tooles to St Vincent's.

Within minutes of meeting him you sense his anxiety to make up for lost time.

In the past few months, he's appeared on TV3 game show Take Me Out, secured a contract from the John Compton model agency and cut his teeth as a DJ in city nightclubs. Yet, it's recognition as a leading footballer that he craves more than anything.

"I have no problem trying other stuff -- in the current climate you must have a few strings to your bow and that's why I put myself out there," he says. "But all I want to be is a Dublin footballer. That's what I've wanted since I was a child. The other stuff can wait."

There's a perception out there that Fennell could do with knuckling down more, but nothing could be further from the truth. He was injured and out of the Dublin camp when he appeared on that dating game show and with 30 single women vying for his company, who could blame him for having a go?

"Luckily, I was nowhere near the dressing room when it was aired so I avoided the slagging," he says. "I got a serious amount of phone calls and texts but sure it was a bit of crack."

A few weeks later, he landed that modelling contract. Again, while many GAA players would be reluctant to go down that road, Fennell had good reason to embrace the offer.

"I'm not working at the moment so who was I to say no to a few bob?" he shrugs. "I went on the show, enjoyed it and got offered that contract soon after. You get nothing if you don't put yourself out there. It was the chance to try something new. I don't really care what anyone thinks to be honest."

The St Vincent's man is currently preparing for a PE and Biology course at DCU after switching from his education and training programme. He's waiting to see how those bridging studies fare before making his next move but won't sit on his backside in the interim.

"I have a few other things in the pipeline -- I've been trying DJ-ing. There's no point in just sticking to one thing in Ireland; that doesn't work at my age. You have to be able to turn your hand to a few things or you'll be left behind.

"I've been talking to one or two nightclubs about getting in," he adds. "I love dance, hip-hop, rap, so if they want me to play country and western it might not wash -- there'll be no line dancing anyway. But hopefully it opens doors to other things."

Inevitable comparisons are made to Kerry footballer Paul Galvin, who bucked the GAA trend by publicising his love of clothes, shoes, fashion and music. Fennell may not be quite as extreme but he respects the Kerryman for his lifestyle.

"Paul Galvin is someone I admire because he goes off and does his own thing and doesn't care what anyone thinks. When he went public on his love of fashion I said 'good on him'. It's tough to expose yourself when you're a GAA player because not everyone will approve.

"Some players are constantly hiding things because they're afraid of what others might say but that's total shite. There's a perception that we have to be a certain way -- that if you stick your head up and do something different that you'll get a smack. It shouldn't be that way."

Galvin, however, has the assurance of four All-Ireland medals and three All Stars to help deflect the extra attention his personal life attracts, whereas Fennell is open to more scrutiny because he has yet to establish a regular place in the Dublin side. The quality end of the championship is the place where he needs to be if he is to thrive properly and also repel criticisms of what he does in his own time.

No one disputes what he brings to the table; when he's had the chance he's been an outstanding player at club level and is a primary ball winner. He might not have burning pace but he's reliable and good at securing possession. Recently, he's worked hard on his finishing. Now he needs to combine all those qualities and become a consistent lieutenant who Gilroy can depend upon.

Dublin supporters have always held a hungry interest in the number eight shirt, as borne by prodigies like Brian Mullins and Ciarán Whelan.

That shirt holds the same weight as the number seven jersey at Manchester United or the Argentinean number 10. Fennell wants a hold of it now. There's an anxiety that broods within him.

"The bottom line is that I want to be a Dublin footballer more than anything, I want to start major championship games and establish myself as a regular," he nods purposefully.

"I know it's nearly dragging out at this stage because I've been on the panel since 2005 and I haven't nailed down a place yet.

"Midfield is so competitive and there's a big battle for places between Mick (Michael Darragh Macauley), Ross (McConnell), Barry (Cahill) and Bassy (Denis Bastick) and I'm about last in the pecking order right now. Why wouldn't I be with all the football I've missed at club and county level recently?

"In fairness, Ross is flying after injury while Denis played the NFL. Barry Cahill has totally settled at midfield and Mick would run all day. When we play A v B challenge games I've been the fifth guy but there's no point in being upset -- I have to change that through hard work. I'll get a chance at some stage and I'll have to take it.

Insiders say that Fennell hasn't been spared by Gilroy, who has at times treated him with 'tough love' principally because he knows there is more talent to be wheedled out. Maybe that's true but again anyone who doubts this guy's ambition should think again.

When Paul Caffrey dropped him from the 2007 squad, along with three or four others, the castaways spoke about moving abroad for the summer. But Fennell declined and instead contacted Caffrey's selector Paul Clarke for a copy of the team's gym programme.

While the others travelled, Fennell replicated every exercise on that schedule for an entire year. The Dublin management recognised his toil and recalled him in 2008. Fennell doesn't make a big deal of it but it says something about his character.

"I am determined," he admits. "When Pillar dropped me I was devastated -- when you have any dream taken away from you it's horrible. My stomach was in bits and all I wanted to do was to get back.

"I asked Clarkie for their programme, sure what was I going to do? Sit on my hole and feel sorry for myself? Clarkie was constantly in touch and I worked harder because there might have been a perception I was just happy to take any old Dublin jersey. Maybe there was an element of that, but it's long gone. Now I won't rest until I get back in the team."

He'll most likely get an opportunity at some stage today with Macauley's foot injury and with the high tempo Dublin operate at meaning that not everyone can last 70 minutes. Fennell showed up well against Monaghan in a recent challenge and is just glad to be back on the bench for the first time this season following a complete recovery from an ongoing hip injury. That was preceded by a hamstring problem. Throw in the four-year transfer saga and he clearly had dark times to negotiate.

"You'd be fierce eager just to get out again," he agrees. "It's been something else. I've been working so hard in the gym and at training but really it's only about matches.

"I turned to a few people to keep my head clear because it gets you very down when you live to play football for Dublin. I went to Bryan Cullen who overcame serious injury. That chap is getting better with age.

"Then there's Paul Griffin who had his own injury woes but he's the most positive person around. I learned there's no point in coming into the camp with a big grumpy head -- you need the likes of Paul to show you that there's light at the end of the tunnel.

"I'm after playing a few games with Vincent's and it's great just to be able to run around again, great to get matches."

His transfer saga was finally resolved in February after almost four years of limbo-like existence which saw him suspended from all action in 2009. In what was the last roll of the dice, Fennell made a personal address to the Dublin County Board earlier this year after seeing his attempts to join move clubs repeatedly rejected because of O'Tooles' refusal to approve that transfer.

There's no need to replay it now; there were board votes; a chairman's casting vote; DRA hearings, personal appeals before an impassioned personal plea finally saw it through. Fennell literally shivers at the memory of it.

"I was suspended in 2009 because of it and I remember living with Bernard Brogan, Stephen Cluxton and Ross McConnell. I found it desperately hard seeing them go out with their gearbags, heading off to training and matches and not being involved.

"But that's all behind me now. I did everything I could to stay fit during that time; played five-a-side astro leagues, played basketball with Vincent's and played soccer with Killester -- anything to raise a sweat.

"I have to look forward now, there's no point in revisiting it. In 2008, I got a run with Dublin in the O'Byrne Cup, the league and started in the championship. Since then I've had to be content with coming on for 10-15 minutes in games.

"I've never really had a full year at it because there was always something to hinder me. I can either keep going like that or bite back. But what's the point in being on a county panel if you're not going to push?"

He knows that he could soon arrive at a crossroads and he's desperate for reinstatement, desperate for proof that there's a promised land ahead. He sees big things in the distance for the Dubs even if serious questions remain about their mental toughness following the cruel dressing down they got from Cork in the league final.

"I don't believe that oul' shite that we lack mental toughness," he shrugs.

"Maybe we made a few mistakes that day but you go back and study what's happened and take it on the chin. Yeah, we let a lead slip but we'll have to make sure it doesn't happen again."

Kildare will employ runners from all angles today and will try to penetrate the ring of steel Dublin employ around their goal, though Fennell says their style is no different to anyone else's.

"Watch any championship match and you'll find a preference for defence -- it's not just Dublin," he says. "Many teams get 12-13 men behind the ball, not only us. But we also step it up when we attack. We still make mistakes but we're not as open as we were in the past.

"It's not 15 against 15 anymore -- you can't just lump the ball down the middle and hope one of us fetches it -- the day of the 50-50 ball is mostly gone. There are lots of ways Kildare can play; they were very unlucky in the All-Ireland semi-final last year so it should be fascinating. It comes down to two hard-working, skilful teams who will do anything to get past each other."

He's burning to play a part in it. At this stage you almost feel the game owes him something.

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