Saturday 21 April 2018

Harrison now the perfect man to have in your corner

Brendan Harrison: ‘You enjoy the build-up because it is not too often that you get to an All-Ireland final so you enjoy everything about it.’ Photo: Seb Daly
Brendan Harrison: ‘You enjoy the build-up because it is not too often that you get to an All-Ireland final so you enjoy everything about it.’ Photo: Seb Daly

Dermot Crowe

In an FBD League match against GMIT in Ballinrobe in January, 2013, devoid of fanfare, Brendan Harrison launched his career as a Mayo senior footballer. James Horan handed him a start with the season barely over its winter hibernation and by the time Mayo reached the All-Ireland final against Dublin that September, Harrison had broadened his education from the wider outlines of the panel.

"When you are a young lad like that, even being in the panel is a bit crazy," he says. "The build-up to that (All-Ireland final) was massive and I learned a small bit from it and even though I did not play in the final I felt the build-up had sapped some energy out of me."

Harrison has shown himself to be a quick learner, winning an All Star at corner-back in his first season as an established inter-county player in 2016. In last year's All-Ireland final drawn match he defused the threat of Bernard Brogan, who was taken off scoreless in the second half and didn't start the replay. In the replay Paul Mannion was Harrison's responsibility. Mannion suffered the same fate; withdrawn without a score to his name.

Of Mayo's four All Stars Harrison was the youngest, and the newest addition to the team. He earned widespread admiration and respect for his defending, being especially skilled at getting an interfering hand in to prevent a forward getting clean possession. He had speed, discipline, great feet and an imperturbable temperament for the biggest stage.

A week before the All-Ireland final he became a father at 23. "It meant that you were not thinking about the All-Ireland every day," he says, "especially when you have a young fella's nappies to be changing." And he now runs his own building contracting firm, having qualified as a project manager.

In company he is polite and mature beyond his years. When asked last year in an interview what advice he would give to aspiring Mayo players, he stressed the need for patience. While his own rise was swift last year, it had been a few years in the making.

His championship debut came in Gaelic Park, New York in May 2014, when he was introduced as a sub for Keith Higgins. He later came off the bench against Cork in Croke Park and again against Kerry in Limerick in the All-Ireland semi-final replay, Horan's last day as manager. The following year he came on against Sligo in the Connacht final, a rout, but he was unable to pin down a steady position.

Last year that all changed. Though more recognised as a half-back, where he plays for his club Aghamore, space there was congested and ground not easily surrendered. Through mutual necessity he found a place in the corner and adapted quickly. He only missed one game last year, in January, and his first championship start came in London in May.

By the time Mayo's All-Ireland final came around he had some experience to draw upon. "Last year I was well focused and this year . . . you enjoy the build-up because it is not too often that you get to an All-Ireland final so you enjoy everything about it, you accept all the good wishes that you get on the streets and you can see all the banners, posters and flags and you love it. But once you get on that bus to Croke Park, you only have one job in mind.

"The key is that you take energy from it rather than allow it to take energy from you. Because we have had so many games this year once we get on the bus it has become routine so it will be like any other weekend, even though it is the final it is going to be just another game to us."

As a county minor Harrison made his Croke Park debut in the 2010 All-Ireland semi-final defeat by Tyrone, when he got taken for 1-4 by Ronan O'Neill. When their paths crossed again last year in the All-Ireland quarter-final, O'Neill was substituted, scoreless, after 42 minutes. Now Mayo trust Harrison as their best man-marker in the full-back line irrespective of the reputation the opponent carries.

Tony Duffy was Mayo minor manager in 2010 and in charge of the county under 21s when Harrison played at that grade in 2013. He also coached him at St Louis Community School in Kiltimagh.

"He was always a bit light, physique-wise; he definitely has bulked up," Duffy told Daniel Kearney of The Mayo News last year. "You can see that inter-county strength and conditioning programme that he's followed is doing a lot of good for him, because he would have tended to struggle on physically strong players in the past. That's not happening anymore. He's learned to play from the front a little bit more than he had done in the past. And he's the ultimate team player. He's given a job to do and he will do his job for the team, whatever it is, to ensure that the team wins."

The story goes that Andy Moran championed Harrison's attributes to James Horan after being marked by him in a club game a few years back. He doesn't need someone else's good word anymore. He is well capable of looking after himself.

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