Monday 20 November 2017

Bernard Brogan: Were it not for Alan being there I might have quit Dublin

Bernard Brogan tells Dermot Crowe that there is only one cure for the pain of defeat to Donegal

Bernard Brogan

Dermot Crowe

On Thursday evening Bernard Brogan planted his prized feet on Hennessy Memorial Park, Miltown Malbay, having professed to be in the best shape heading into a championship for three years.

A powerful Dublin team beat Clare by four goals in a challenge match to mark the switching on of the local club's floodlights. Brogan scored two of Dublin's goals. He laid on another for his brother Alan. Treating this as a reliable form guide when Dublin are favourites to win this year's All-Ireland and Clare are available at 500/1 may be foolhardy. But all form is relevant this close to the championship. 

All matches matter to Dublin, with preparations almost at an end for the first of what Brogan calls the six steps. Three of those are now considered so bereft of risk and danger to have brought the Leinster Championship into disrepute.

The provincial campaign started last night with two down-at-heel matches, including Longford's victory over Offaly which means they will be Dublin's opposition in the quarter-final. Clare, lowly as they may be, were still operating a division higher than either county in this year's National League.

The serious business for Dublin starts in August and there is nobody alive who seriously thinks it won't. How do they regard those first steps as earnestly as the ones that follow? "We had bad experiences against Kerry and Tyrone in All-Ireland quarter-finals where we probably thought we were better than we were coming out of Leinster," said Brogan on Wednesday.

"Whereas now we know, every time we go out to play the culture has to be to try and win the game. It is about understanding and learning from each game. It is a journey, in six steps: if you win every game you get to win the All-Ireland and that is the culture we try to cultivate. The first three of those steps are in Leinster."

For him personally, there is no issue with motivation. In 2010 he was Footballer of the Year, even though Dublin were defeated in the All-Ireland semi-final by Cork and lost in Leinster to Meath. When they won the All-Ireland the following season the Footballer of the Year was his brother. The 2012 season ended with a defeat to Mayo, Dublin's comeback falling short and a goal miss by the younger Brogan late in the game a pivotal moment.

The next year he struggled in the early rounds but found form when it really mattered, being man of the match in the final win over Mayo and scoring four points in the semi-final off the player he has described as his "nemesis" - Marc ó Sé.

"When I look back, most of my games where I played my best football and did my best, it was in the later stages. I have often struggled in earlier games. I know going into these games that it is not a foregone conclusion, it is not that I am going in here and going to be kicking 10 points. I respect the guys I am marking. It is an individual battle."

There is also the aspect of competition, particularly in the Dublin attack, to the point where now none of those in present contention are indispensable. They have won with them all having off-days and they carry a large arsenal of highly capable players, unleashing a high-energy method of attack that is less personality driven. Brogan has operated in a different dimension in the past but the nature of football and how it is played reduces the prospects of a player shooting the lights out.

"The game has changed; there are a lot more bodies around the goal and it is becoming a lot more about breaking down patterns of play. Back in 2009 and even 2010 it was much freer. You'd only one man to worry about, maybe a sweeper (as well), and you could be more creative. You'd get on more ball. You'd get shots off much easier."

Is it less enjoyable? "Em, I don't get as much ball as I'd like. I don't get as many shots off as I'd like. No, I still love it, every time you get to play for Dublin in Croke Park is a privilege. I love the challenge of coming up with ways of breaking down a defence."

He is not tearing his hair out over handpass-infested defensive football where teams have fundamentally altered the natural flow of the game. There is a nod to the evolution argument ("I think football comes in cycles") but there is an equally firm defence of Dublin's right to play a more creative and attack-minded game.

"In the noughties it was very much about creating bulk. Like with the Northern teams, Armagh, Tyrone, coming through in the early noughties with strong men and winning All-Irelands nearly bullying players off the ball. It got a lot more physical. Dublin came out of the noughties with a kind of free-flowing football and had some good success with that and eventually got over the line. Donegal started a system of mass defence and other teams have tried to emulate it. And that's it; people will evolve, humans will evolve and they'll come up with systems of beating teams and that's our challenge now. Like, we are very proud of the type of football we play. We come up against these systems, sometimes we get over them, sometimes we don't. It's not the prettiest but you have to find ways of beating it."

He played in Croke Park in late March when the Dublin fans began booing Derry for an exasperatingly dull and defensive approach to their league tie. If Dublin have had to reassess their own strategy after the harrowing loss to Donegal in last year's championship, he insists they are not going to abandon their core principles. "We want to play open, expansive football, quick football. And that's what the Dublin fans like. This type of a (modern) system is more chess-like, you have to move your way round the pitch and come up with strategies to break it down. Once people come up with a solution to it someone else will come up with something different in a few years. They train all that time, they want to do anything they can to win. They work out a strategy."

Would you like to be part of a strategy like that?

"No."

Any conversation with a Dublin footballer invariably winds back to that defeat last August by Donegal when, after a flying start, they were outplayed and out-thought, losing the title they had won the previous September. They have responded by winning a third league in succession and are unbackable favourites to retain the Leinster Championship for the fifth successive year and tenth time in 11 seasons.

How long did it take for the disappointment of the Donegal defeat to wear off? "Well, it hasn't worn off, if I am honest about it. It won't wear off until you have Sam Maguire in your hand again."

It's still sore? "Ah yeah, big time. Like, I would feel I didn't perform to my ability. I left something on the pitch. And the only time you can rectify that is when you are in the same situation again. Please God we get to a similar stage of the year and we'll have a chance to put that right."

Players talk of going back to their clubs and finding football as the remedy but first there is a process to be endured. He has lost matches before, many times, but this hurt because they felt they didn't give an honest performance. And so they went into the night tormented by that realisation and wondering why they could not respond when Donegal roared into the game.

"It's just about going through it with your mates. When you are mixing with the team and after a while somebody cracks a joke and together the mood builds and that is the only way to do it. There is no point in everyone moping and going home. Jim (Gavin) is very keen on lads staying together and pulling through stuff together, whether it be good or bad. We are always encouraged to stay around with each other and if in the coming weeks you are going out for a pint try and meet up with the Dublin lads. If you are going into town, stay with the lads and stick together as a group.

"When you come in after giving everything that is very easy to take, you walk away with the head high, but that day I missed a couple of chances. I definitely would have felt we left a lot on the pitch and that is very hard to take. As someone who prides himself on delivering the goods, when we needed scores on the pitch, that is what hurts. I still haven't watched the game back. I missed a couple of frees I would normally have kicked. I pride myself on delivering on the big stage and that day I didn't. I definitely would have been disappointed with my own personal performance. Players really need to stand up and we were a bit naive, and the chance was there to get scores to get back in the game and get close to Donegal; we had five or six chances in the second half to get back in the game and we missed them."

He doesn't believe they got the head-staggers or bottled it. "No. In the last couple of years we have become a team that can win those tight games. Maybe in the early noughties and under Pillar (Caffrey) and that we struggled sometimes when there was a point in it or two. It was in later years under Pat (Gilroy) where we developed that culture of being able to win those games and having confidence and knowing how to win games. I've been in loads of games where we dug it out and came back. And even in that game against Donegal I thought someone here is going to pull this out of the bag. Kevin Mac is going to get a goal or Diarmuid is going to put one in the top corner or kick two points. I never once thought up to the end that we were going to lose that game. We have players who have stood up in the past but on that day nobody stepped up to take the bull by the horns."

Now 31 at a time when talented young footballers are flooding into the playing pool, Brogan isn't counting how many years he might have left. Alan is still there and older, he says, as an immediate rebuff. Like he was at the start when his presence helped the younger Brogan stay believing he could break into the team. It didn't happen until 2007 when he was 24. A cruciate injury at 20 is partly to explain, but not entirely. There were two years when his confidence took a hammering as he flitted about on the fringes of the team and panel.

"Where I am today is a consequence of my dad's history. Alan started playing at 18, I did a cruciate at 20, it took me three years, I was on the bench, couldn't get on the team. Were it not for Alan being there I might have quit.

"Obviously, like any kid I always wanted to play for Dublin. If you ask me if he (Alan) wasn't there would I be there today? Probably not. I went into Croke Park and sat on the bench, other times I was not even on the panel, I watched from the Hill. Until 24 when I made my debut I never played up till then. So I spent three years waiting for my chance. I always say that to the young players about not getting frustrated. Sometimes I was not getting a game on the A v B in training, over three years. I went the hard route to get where I am and I always say that to kids, if you want something, do not give up."

Surely it should have been sooner? "There were a couple of years there where I definitely thought I could have added something to the team. In fairness the forwards in 2005 and '06 were a good set of forwards. They were winning Leinster and knocking on the door (for All-Irelands). It was a hard forward line to break into. I would be a natural corner-forward and I played wing on my debut and the rest of the year and I was not comfortable there. It was a long apprenticeship."

Brogan is a highly marketable name in the most marketable GAA team in the country. He has qualified as an accountant and set up his own business, Legacy, a consulting firm working for clients in the sports and entertainment fields. He is also on the board of Aware, which offers support to those suffering from depression. "I wanted to work with a charity and give them my full effort instead of just a photo-call which sometimes you are asked to do. I said I would use my contacts to open fundraising avenues and try and add some real value. The main reason was the cause, depression. I wanted to work at the preventative stage. My grandmother, God rest her, suffered depression near the end."

The majority of time outside that is devoted to football where he hopes to surpass his father, Bernard senior, by winning a third All-Ireland medal. He speaks reverentially of the privilege of playing for his county and carrying on the tradition. How they play is a fundamental part of their ideals. "We try not to be cynical, we try to be honest. Like, our forwards, you very rarely see a lad go down softly looking for frees. Definitely I would never do that. I'd always try and go at a man. If I get by him I'll go by him and if he pulls me down I'll try and get up and go past him. I won't feign injury for a free. The culture that Dublin has, led by Jim, is we are known for playing honest football and hard football.

"He (Gavin) was very adamant that we are holding the jersey for the next generation. My dad had it. Some of our kids will have it. You have no right to create your own way, there is a culture there and that's where we are. We have to appreciate that and respect that."

The 2011 All-Ireland final win, their first in 16 years, had him touring for months afterwards with the Sam Maguire. Only then did he properly appreciate the spell it casts on people. One call stands out in his memory. A Tyrone man made contact on behalf of a friend from Dublin who was an avid follower but had fallen seriously ill. It was her heartfelt wish to hold the Sam after a Dublin victory. "She was in hospital at the time of the All-Ireland (final). And all she ever dreamed of was to see Sam Maguire with Dublin. He told me she was after falling into a coma. So I went to the hospital and she was sitting in a bed in a coma. I put the cup down beside her and all her family were there. They all took a picture and we all stood around, unbeknownst to her - or we think. I definitely think there is something there. The next day I heard she passed away during the night. It was just something that stuck with me. All she every wanted was this and she had been ill for a very long period. And that night after she gets to see it she passes away. I always felt that this was some higher power at work. You saw different things (touring). That was just a special one for me. And in fairness to her friend from Tyrone, he sent over a bronze crest of Dublin that he got made and I have it up on a wall in my house."

In 1995 he was a child when Jason Sherlock brought Sam to his school. "Little did I know I'd be playing with him 10 years later. The power I suppose of the Sam Maguire. You put it on a bar in New York and you don't buy a drink as well; it has all sorts of magical powers (laughs)."

Under Pat Gilroy, some of the excessive hype surrounding Dublin was punctured, with a control placed on media access that still holds. But they are not hermetically sealed from the masses. After matches they mingle as always and value that interaction. "We are very open. We are very accessible to people, which is good. And in fairness, Dublin fans, they are always very good. You might have some giving out about bits and pieces but I've never met any major malice. Even country lads, you'd meet them on a night out or whatever, people just want to talk to you about the game. There is very little of where people are going after you, getting on your back. Obviously you have a couple of eejits every now and again. But most of the experiences you have is that people are genuine."

Having steered clear of injuries which disrupted his spring preparations in the past, Brogan now feels in rude health. The ground is hard, the scent of championship in the air. He can hardly wait.

"I actually feel better this year than in a long time. Last year I had trouble with my groin and went for an operation. I'd a bad hamstring a couple of years ago. This year I have come through the league, I have got a good bit of game time, you need that when you are a striker, to get your eye in. I was back with the club last week and felt really well. I haven't been in this good a shape in a long time."

Defences beware.

Bernard Brogan is an ambassador for Volkswagen. He is pictured above with a Volkswagen Scirocco

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