Dublin - The Class of '95
BY now, it’s fair to assume, Brian Stynes is half-Aussie. He has spent more of his adult life Down Under than in downtown Dublin.
His legendary big brother, the late Jim Stynes, was an Aussie Rules icon while his other siblings and parents have all resettled in the Melbourne area.
Now park that intro and remember this: the life of Brian will be forever tangled up in blue. In the story of ’95.
He was a key cog in the machine that had to grind its way to All-Ireland glory. A soon-to-be All Star midfielder who morphed into an emergency corner-back in that fraught second half against Tyrone.
But long before that, from "as far back as I can remember", he wanted to play for Dublin.
His father would bring him to watch the Dubs. Brian Snr was also managing teams in Ballyboden St Enda’s, and his son has a particularly vivid recollection of his Boden street league ‘debut’. He reckons Jim was U10, and the five-year-old Brian tagged along in gear and wellies.
"I thought I was a sub but I obviously wasn’t – he (dad) was just babysitting me! We went through the whole street league and I never got on. In the final, at the Firhouse Road pitch, I went, ‘Can I go on, can I go on?’ My dad turned around, because it was very close, and he went, ‘Go on! Go on!’ As in go away from me.
"So, I ran straight onto the pitch and stood in front of the goalkeeper. He’s going, ‘Brian, get out of the way!’ And I’m going ‘No, my dad said I’m on!’ It was the very end of the game, and their guy ran through on goal and I ran straight for him, and he ran into me and fell over, the ball fell out of his hands and went out wide!
"They didn’t know what to do. Then they blew the final whistle and our team won. I remember everyone coming and shaking my hand, and laughing, but I thought I’d done a great job. Until I got a bit older and realised that I’d got in the way. But that was my first game of football.
"So, it was in my DNA, Dublin. But then Jimmy got drafted to go to Melbourne, and I was 12 at the time. The day before he was leaving, we had a kick of the Aussie Rules ball in the local park and I said, ‘One day I’m going to follow you over there.'"
And he did.
Brian Stynes was only 16 when he attended a scouting clinic organised by the Melbourne Demons. The Dublin minor and Roscommon’s Tommy Grehan were drafted and Stynes, having turned 17, jetted out in November 1988, the world at his feet.
By then Jim Stynes had already established himself at Melbourne… but for Brian the next five years, culminating in a final season attached to feeder club Port Melbourne, were laced with frustration.
"From 17 to about 19, I already had grown up more than most people because I had to fend for myself," he recalls. "The training was always ahead of what we were doing in Ireland, and to me it was always that if it didn’t work out there, it was the best preparation for being a better Gaelic footballer.
"Unfortunately, in the four years with Melbourne, I had seven operations. I never seemed to be able to get a pre-season done. And over there, your pre-season is your big thing.
"So, even though I seemed able to play most of the games, I was never really all that fit because I was always recovering from something in the off-season, between knees and groins.
"The last year was the first year I didn’t have an operation … and by the end of that season I was probably playing the best football I’d played in Australia. The coach of the second division team had just been recruited by Sydney Swans and he said he was going to recommend me to them. But, anyway, it didn’t happen …
"In the back of my mind, I was looking at what Dublin were doing every year and they were very close but not getting the cigar. So I said, ‘Look, if I can get drafted I’ll stay – but if I don’t, I’m out of here.’"
When he didn’t get picked in the first draft, his mind was made up: homeward bound. "And then obviously the rest is history."
Stynes returned to Dublin in early ’94. It was "a really bad winter", games galore called off, and so no immediate outlet to impress with the Ballyboden seniors.
But then, on the same day, two Boden junior teams were in action. "I played for the junior A team and at half-time they took me off and (said), ‘We’re not going to put you back on because you’re not going to be with us.’ And I’m thinking, ‘S***, I need game time.’
"I went back to the dressing-room and the junior B team was togging out. And I said, ‘Here, can I play for you guys?’ And they said yeah, so I went back out … and some fella tried to take my head off with an elbow. I obviously shouldn’t have been playing that standard, and by half-time they wanted to kill me. I remember dad saying, ‘You better not play anymore, you’ll get injured.’"
The year before, Stynes had jetted back for an interview with the Dublin Fire Brigade and ended up training with Dublin for a week ahead of their championship meeting with Meath. He had left his calling card with Pat O’Neill, and pretty soon the ‘Doc’ was phoning to ask him out for training. That week went well, and he was told he’d be a sub for the next league outing in Kildare.
"I didn’t even have any gear. They gave me the shorts, socks and jersey. I had no tracksuit, so I’d a Melbourne tracksuit on and it was freezing down in Kildare," he recounts.
"Our (Aussie Rules) season had finished in September, so I hadn’t played any real football … and all of a sudden I’m running up and down (past) the bench in Newbridge. Dublin were down by two or three points with about 15 minutes to go, and he’s put me on as a sub … thrown in at the deep end."
He had two shots – one hit the post, another dropped into the ’keeper’s hands. Then, in the middle of the field, "somebody hit me, and I got up and threw the ball at one of the midfielders in the head. That started a bit of a row, and then the game restarted and we got two points to equalise.
"And I thought, ‘Well, that wasn’t bad. I got a few balls. A bit more practice and those balls will hopefully go over the bar’. The next round was against Down – and I sat on the bench and never got on."
His maiden campaign continued in that staccato vein: a start against All-Ireland champions Derry, another against Armagh in the league quarter-finals – but Dublin endured a disastrous opening, the ball never even came up the field to his half-forward sentry, and he was first man off.
As Dublin’s Leinster SFC opener, a precarious fixture against Mick O’Dwyer’s Kildare, approached, his girlfriend Jackie flew in from Australia.
"She came over for a holiday for that week, so she could watch me play in the championship. In those days, if we lost we were out; she might never see me. So, she got off the plane and I said, ‘Look, I’ve got bad news, I haven’t been picked’. I’d been playing all the practice games and I’d been playing well, so I was very aggrieved."
A late demotion to the ‘B’ team prompted him to have it out with Pat O’Neill; to state his case. On the Thursday night, the Dublin boss confirmed he wasn’t starting but told him he’d be "first sub in."
Around this time, he was receiving weekly calls from the coach of Port Melbourne. There was also the carrot that they paid you. Stynes told him: "If we lose this week, I’ll come back over and finish the season there."
He told Jackie that, if Dublin lost, he’d fly back with her. This was his "sliding doors" moment.
Kildare raced well clear after a flying start. After around 20 minutes, O’Neill told Stynes to warm up. Running up and down the line, he started thinking: "S***, I’m after telling him that you’ve made a mistake by not picking me. And now I’m about to go on for my first championship game in Croke Park."
But, within minutes, as a ‘Garryowen’ descended towards the newly introduced sub, his prayers not to drop it were answered. His championship career was up and running.
His day went well, but Dublin still found themselves one down in injury-time before Stynes had a role in the move that led to Charlie Redmond’s equaliser.
What if Charlie didn’t score?
"Yeah, amazing how life goes," he muses. "I would have been back in Australia, and what would have happened after that I don’t know.
"But all of a sudden we got through that," adds Stynes, who started the replay, "and then we got all the way to the final. And there was no way after that I was going back, because I had cemented my spot. Jackie then moved over in December."
The All-Ireland defeat to Down had been a bitter pill. "We played really badly in the first half, just didn’t get into our rhythm at all," Stynes remembers. "But the second half, we completely dominated that game. We just panicked though… and I panicked just as much as anybody else.
"Even as bad as everything went, we should’ve won it. If the penalty went in, we were champions.
"On a personal level, it was ‘S***, we can’t leave it there’. And I think most of the guys thought we can’t go out on that note. And I think that’s what brought us back."
During the league, management "tried to mix it up" and one experiment entailed a run at centre-back. However, after a trip to Killarney saw the rookie No 6 engage in a scoring shootout with Kerry’s centre-forward on the day, Séamus Moynihan, it was becoming clear that "you’re either a defender or an attacker, and I wasn’t a defender."
Come summer, a midfield axis of Stynes and Paul Bealin was set in stone.
Whatever about today, Dublin in the Nineties couldn’t afford to coast through Leinster; Stynes concludes that they peaked against Meath in the provincial final.
"Against Cork in the semi-final, we had a bad first 20 minutes and they looked like they were really in the box seat. And then Jason Sherlock got that goal, and that settled us, and we did just enough to beat them.
"But then in the final we didn’t play well. In fairness to Tyrone, though, they didn’t let us play. They did their homework. The guy marking me (Jody Gormley) … I didn’t get two feet of space for the whole time that I was midfield.
"He was a fit guy, and he just went everywhere I went. Punched every ball. I just couldn’t get any room, get any flow going. So, it was a struggle.
"Whereas the Cork game was probably my best game that year … once you’ve played a good game, you were always targeted the next game, so it was hard to put it back-to-back. And he just did not give me an inch.
"Then Charlie got sent off and that made it worse. I remember trying to hang on … we just couldn’t get a score. They were coming and coming, and (Peter) Canavan couldn’t miss."
Amid the mayhem Pat Gilroy came on, handed his slip to referee Paddy Russell and ran towards him. Stynes had never been taken off in championship; now he wondered if his number was up. Instead came a leftfield instruction that floored him: "Corner-back."
"And I’ve gone, ‘What! Corner-back?’ Mattie McGleenan, who’s about six foot three, had come on and he was on Keith Galvin and was starting to give Keith (trouble). They were worried that one high ball in, he’d take a catch and stick it in the net.
"So, I played corner-back for about 20 minutes of that final. I think I might have watched the game once, years and years ago. But I always remember marking Mattie McGleenan but I was creeping out 20-30 metres in front of him.
“"nd every so often, I remember Paddy Moran or John O’Leary shouting at me, ‘Brian, Brian … f***ing get back!’ And I’d look around and Mattie McGleenan was standing on the edge of the square on his own, with 20 metres behind me. And I’d come back a bit.
"The next minute I’d drift out again, because I was a ball-player and I’d watch the game. Anyway, three times the ball came in and I took a catch on my chest and ran out. But I was 20 metres ahead of Mattie McGleenan … all it took was one to go over my head, we could have lost that game. And that’s the fine line of sport."
Right at the death, Stynes was close to the scene and immediately shouted "off the ground, ref!" as Canavan scooped the ball towards Seán McLaughlin for the equaliser that never was. "They’ve gone on and kicked the ball over the bar, but I knew he’d blown the whistle. We kicked it out and the whistle went, and it was euphoria."
Not to mention relief, because "I don’t think we would have won the replay. A lot of our guys were older players; we had peaked around July and we were just hanging on, fitness-wise and everything else. And Charlie would have been suspended the next day, and he was our free-taker."
Looking back, ’95 was the year it all came together perfectly. An All-Ireland medal. Ballyboden’s first Dublin senior championship. An All Star. Then, in January, he and Jackie married.
"A brilliant three months," he smiles. "And my brother flew in for that final too from Australia. I remember walking into the house on the Saturday morning, and there was Jimmy. And I was going, ‘Oh my God, you’re here!’"
The two Stynes would play on opposite sides in two very different settings. The first was in the annual Herald Dubs Stars match, hosted by Ballyboden. Then, in 1998, Brian played for Ireland and Jim for Australia when the International Rules series was revived in Croke Park.
The elder Stynes, such a promising Dublin minor, such an iconic star of AFL, "would have loved to come back and play for a season," his brother confirms. "But because he was breaking the game’s (consecutive appearance) record over there, he could never really leave it. Then, when he finally did get injured and miss a game, he had a bad ankle problem.
"Australia against Ireland (in ’98) was his last competitive game ever. And my last game was Australia against Ireland in 2000, that was my last game ever."
His last Dublin appearance, still shy of his 29th birthday, had been earlier that year in a surreal Leinster final replay defeat to Kildare.
"I’ve had back problems, on and off. I was in the Fire Brigade as well and had to carry people downstairs and do all this sort of stuff. That wasn’t helping the cause either," he explains. He tried to make it back in 2001 but kept breaking down whenever he trained. He never played again – for club or county.
"I would have played forever if I could have. So that was a big wrench in my life," he admits.
Instead he took to management, leading an unheralded St Mark’s of Tallaght for three seasons. They won a Dublin intermediate title, advanced to the top league tier and toppled the holders, St Brigid’s, in the 2004 Dublin SFC before losing narrowly to eventual winners Kilmacud at the quarter-final stage.
"That was one of the best times I had in football, which really got me over the disappointment of being injured," he says.
But, very soon after, Australia beckoned.
An injury at work had led to an operation that "didn’t work" and hastened retirement from the Fire Brigade. With football over and his working career at a crossroads, he and Jackie agreed to "go back and give it a go" in her native land.
His ambitions to coach at a higher level were parked, and they headed back to Australia in 2004, starting up a new business in childcare that took off.
Since then, in 2012, came the sad passing of Jim Stynes after a long battle with cancer.
"You still have all the memories, and you have your moments when you think of them," his brother reflects. "Life moves on, unfortunately, and it becomes easier. The amazing thing is I’m 48 now. He was 45 when he died … that’s three years younger than me."
There never was a second Celtic Cross. "It wasn’t the new manager’s fault that we didn’t win more," Stynes maintains. "It was a wrong time (for change)."
After Pat O’Neill’s entire management team stepped down that autumn, Mickey Whelan brought a different approach to training, far more focussed on ball-work. Stynes recalls "a lot of turmoil" between senior players who "didn’t gel with the new management and they didn’t train as hard as they would have because of that."
Those players "needed to be pushed," he says.
"They were the two biggest factors why we didn’t win the next year. And then after that the whole thing fell apart, because there was a big turnover of players and that was always going to happen."
The failure to build on ’95, and the lean years that followed, remain the "big regret" of his career.
Just as he reached his prime, the well dried up.
But, 25 years on, he can live with that. The euphoria of ’95 gives validation to a life less ordinary.