Tuesday 17 September 2019

Brian Fenton vs Jack O'Shea: Dublin and Kerry legends give their view on the ultimate comparison

Dublin talisman's comparisons to Kerry stalwart O'Shea are well-earned

High risers: 32 years apart but against the same opposition at the same venue, Kerry’s Jack O’Shea takes the ball above the heads of Monaghan players during the 1985 All-Ireland SFC semifinal; Dublin’s Brian Fenton leaps above everyone against Monaghan during the 2017 quarter-final at Croke Park
High risers: 32 years apart but against the same opposition at the same venue, Kerry’s Jack O’Shea takes the ball above the heads of Monaghan players during the 1985 All-Ireland SFC semifinal; Dublin’s Brian Fenton leaps above everyone against Monaghan during the 2017 quarter-final at Croke Park

Frank Roche

Mikey Sheehy has long been convinced that the greatest of them all was Jack O'Shea. He was well-positioned to judge, feeding off the midfield platform that O'Shea was so central to establishing during Kerry's golden years.

But now even Sheehy is starting to ask himself that question: is there an heir to Jacko's throne?

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Might he even be usurped, this Sunday, by a Dublin midfielder who goes on to complete the fabled five-in-a-row?

"Obviously there will be comparisons with himself and Jack O'Shea. I've always said Jack O'Shea was the best footballer I ever saw, but Brian Fenton is certainly up there," says Sheehy.

"Until Brian Fenton finishes his career - I'm sure that's a long way down the road - you will never be able to say who was the better of the two. But your man is way above any other midfielder in the country at the moment."

Ciarán Whelan, a Raheny clubmate of Fenton, was asking himself that very same question in the wake of Dublin's second-half demolition of Mayo hopes and dreams last month.

The following afternoon, the Dublin midfielder-turned-pundit bumped into legendary radio commentator Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh during the Kerry/Tyrone semi-final.

"Fento was after having a stormer the previous day," Whelan recounts. "Particularly in that 12-minute period where he took control of the skies in the middle of the park.

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"And I said to Micheál, 'I just have to ask you a very genuine question because you've seen them all, you've seen the Mick O'Connells, you've seen the Jack O'Sheas, you've seen them all play - and is Brian Fenton better than them all?' And he said to me, 'Ciarán, I think he is'.

"Now, he followed up by saying he's got a bit of Kerry blood in him - in typical Micheál fashion!"

Brian Fenton Snr hails from Spa, outside Killarney - proof that there are Kerry genes mingling in that Dublin DNA. The private Kerry fear is that Brian Jnr will be their high-fielding, smooth-running, free-scoring nemesis, propelling Dublin to a place famously denied to Mick O'Dwyer's Kerry in 1982.

But whatever the outcome, the comparison between Fenton and O'Shea is already a question worth floating.

What's fascinating are the similarities when comparing the 26-year-old Fenton on the cusp of his shot at five-in-a-row, and the O'Shea of '82, who would turn 25 that November.

Fenton has been a Sky Blue regular for five seasons; O'Shea was in his sixth campaign. The Dublin powerhouse is a reigning Footballer of the Year; Kerry's then talisman had won back-to-back Texaco awards (the '80s equivalent) in 1980 and '81.

Fenton already has three All-Stars banked; O'Shea had won two pre-Séamus Darby but was on an incredible run of six in a row (from '80 to '85).

What that highlights is the stellar consistency of both players. There are some perceptible differences, though.

Fenton is the taller of the two: All-Ireland final match programmes list him at 6ft 4in whereas the programme pen picture for O'Shea's last All-Ireland (against Tyrone in '86) measured him at 6ft 1.5in.

Dublin's midfield totem didn't always stand out from the crowd, however.

"When he returned from a summer in America at the age of 19, coming back from his knee injury, he was smaller than me," Whelan remembers. "And I know that for a fact, because I was managing him at the time (in Raheny) and I was looking down on him. And now he's looking down on me."

Here's another subtle difference: scoring returns.

Over the expanse of his 16 seasons in green and gold, O'Shea would prove himself to be a score-getter of considerable repute. In 53 SFC appearances, he tallied 11 goals and 55 points, placing him 18th on the all-time Kerry championship list, while he remains his county's seventh leading league scorer (with 16-110 from 102 games).

Not bad for a guy who spent most of his career, until his autumn days, at midfield. Yet up to 1982, and despite a spectacular goal against Offaly in the '81 final, O'Shea hadn't been overly prolific: prior to the '82 decider he had totalled 1-12 in 21 SFC outings.

Now look at Fenton. In his first three summers he had accumulated 0-11 in 20 SFC games - quite similar to the above O'Shea stat. Over the past two seasons, however, he has morphed into something of a scoring machine. Perhaps he was encouraged by a productive 2018 league (when he shot 1-9); either way, he followed up with 1-13 in last year's championship and already has 3-8 so far this summer.

That brings his running SFC total to 4-32 in 33 games. In other words, apart from perfecting all the traits you associate with the consummate modern midfielder, his ability to ghost into scoring positions makes him yet another deadly weapon in Jim Gavin's arsenal.

For all that, Fenton still has a journey to travel before he can measure up to O'Shea's seven All-Ireland medals and four Footballer of the Year awards - a record that stands to this day.

The good news? He has time on his side.

But what does the Kerry legend himself think of the comparison between Jacko in his pomp and Fenton today?

"I don't think you can compare players," O'Shea maintains, "because you'd different eras, a different type of game. I suppose in my time, we had to contest probably 80 per cent more kick-outs than he will have to contest… you would contest 25-30 balls in a match whereas now, if you contest two or three, you're probably lucky. It's a totally different game."

But the Cahirsiveen native has no doubt that Fenton is the complete midfield package.

"He's got everything really - he's very mobile, very agile, he has great balance, he has two good feet," he says.

"He has grown into being the leader and an established player, and he's not afraid to take things on. He doesn't take any wild shots; he's always very controlled in what he does."

Moreover, Fenton has both the physical and mental strength to produce in the home straight, even in matches that he starts inauspiciously such as that Mayo semi-final.

"He has that in his locker. He has that stamina. He's a fabulous athlete… he's very hard to contain throughout a whole match," O'Shea surmises.

"Then again, he's playing with a team that are winning all the time and that makes it easier as well. He's poetry in motion, I suppose."

Maybe it's an easier question to ask others: how do you compare these two midfield monoliths of very different eras?

Sheehy (as a former team-mate of O'Shea) and Whelan (as a retired Dublin midfielder and club colleague of Fenton) may have obvious allegiances, but their opinions carry the weight of authenticity.

"Even though the game has changed completely, they are very similar," Kerry's eight-time All-Ireland winner declares. "He (Fenton) is the stand-out midfielder and has been for the last number of years. Sure, he has never lost a championship game with Dublin, which is some record."

As a Kerry selector under Eamonn Fitzmaurice, Sheehy faced the riddle of how to stop the rising star that was Fenton in the 2015 All-Ireland final (he was man of the match) and 2016 semi-final (he was nominated for Footballer of the Year that season).

"I'm sure Peter Keane will have (plans) not for Brian Fenton alone, but there's a good few more of those Dublin guys!" Sheehy stresses.

"But he's key to them in the middle of the field. He's just an awesome player. And what he's doing is something very similar to what Jacko did. He's coming up with scores. He's scoring goals. He's always good for two or three points in every game.

"He's good defensively. He's absolutely unbelievable in the air… he has a touch of Darragh Ó Sé and Seánie Walsh, who I'd compare in the air.

Weakness

"I suppose if Jack was to have a weakness - and I don't think he had a weakness - but a lot of people would say that he wouldn't have been as good over his head as the likes of Seánie Walsh and Darragh Ó Sé.

"Well, Darragh and Seánie were two of the best fielders of a ball that I have ever seen. But this guy seems to have everything."

You ask him if Jack Barry, confined to an injury-time cameo against Tyrone, might be the man to reprise his old job of shadowing Dublin's elusive No 8?

"The problem that Jack had this year is he was injured. Whether he plays on Sunday or not, I don't know," Sheehy admits.

"He did very well on him in the league final in 2017; it was a good battle. Jack did quite well on him in the league in Tralee (in February). But this is the acid test - Croke Park in an All-Ireland final.

"You are never going to negate him totally out of a game - never. In the semi-final Mayo did it for most of the first 35 minutes… it was the first time in my life I ever saw him turned over maybe two or three times.

"But, I mean, that's the sign of a great player then. It made no difference to him. He just came out the second half and took over - dominated in the air and dominated on the ground. And he could have had a second goal near the end, and that's the thing that frightened me, being a Kerry supporter now at this stage, how strong he finished."

Ciarán Whelan is old enough to remember O'Shea in the post-four-in-a-row phase of his glorious career.

"He was your typical box-to-box player," he recalls.

"A brilliant fielder of the ball. I always particularly remember him playing International Rules and thinking to myself as a kid, 'He's one hardy man.' He was the one guy, physically as well, who was able to put it up to them.

"I'd say coming up against Jacko, in his prime, in terms of his physique and his mobility was frightening. And he has hands like shovels on him. Jesus, if you meet him now… the size of his hands alone! So, he was that midfielder of his generation."

But, while it's "always very difficult to compare" different players from different eras, Whelan is convinced that Fenton has already joined this select pantheon.

"Putting him in the same bracket? Absolutely, he's up there," he declares without hesitation.

"The funny thing about Brian Fenton is that, at 26 years of age, I think he's still improving," he expands.

"He's now played the game for two-three years where he's probably been targeted as Dublin's key man… but he's dealt with all that.

"And his level of consistency is just phenomenal. He possibly should have been Footballer of the Year the year Lee Keegan won it. He was Footballer of the Year last year. And he's a contender for Footballer of the Year this year.

"So, three of the last four years, he's been at that level, he's been in the mix. And I think that level of consistency for a midfielder, to me, is phenomenal."

He concludes: "If you look at Brian Fenton, you say, 'Where's the weakness?' It's very hard to find it - because he has extreme conditioning where he can glide across the field and make it look like he's getting around the field very easily, which is a very difficult thing to do.

"His fielding has improved greatly, and now he has added scoring regularly to his game in terms of championship football.

"And he's still getting better. That's the frightening thing."

Especially if you're from Kerry…

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