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Competitive juices flow again but Fenton knows it's a journey into the unknown



Dublin's Brian Fenton. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Dublin's Brian Fenton. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile


Dublin's Brian Fenton. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

A small chink of light at the end of a long and darkened tunnel.

As of today, crowds of 200 will be permitted to sporting venues with a capacity of over 5,000 in 25 counties. In Dublin, due to its high infection rate, 100 people will be allowed to attend.

The hope, naturally, is that the 200 figure will increase incrementally over the coming sport-filled months.

The readmission of spectators, however few, is hugely positive for the GAA as county finals are staged around the country and - as of next month - they usher the inter-county scene into a new, improvised slot in the calendar.

For Brian Fenton, the prospect of playing in empty, echoing stadiums didn't hold much appeal back in April. The 2018 Footballer of the Year has, however, had something of an epiphany since he last spoke publicly on the subject.

"I was all for crowds and the Hill 16 buzz and Dublin fans," acknowledged the Dublin midfielder, "they're incredible and they lift us when we're down. But I think having played club games, it's changed my perspective on that a bit."

Fenton's club, Raheny, emerged from the toughest group in this year's Dublin SFC and took county champions Ballyboden St. Enda's to extra-time. At no stage have any of this year's club competitions lacked for energy or excitement, whatever about atmosphere.

"We're all competitive," Fenton says. "It doesn't matter if there's crowds there. I'm going to drive on. Of course I know in sport there has been more home wins or away wins or whatever.

"But from having played competitive senior championship games in the Dublin club championship, it comes back to you as a competitor and your inner voice and your inner drive."

Last Monday marked a year since Dublin completed the last leg of their history five-in-a-row. In ordinary times, the anniversary might have been more widely noted.

But with such a preoccupation about the constantly changing present, Fenton has had little time for nostalgia.

"Back in March," he recalls, "I thought there would be no games. So that's the silver lining to come from it."

There is, he notes, a kind of excitement to be derived from the lack of certainty. In a sport where 'controlling the controllabes' has become part cliché/part ideology, there have never been so many issues outside a team's command.

"You look at the rugby lads, their teams are spread across two buses going to training," Fenton notes.

"There is going to be so much we can't predict. We don't know what to expect, county boards won't know what to expect.

"You control as much as you can in terms of your preparation and your recovery and training and what you give to the cause.

"Ultimately, it might be taken from you if there is a cluster or a positive case in the group. Who knows? For me, it just adds to the excitement and how unique this year has been."

The GAA are understood to be close to finalising venues and times for this year's championship and the prospect of Dublin playing a higher number of their games outside Croke Park is a live one.

"I suppose it comes down to familiarity," Fenton notes. "You might be at a disadvantage if you don't know or if you haven't been to a provincial ground - I haven't played at Páirc Uí Chaoimh yet, for instance.

"But look, there is only so much you can control. You're going to a provincial venue. We go to those during the leagues, over the last few years during the Super 8s. And we've done okay, thankfully. When you cross the white line, it's not every man for himself but it's that team mentality, that pack mentality - we're coming out of here with a victory."

Talk of winter football brings Fenton back to the last night in February and Dublin's most recent game, a league defeat to Tyrone in Omagh. He recalled players were "stepping over puddles" heading onto the pitch on one of the bleakest nights Fenton has ever put on a pair of boots. To what degree the conditions change the game is open to interpretation. But from Fenton's point of view, there are a couple of basic tweaks to be made.

"You have to wear gloves, and it's damp, and you have to wear the studs and you're slipping more," he observes. "It's probably a more physical game and potentially might suit other teams. But you're looking at straight knockout, maybe down in provincial grounds and that brings with it its own excitement.

"Over the last few years, we've had Super 8 games, where you could afford to lose one and still progress.

"But now you're looking at if you don't perform, if you don't play your best, any team could nab you."

Irish Independent

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