Tuesday 21 November 2017

'When you see the other side of it, you don't want to go back'

Ben Brosnan believes Wexford's footballers have yet to fulfil their potential in Leinster, writes Damian Lawlor

Damian Lawlor

BEN BROSNAN knows the challenge is to take his story further. "We're sick of being told that Wexford are everyone's second team," he says. "Sick of being told how well we're doing to be in the top eight every year.

We've been knocking on the door long enough. I'd like to win a Leinster title now. The manager wants it badly. We all do."

Wexford have not won a provincial senior title since 1945 and they'll have to take the difficult route if they want to make that breakthrough this year. Even if they find a way past Longford today, they will most likely have to beat both Dublin and Kildare to claim the Delaney Cup.

"Yeah, it's the hard part of the draw," Brosnan admits. "Last year we got Offaly early on and went on a bit of a run. It's going to be difficult to get that momentum this time around but we have to believe. We've rattled all these teams before and now we're coming at them again with more speed, belief and confidence in ourselves."

These days it's rare to see an inter-county player talk his team up. But Brosnan has no problem looking towards the top-tier because he knows the foundations underneath are stable. He's worked very hard to get to his current level of performance.

Last year saw him set the Gaelic football world alight. Seven points on his debut against Offaly, the same against Westmeath, six against Carlow and nine against Dublin. He was the second highest scorer of the season with 0-32 -- only Colm Cooper trumped him. In his first full season that was quite something.

It's all the more remarkable considering the dead ends he met in the years leading up to his breakthrough.

Part of the Good Counsel team that lost to St Patrick's, Navan, in 2006 and a Wexford minor by then also, his form began to meander. Although summoned into the county's 2007 under 21 squad he only figured as a fringe member.

As a spring-heeled right wing-back with Wexford Youths, he played in the club's historic first League of Ireland match. In 2008, though, he put his focus back on Gaelic football. He broke into the Wexford senior team for a few league games and did well against Longford, but still couldn't claim a regular spot even if he made a couple of more sporadic appearances, including as a last-minute substitute in the Division 3 final defeat of Fermanagh.

The under 21 class of 2008 proved a greater shop window but in the midst of a five-star display in their Leinster semi-final win over Wicklow he was sent off and suspended for the final with Kildare. Without that platform he remained on the bench for the senior team as Jason Ryan's team marched to the All-Ireland semi-final.

The 2009 season was even bleaker. He suffered a serious dip in form and ended up playing with the county juniors for the season. Even though Ryan's senior outfit were nowhere near as impressive as the previous season, there was still no SOS sent in his direction. "I was still young," he recalls, "but there was no doubt I was losing a bit of heart. It was tough enough because all I wanted to do was get a few games."

Eventually the wheel turned. Without Matty Forde and PJ Banville to power the team they threw Brosnan into the mix for the O'Byrne Cup, a competition derided in many circles. "Listen, people might have a pop at it," he says, "but without the O'Byrne Cup I might not be here getting ready for a Leinster championship match. And that's a fact."

He scored 0-6 against Dublin, 1-5 against Longford, 1-6 against Westmeath and 1-3 against Carlow. His scores were a hamper of extraordinary long-range free-taking, tigerish determination and opportunistic shooting. In total, he scored 2-17 in the O'Byrne Cup and Shield, played four of their seven NFL games, managing 1-10, and was sprung three times from the bench in the championship.

It was an arduous journey but once you can see the final destination you keep going. "People look at last year's performances and they probably see the white boots, the hair, and they must think I'm ultra-confident, but the truth is I had a hard enough time trying to make it with Wexford and my only personal goal is to keep my place. As a team we can win Leinster and that's our target but keeping my place is number one for me. When you've seen the other side of it, you don't want to go back."

Appearances can be deceptive, though. This guy is a serial grafter. He is renowned for working his socks off on the field and coming off exhausted near the end of games because the tank is empty. He often covers up to eight kilometers in a game and likes to set up scores for team-mates as quickly as trying to raise a flag himself.

After playing in front of 400 people with Wexford Youths, it took time to get used to 60,000 or so against the Dubs in Croke Park. But Brosnan wants more of those days and says it would be nice if the team got more backing -- Wexford fans still save their Sunday best for the county hurlers.

"I suppose we're 67 years without a Leinster title and until we rectify that we won't get the big crowds out. But you can see it coming down the line. At underage level lads are now choosing football over hurling without anyone twisting their arm. That's the start of it. So we need silverware and we need to hang on to Jason too. I'd keep him for the next ten years if it were up to me.

"He's the most professional man I know -- he'd be up until 2.0am looking at DVDs and then he'd text us at 7.0am to say there would be a video montage waiting for us at training that night. It says it all about the chap that the Waterford hurlers were looking for him even though he's a football manager. We need to repay the faith he's shown in us. We've come close but that's not good enough."

Over two years they missed promotion on score difference and squandered a couple of championship matches. Losing the league final to Longford six weeks ago was another blow. They've pushed Dublin close on a few occasions, not least last season, and following their recovery from that setback they looked to set to reach the 2011 All-Ireland quarter-final only to lose to a controversial free from Limerick's Ian Ryan in the dying seconds of their qualifier match.

"I was never as sickened as after that game," Brosnan says. "For days afterwards I was numb. It probably was a point, but most likely not a free in the first place. You can blame the referee (Derek Fahy) all you want but the bottom line is that we had that game wrapped up. We were four points up with three minutes left -- fair play to Limerick but we absolutely threw it away. That's why I was so delighted to see Jason come back this year. It only drives us on again.

"We're around a few years now but still people have this perception that we're overachieving. I think that's rubbish. Our forwards are as good as anyone's, no one laments the way we play in the wake of Matty retiring. We play the game in an honest, open style and while the likes of Donegal put 13 men behind the ball, we often throw 13 into attack. Yeah, we're too open sometimes and we concede goals but our mantra is 'we'll score more than you'. We get caught now and again but it works most of the time. So I actually feel that we're underachieving by not winning a Leinster title."

With his impish running and trademark free-taking style -- five and a half steps back and two to the left -- Brosnan's skills will be in full demand today against Longford. But Brosnan is only itching to get another crack at them in Croker.

"I wasn't right for the league final -- I twisted my knee -- and I shouldn't have played," he admits. "The manager asked if I was okay to play and I said I was grand but

I only ended up letting everyone down, my team-mates especially. I just couldn't face not playing at Croke Park having played in all the games leading up to that. But I'm young -- you learn more as you go along and hopefully this time I'll do myself justice."

With four weeks of full training under his belt, he is raring to make up for that loss. Preparations have been good. His course at IT Carlow is 16 hours a week and he's not in class any later than 2.0pm on any given day so he's had plenty of time to work hard five evenings a week and then relax at weekends with a round of golf.

"I'd still be wrecked after a day's college and training," he laughs, "so I don't know how the boys who are working do it. But I'm two years through my course and hope to do another two years there before I'll maybe switch to computers or IT. I can't say the college work is too taxing and I'm over the injury so there are no excuses.

"We won't lack for motivation either after the league final defeat and last year's championship exit to Dublin. I still feel we had a serious chance of beating Dublin last year -- we had them rattled (before a freak 51st minute 'own-goal' from Graeme Molloy turned the game in the Dubs' favour). All the same, I took a lot from that defeat. After the game, Pat Gilroy and Bryan Cullen came into our dressing room and said that it was only the start of their year whereas that match was nearly the be all and end all for us. We need to believe in ourselves more. That's the truth."

Now he's on the cusp of another defining championship game. Longford are out of the long grass. There's no place to hide. It's just the way he likes it.

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