Wednesday 23 October 2019

'Is this what people really think? I'm getting my wages paid by AIG? It couldn't be further from the truth'

Brian Fenton has had the perfect five years as Dublin crashed through the five-in-a-row glass ceiling but he says having a long career - as much as a successful one - will be his barometer in the years ahead

Dublin's Brian Fenton. Photo: Sportsfile
Dublin's Brian Fenton. Photo: Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

A message flashed up on Brian Fenton's phone earlier in the week from Ciarán Kilkenny, short and to the point.

After a fourth night of celebrations the previous week they had diverged, Fenton to Marbella for a few days with his girlfriend, Kilkenny to New York with Dean Rock and Paddy Andrews.

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Kilkenny was popping his head up briefly to survey the road much further ahead and sharing what he saw with his fellow joint-commander.

"Next year will be tough."

Brian Fenton of Dublin celebrates following the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final Replay match between Dublin and Kerry at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Brian Fenton of Dublin celebrates following the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final Replay match between Dublin and Kerry at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

"And it was just that," added Fenton in relaying the content. "It's going to be tough."

In saying so little, Kilkenny was saying it all. Next year will be tough. And it will be different. Now that the glass ceiling has been shattered and five in a row has been achieved by a men's senior team for the first time, what other worlds are there to conquer for these Dublin players?

Where can they go without that fear of losing something that Fenton felt pulling at him in the pit of his stomach for those last 12 minutes of the drawn All-Ireland final?

Where can Fenton himself go? How do you buy a present for someone that has everything anyway and hope you are still being original?

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Fenton has been on the field for longer than any other player in the 37 championship games that Dublin have played over the five years.

He's started 35 of those games and is still waiting to experience defeat for the first time. He's been a Footballer of the Year, a three-time All-Star, probably soon to add a fourth. From the Everest view that a five-in-a-row now provides though he can see many more peaks to scale.

He draws you to the shortlist for Hurler of the Year announced during the week and the common denominator between nominees Séamus Callanan, TJ Reid and Patrick Horgan. All three began their senior inter-county careers in 2008, he pointed out.

"I saw that stat and I'm thinking, here they are in 2019 being nominated for Hurler of the Year. Now that is success," he said.

"Despite all that has happened so quickly, longevity and maintaining standards over a long period of time, I think that is the big motivator for me."

Whatever goals Fenton sets for the future, they will have more of a personal touch to them, he acknowledges.

14 September 2019; Brian Fenton, left, and Ciarán Kilkenny of Dublin celebrate with the cup following the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final Replay match between Dublin and Kerry at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
14 September 2019; Brian Fenton, left, and Ciarán Kilkenny of Dublin celebrate with the cup following the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final Replay match between Dublin and Kerry at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

"I was with Brian Howard this morning (Friday) slagging him that he 'only has three'. But for me I'm thinking I'm only playing for five years and if I want to create this legacy as a good footballer, you look at the likes of Jacko (O'Shea) and Whelo (Ciarán Whelan) and they played for 12 or 15 years at the top.

"It is made easier by the people around you who keep your feet on the ground and head out of the clouds but I think for a successful career... my mates would say, 'You have to retire now, you have done it all'. I'd hate to say, 'well he only played for five years and he retired'.

"I want to have that longevity and the success over years, 'Jesus no, he performed and he was a serious player and he was part of that Dublin team that went on to do even more'."

Comparisons with O'Shea lapped up on his shores again after his second-half tour de force against Mayo in the All-Ireland semi-final.

He had ended the half being robbed by Aidan O'Shea but he emerged a transformed figure as this Dublin team delivered a peak in those 12 minutes after the restart.

Tommy Walsh of Kerry is stopped by Brian Fenton and Philly McMahon (left). Photo: Sportsfile
Tommy Walsh of Kerry is stopped by Brian Fenton and Philly McMahon (left). Photo: Sportsfile

In between, he had asked some of the hardest questions of himself in his five years involved.

"At half-time you are looking around and saying, 'Hang on a second, that's not us out there', and you're, in your own head, asking yourself, 'What the hell is wrong with you here, you need to up the game here big time, you're not performing, those around you aren't performing'."

All the momentum, he reflects, came from the pressure they put on the Mayo kick-out.

"You read all these autobiographies and sports books and it's just talking about that flow state, I wouldn't be as deep into it as that. It's almost like there was no switching off, we were so in the zone and so focused that there was no resting on the last plays."

Jacko? "My dad (Brian senior from Spa outside Killarney) would tell me, 'You wouldn't lace his boots, he could do it all, he could kick frees'. It's just little friendly jibes.

"I haven't seen much of Jacko, I saw a bit of Whelo and those lads and I still compare myself to David Moran or Gary Brennan. I was only saying the other day to dad how impressive he is and how lucky I am that I have yet to meet him.

"There's a moment where you say, 'Jesus, really? Am I being compared to these fellas and what an honour that is' but at the same time you're also saying, 'Right come back in a few years' time and did I do it like Jacko over 12 years'.

"Jacko did four-in-a-row and came back and did three-in-a-row. He took that adversity and went on and did everything. I know myself I have a long way to go to be even in the same category. If that (comparison) seeps in you will only cut corners."

The pressure will lift now. In fact, Fenton sensed it lifted in the week after the drawn game. He takes you back to those tense last 12 minutes when he sensed the 'perfect storm' that was ready to take it all away.

"James McCarthy summed it up very well in a meeting we had after the game. He said it was pure survival mode. You can have all the meetings in the year about scenarios and 'what ifs' but for those 12 minutes it's total survival mode, probably instinctive stuff that maybe our games have moulded us far but nothing can prepare you for that.

"You can talk until the cows come home about certain scenarios but those 12 minutes, I'm not going to lie, in my head I was thinking, 'We're a beaten outfit here'.

"It was almost as if it was written against us. We hadn't performed well, there was a man off, it was the perfect storm really. So to pull it out of the bag?"

He watched the game back from the behind the goals camera afterwards and it hit him again how close to the wind they had sailed, McCarthy being outnumbered by three players and frantically calling colleagues back in the realisation that a ball over the top at that moment finishes them, Cluxton marking a forward.

"Watching it back then and looking at the Kerry players and saying, 'If Clucko was marking you why didn't you bring him somewhere uncomfortable, he's comfortable around the box, the square'.

"And he wasn't pulled out of position and you are saying, one ball goes over the press and they have territory, total momentum, total control of the game and they run out the clock and we're finished.

"It was just testament to all of us, lads were cramping, a war zone, lads are falling, Kerry are gassed as well, don't get me wrong, they're breathing heavy and to get the turnovers then and finally get the leveller."

In the weeks ahead Fenton will to studies, taking a master's in business management at the Smurfit Business School in UCD that he can do at weekends to support his career switch from physiotherapist to medical sales representative with Tekno Surgical, provider of specialist equipment to hospitals and clinics.

"It's not as if I didn't have anything on my plate, I just bought my own house in Killester, still close to my Raheny home and perfect for training and being based in Leinster (his sales area).

"You get thrown into this business world and I come from a science and physio background and I just wouldn't have the business knowledge and business foundation stuff that my peers would have.

"So I said, 'Look I need to upskill here, I need to learn and dive into this world' because I potentially see my future in it."

Like his colleagues, talk of 'bought' All-Irelands rankles just a little against the weight of their achievements. He acknowledges the advantages they enjoy and the spread of coaches the capital has by comparison to other counties.

"But when it is thrown at you that these Dublin players are buying All-Irelands and you are one of the players on the ground, you've been through the slog like every county players, to hear that, it is just completely disregarding all hard work and personal sacrifice that you have made personally and as a team.

"You look at Philly McMahon or Jonny Cooper, their stories.

"I don't know have we seen it at senior level because all of this funding and debate has started over the last decade. You look at Clucko and he has changed the game. What funding did he get bar being in a great club and having his own inner drive?

"To paint it with that brush, that a successful Dublin team has bought All-Irelands is, to me, insulting. I don't get bogged down on it but it is only in retrospect you're saying, 'Is this what people really think? I'm getting my wages paid by AIG?' It couldn't be further from the truth.

"We always go back to our facilities, you look around the country, there are centres of excellence and yes there is a lot in Dublin but we don't have a Garvaghey (Tyrone) or a new facility in Farranfore (Kerry).

"We train in Inisfails, we have these plug-in electric heaters that you buy in Argos to heat the changing rooms.

"Sometimes the Inisfails team are up there, they shower before us and the hot water is gone.

"This is the reality of our situation. I don't sit in a jacuzzi bath all the time after my sessions and I don't get a personal masseur and I don't get my meals delivered, it's nonsense.

"When people summarise you by that, that you wouldn't have this if it wasn't for the money, it completely disregards the hard work and personal sacrifice that every GAA player makes but that we have also made."

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