Sunday 26 May 2019

Vincent Hogan: Brian Fenton has never lost a championship game, but comes with no more swagger than a hotel bell-boy

2 September 2018; Dublin manager Jim Gavin and Brian Fenton of Dublin following the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final match between Dublin and Tyrone at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
2 September 2018; Dublin manager Jim Gavin and Brian Fenton of Dublin following the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final match between Dublin and Tyrone at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

He talks about history in that peculiar, zipped up way of his, a book-keeper impassively collating volumes.

Jim Gavin doesn’t bend to the energy around him. His reflex is to parse everything in iced-water, roping down the merest outbreak of giddiness. "We won’t even step into that space, it’s just about living the moment," he says at the inevitable utterance of five-in-a-row.

Dublin are champions again. Just one more step away from immortality, but weighed down by that same, familiar reticence.

Brian Fenton stands by the team bus, matching purple weals above and below his right eye. He looks like a man might look after being taken down a Harlem alleyway for some quarrelsome exchange about the contents of his wallet. Brian has yet to lose a championship game, but comes to each day with no more swagger than a bell-boy.

Four years, four All-Irelands and not a murmur of conceit.

Mention of his damaged eye draws the gentle, smiling suggestion that there can be few more ennobling experiences than having a Tyrone man rattle your cage.  "Ah no, it was physical," he agrees.  "Jeez, to be fair, I had a man in my face for most of the game, talking the talk.  But look...it’s just... you have to take that.  It’s a compliment I suppose from Tyrone that Mickey Harte would put a player looking after you and man-marking you.

"You’re well used to that at this stage."

And that’s the thing about Dublin, isn’t it?  They are used to anything that anybody chooses to toss their way. Indifferent to it actually.  Put it this way, Tyrone’s only real hope yesterday was chaos. The introduction of disorder into Dublin’s clinically ordered world.

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A small enough ask, you might imagine. Just inject a subversive beat to the rhythm of it all. Ask awkward, pugnacious questions. 

Write something contrary into their nervous systems.

Well that’s what we all thought Tyrone were doing, leading 0-5 to 0-1 after 16 minutes. 12 minutes later? Mickey Harte’s men trailed by five.

In any other era, against any other team, Harte would be the perfect hired gun for this manner of assignment. But, emotionally, Dublin are the Rubik's Cube that will not turn. They don’t so much challenge opponents tactically as invoke some kind of spiritual stasis. And how exactly do you plan on suspending that first cold gust of doubt?

You can argue about the merits of Conor Lane’s 18th-minute penalty decision, but the moment Paul Mannion’s shot hit the Canal-end net, Tyrone pretty much knew this game was up. Niall Morgan’s kick-outs were in meltdown after a hopeful start and Dublin, with only a Dean Rock free to show for their first 18 minutes of labour, added a relentless 2-5 in the next 15.

How?

Essentially by doing what great teams do.  Staying cold-hearted. As Gavin himself would put it: "Our guys don’t blink, which is a great characteristic to have. We just keep going through the phases to get ourselves back in the game." Dublin shot six wides all day, every one of them in the opening half. Thereafter, they just remembered themselves.

And so Tyrone eventually had to abort their use of Colm Cavanagh as a deep-lying sweeper for the simple reason that Dublin were too smart a team to drop ball anywhere he took himself. They just played over and around him.

You could make some counterfeit argument that Tyrone showed something by winning the second half but, truth to tell, this became Dublin’s most convincing All-Ireland final win of modern times. And history now looks theirs for the taking.

Tyrone’s 16 wides spoke of a composure they saw in the Dubs, but couldn’t find in themselves.  A Fenton point in the 52nd minute captured that difference in microcosm.  Dublin must have worked the ball through 35 sets of hands, over and back, patient and structured as line-dancers, before Fenton arrived on the ‘D’ to take a risk-free score.

That’s what Dublin do. They don’t so much take the gamble out of the casino as turn the casino into a library.

And history? Fenton momentarily forgets himself at our mention of the magic number ‘five’.  An exciting challenge maybe?

"No it is," he grins openly. "My Dad’s a Kerryman and he reminds me of the heartbreak and the Offaly last-minute goal or whatever." Then, just as the ghost of Seamus Darby threatens to rise up, so too it is quickly tramped back down into the ground.  

"It hasn’t been talked about, don’t get me wrong," cautions the young Raheny man. "We’re just enjoying this. Four-in-a-row wasn’t talked about at the end of last year, it’s just enjoying these moments.

"I’m sure Jim will have a plan ready to go for us at the end of December, start of January or whatever it is. Look we’ll enjoy this for a few days or a few weeks and hopefully come back every bit as strong next year."

That’s their tenor, even on these Broadway days, wheeling away from the glint of their own achievement. putting down sand-bags against the incoming tide.

Yes, the penalty was a turning point but, somehow, you always sensed Dublin would find one.

"We definitely needed that to bring us back in," agrees Fenton.  "But, look, it’s an 80-minute match at this stage. We knew that we had time, so we didn’t worry, we didn’t panic. Obviously, it wasn’t the ideal start, but we just stuck at it."

So he stands before us, this impeccably courteous 25-year-old, who doesn’t yet know what it feels like to lose a Championship game.

"It’s unbelievable," he admits. "But it’s not the way I particularly think about it. I’m one of 26 on a match-day, that’s not just saying that. I’ve some part to play but, no, there’s a lot more going on than just me."

He acknowledges it is a special time for all of these Dublin players too. "It’s amazing to play in this era, to play with those players, to play under Jim Gavin is just so special."

The blue shadow lengthens, but Philly McMahon doesn’t take their imperious reign for granted, every year with Sam Maguire is a gift.

"The big word for us this year was gratitude," he says. "There’s people in this stadium that probably won’t ever see an All-Ireland again. It’s just great to give a bit of happiness to people.

"These fans travelled all over the country this year so it’s nice to give back. We always say it’s not going to be around forever, so we’ll enjoy it while we have it," he told Sky Sports.

"These lads gave me a gift last year, my dad could see me win the All-Ireland. He was here in spirit today. There’s plenty of people who are probably not here who would love to be here to watch us.

"So we’re just grateful for what we have, Tyrone brought the best out of us today, so massive respect for that."

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