Sunday 19 November 2017

Brennan dreams of emulating childhood heroes in Kingdom showdown

Clare's Gary Brennan is hoping for an upset against Kerry. Photo: Barry Cregg / SPORTSFILE
Clare's Gary Brennan is hoping for an upset against Kerry. Photo: Barry Cregg / SPORTSFILE
Cliona Foley

Cliona Foley

He plays hurling alongside Tony Kelly and teaches in Flannan's alongside Jamesie O'Connor (or 'Jamesie Redknapp' as he is now calling him) but for Clare midfield star Gary Brennan, it will always be about the big ball.

Banner hurling selector Louis Mulqueen threw out a bait recently about how they wouldn't mind having "that Brennan fella" in their panel, which still raises a chuckle.

"Sure I've never played inter-county hurling at any level," he stresses. "I'm a football man, nothing else."

And what a footballer he is. Eight years ago he was part of an Irish U-17 International Rules team including Donegal's Michael Murphy, Meath's Shane O'Rourke and Dublin's Paddy Andrews and Kevin Nolan.

At college he played with University of Limerick in a Sigerson team managed by Cian O'Neill and featuring David Moran – tomorrow, he captains Clare against both of them in a Munster semi-final.

He was only out of minor ranks when he made his Munster SFC debut in 2008 – a victory against Waterford – only to be slaughtered in Killarney the next day out when Paddy Russell's flying notebook dominated headlines.

Since then, Brennan has become a regular and his reputation was cemented long before he played in this year's Division 4 final. At 25, it was his first game in Croke Park.

He has played 15 championship games for Clare so far and only won three, including this year's replay against Waterford. Their defeat of Limerick two years ago to reach a Munster final is the highlight to date but Clare's lowly status explains why the dedicated PE and Irish teacher is not a household name.

The real surprise is where he comes from. The scenic fist of West Clare that stretches into the Atlantic is the county's traditional football heartland, yet he's from the half-parish of Clarecastle, where he plays football for Clondegad and hurling for sister club Ballyea.

"Technically I'm living in Ballyea, which would be the eastern limit of the beginning of West Clare," he explains.

His father Martin, who hails from Curry, Co Sligo, has been a key influence. "Dad coached and trained a lot of football and trained county under-age teams so it was always football in our house," Brennan says.

After a decade of close calls and three lost finals, Clondegad finally won Clare's intermediate title in 2011 and are still in the senior ranks. Brennan remains a dual player at club level, playing hurling for Ballyea "whenever I can".

Just last month, he lined out in the first round of the county SHC beside clubmates and county seniors Tony Kelly, Jack Browne and Paul Flanagan. But his childhood heroes were largely footballers, even if he was only a toddler when Clare scored their most famous victory.

"I've only a vague memory of '92," he says of that legendary defeat of Kerry and their second Munster title in 75 years. "But Martin Daly was always a hero for me after that great goal he scored against Cork in '97. He was also from a neighbouring club (Lissycassey) and dad was managing them."

Brennan was also in Limerick last December to witness how close Cratloe came to toppling Kerry giants Dr Crokes in the Munster club final.

"Only a point in it and Cratloe didn't play well at all in the first half but they were brilliant in the second and just very unlucky not to get a draw at least."

He cites Kilmurry-Ibrickane's Munster club title in 2009 as further proof that Clare footballers have the ability to mix it with the best.

Their current backroom is certainly interesting. Managed by Colm Collins (father of dual stars Podge and Sean), it not only includes Ger Keane of their '97 heroes against Cork but also ex-Cork All Star Paudie Kissane (trainer/coach) and Chris Delooze (strength & conditioning), an Australian who originally came to Ireland to play rugby for Munster.

With Colm 'Gooch' Cooper, James O'Donoghue and Kieran Donaghy absent from a new-look Kerry team that has to travel to Ennis, it is reckoned that Clare, with two games under their belt, have a great chance to spring another ambush tomorrow but Brennan is not fooled by all the keening coming from the 'Republic of Yerra.'

"Look, I've never seen a bad Kerry team," he says. "With Eamonn Fitzmaurice in change, we know they'll be exceptionally well organised. We know well what we're up against."

Irish Independent

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