For the love of football, not medals - Dermot Brady was one of an increasingly rare species in the inter-county game
A few years ago, in the early stages of Denis Connerton's second term as manager of Longford, more than 40 per cent of the players asked to join the county squad declined. Some had issues around working commitments, and the demands of inter-county football have become monstrous, but Connerton remembers that in his first spell managing Longford from 2002 to 2004, refusals amounted to no more than a handful. Swimming against that modern tide of increased resistance was Dermot Brady who, at 35 years of age, retired recently after 17 years as a county player.
Heading into his last championship, Brady was the third longest-serving inter-county footballer, by a matter of weeks, behind Ryan McCluskey and Stephen Cluxton. In recent days his former team-mate Padraic Davis posted a tweet applauding his service and drawing attention to how little fuss greeted his departure, alluding to the by now customary personal statements and mini-biographies that accompany many player exits.
To see that omission as a reflection on Brady's shunning of the limelight is a reasonable point - although to roundly brand those who do as attention-seekers is equally unfair. It makes sense in many instances, offering retirees a chance to give their decision a more public finality and mark the contributions of those who have helped their careers. Brady, even judging by the reaction to a call he received from this parish last week, was not the kind to desire any kind of ceremony on the way out. That does not mean he deserves no recognition, if only to ask the question: how many more of his kind will we see again?
"I had been thinking about it for the last few years," he says, "but I have enjoyed it so much it was getting hard to say I wouldn't go back. But I will be 36 in February, I have a wife and two young kids, I am working for myself. And I thought I would get out while the going was good."
Brady and his father Donal, a former chairman of Longford Slashers, run an expanding pig and suckler farm, work to which he attributes, more through instinct than scientific proof, his long and relatively injury-free career. Despite playing for much of those years as a corner-back facing some of the fastest and most dangerous forwards in football, he survived without once pulling a hamstring. What he terms the "pulling and dragging" of farm work may have helped keep those limbs loose while many of his contemporaries were office-bound and potentially more injury prone. Man, perhaps, wasn't designed to work behind a desk long term.
Even if Brady had a low celebrity status, in Longford he was greatly admired and by many beyond who came across him either directly on the field or had the chance to watch him in action. While others decided it wasn't worth their while, he found even greater joy playing county football the older he got. Some of that was probably borne of a natural desire to test one's limits, to defy odds, to tear up the script and to savour the remains of the dwindling sands of time. But the love never dulled.
Fitness wasn't a concern. In training he was well up the pack in the hard runs, challenging lads much younger. His last game was against Louth in the qualifiers in Drogheda on June 17 last, as he missed the next match against Donegal in Ballybofey on July 1 when they were eliminated from the championship. This was due to a clash with a close friend's wedding where he was on duty as best man, something for which even football had to take second place, given that the groom had been his best man some years before. The wedding was in Spain so it is hard not to imagine him having felt an acute sense of dislocation. "It killed me not being able to go," he admits, "but he was my best man."
Longford has one Leinster senior football championship title, which will have its golden anniversary later this year. The county might never win one again. The prospect of a second title is clearly not what motivates those prepared to put in the sacrifices needed to wear the blue jersey. "You have to enjoy playing it," explains Brady. "Like, it was not all about medals, especially when you are from Longford. I had lots of regrets but I really enjoyed the championship, that was the most enjoyable part of it, good sunny evenings and we had some big wins in Pearse Park.
"The way Leinster has gone you can't get beyond Dublin. In 2006 we had a good run in the qualifiers and ended up in Killarney against Kerry, that was a great occasion. Few wins in Pearse Park, bet Derry twice, beat Monaghan two years ago. They are the days I will miss, like this year when Longford plays Meath in the championship; that is the day that will be killing you, not being part of the game."
The year he made his senior championship debut, 2001, they met Wicklow in their first ever qualifier game in Aughrim and lost. But the qualifiers would be good to them, offering an alternative course when the main thoroughfare in Leinster was congested and there was no way through. Before that debut against Wicklow in Aughrim he was a sub when they lost to Dublin in Leinster, the day Cluxton made his senior championship bow. The same year, those players met each other in the Leinster under 21 championship in Swords, Brady one of the few positives for Longford, when marking Mossie Quinn, as they were outclassed.
While Cluxton, eventually, went on to experience wonderful moments as a Dublin player and continues to, Brady had to settle for sporadic highlights. They moved up to Division 2 in the National League, then fell all the way back down to Division 4, before resettling in Division 3 where they have managed to hold their position for the last few years. In Leinster, a win over Laois in 2012 was their first in the province since 2007 and first over Laois in the championship since 1968.
Leinster was not a happy hunting ground and the two-point defeat in 2006 by Dublin at Pearse Park was preceded by a 19-point mauling the year before. Over the 17 years, Brady never had two provincial wins in the one season, and only experienced three wins in all: over Westmeath in 2007, Laois in '12 and Offaly in '14.
The safety net of the qualifiers brought famous wins over Derry, Down, Mayo and Monaghan. When Brady came into the team in 2001, his fellow clubman Mick McCormack was county manager. Connerton took over the year after that, leading into Glenn Ryan's five-year spell, followed by two more under Jack Sheedy, before Connerton returned for the 2016 season. Over that time Brady has played against some of the best forwards, including the two Brogans and Down's Benny Coulter. The toughest? "I'd say Bernard Brogan," he reckons. "So fast and cute, sure he knew every blade of grass in Croke Park."
Connerton knows Brady as well as anyone, having been manager when Slashers ended 16 years without a county title in 2010. For many county players the club is their best chance of winning silverware. In 2008, Slashers lost a final with Brady as captain but then won three in four years with him leading them up the steps and Connerton as manager each time. "He is the sort of player you don't replace," says Connerton, "because of his marvellous leadership qualities. He epitomises all that's good in football; he has great courage, he is a great decision-maker, he very seldom made the incorrect decision. He is very mentally tough. One of these lads who could still be playing because he kept himself in such brilliant shape."
Connerton will be without some more players this year he would like to be able to call on due to various commitments. For that reason, Brady bucked a growing trend in the more hard-pressed counties. "The demands on inter-county footballers are becoming greater," states Connerton. "The standard of fitness is evolving all the time and every year, no matter how hard you try, you wonder is the gap growing wider at the top all the time and is it possible bridge that gap? And when will it stop?
"So, long term, I can't see the players having the willpower to keep going and, plus, when you are playing for Longford there is a lot of travel involved. Many of our players are employed in Dublin or in Limerick or in Galway. And it's a difficulty for them commuting. From day one, coming in, we had a massive percentage of players who did not want to play. And that was a major shock for me.
"We have lost players even this year again, players we would have liked to have but they are moving on with their own lives, whether for study reasons or work reasons. Diarmuid Masterson is one. He is working away from home, he feels he is not able to give the commitment. John Keegan, our elegant midfielder, he is doing a masters degree this year and is not able to commit to us.
"It is a huge impact. I find it hard to believe that any fella wouldn't still love to be involved with his county. You mightn't achieve an awful lot as regards medals, but like, it's not all about medals. It is about improving yourself and making yourself better.
"It is frustrating because we would feel we have an excellent management team in place and it was a great opportunity for lads to make themselves better players. I can understand in some cases you have to look after your own private life. You have work commitments. We are an amateur association."
In 2006, the Longford Leader started an annual awards scheme where they select the GAA team of the championship. From 2006 to 2013 inclusive, Brady was the only ever-present. He will soldier on for Slashers and spend more time with his wife and two young children. "It's going to be a bit of a hole left in my life," he admits. "I will still have my club football. The club is nearly getting as much commitment as the county - that is where it is at now."
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