Thursday 15 November 2018

Exasperating Eddie reformed

John O'Brien

THE case: the people of Kilkenny against Garda Eddie Brennan. The charge: that he didn't pass the ball to DJ Carey in the first minute of the 2004 All-Ireland final when Kilkenny were on the cusp of immortality and made a hames of his subsequent shot for a point. How does the defendant plea? Irrelevant. When the court has reconvened the jury's verdict will provoke no astonishe

THE case: the people of Kilkenny against Garda Eddie Brennan. The charge: that he didn't pass the ball to DJ Carey in the first minute of the 2004 All-Ireland final when Kilkenny were on the cusp of immortality and made a hames of his subsequent shot for a point. How does the defendant plea? Irrelevant. When the court has reconvened the jury's verdict will provoke no astonished gasps. Guilty as charged.

Given his rapsheet Eddie Brennan stood little chance. Half a decade exasperating his mentors on the sideline and the hard-pleased hurling men in the stands meant few were inclined towards clemency. Scores he should have taken when he opted to pass instead. Passes he should have made when he chose to try for goal. Even on his best days he left them thinking he had something more profound to give.

And now for the past two months he has been living the life of the condemned man who, having nothing left to lose, experiences a strange sense of freedom. It is as if Brennan has stripped away the clutter that hindered his progress and pared the game down to its simplest form. Henry Shefflin might have struck most of Kilkenny's grace notes but in a quiet, stealthy way it is Brennan who has been their summer's greatest success story.

It is all the greater for being so unforeseen. Because Kilkenny failed to win it was easy to forget the fact that Brennan finished last year by blazing 2-3 against Galway in the All-Ireland semi-final, easier again when Brian Cody named his starting 15 for their Leinster opener against Westmeath and there was no place for Brennan. His omission provoked little outcry or debate. Not that anyone would have expected it anyway.

Cody's team needed tinkering, though, and that gave Brennan an opening. For the Leinster final against Wexford he was brought in at wing-forward and the transformation was remarkable. He doesn't leave scorch-marks behind him anymore but they don't need it from him now. What they need are solid, consistent performances and that is what Brennan has been giving them. He has earned more respect in three games than he did over the previous five years.

And still he must do more. Brennan's critics will acknowledge his fine summer but quickly point out that he remains a good All-Ireland final away from the respect he craves. "It's always been the way with Eddie," says his Graigue-Ballycallan clubmate Adrian Ronan. "Even when he plays well fellas always say 'yeah but-' There have always been these 'ifs' and 'buts'."

When he was at school, before he'd walk through the gate he'd hide his hurley and let on he wasn't consumed by the game

Ronan reminds you that in Kilkenny Brennan holds the unique distinction of having played championship hurling for the county before he did so for his club. It is an illuminating statistic that tells you the doubts about Brennan didn't suddenly surface once he made the Kilkenny team. They started from within and seeped outwards from there.

"Unfortunately," says Ronan, "I think it's only fair to say the club did have doubts about him. We weren't talking him up here so I suppose it would have been very hard for people outside to have faith in him. I think that was more our fault than it was his."

To know where Brennan has come from you need to go back to before he was born. In the mid-1970s Jim Neary arrived in the parish to run the newly opened Kilmanagh Central School. Under Neary a hurling-mad parish was carried to a new level. Ronan was the first prodigy, Damien Cleere and Denis Byrne followed and a few years behind came the next batch which included his first cousins, Michael and John Hoyne. Brennan was far from the most prominent.

His greatest gift was his blinding pace but while that might have charmed them elsewhere, Kilkenny people watched him fly and wondered what else he had. "You just don't get the opportunity to wait on the fringe and use your pace the whole time," says Neary. "You have to be in there winning ball and digging in. That's where the doubts are. What I'd really love to see is Edward going to Callan or Nowlan Park and doing the same in the Kilkenny championship as he's doing for the county. That's a little reservation people have here."

Back then few predicted big things for him. They'd watched Ronan single-handedly turn games since the age of eight and, for all his gifts, Brennan didn't have such influence among his peers. Nicholas Teehan, honorary club president and a lifelong devotee, remembers meeting various Kilkenny mentors over the years and trying to advance Brennan's claims. But it was a hard sell and he knew it.

Brennan himself tells a story of when he was a kid at school. Before he'd walk through the gate he'd hide his hurley and let on he wasn't consumed by the game. If something always seemed to be holding him back, it started with the doubts that were in his own mind. "I just didn't have the time," he explained but it seemed something deeper than that.

His formative years passed without much by way of progress. It took until his last year at St Kieran's before he made an impression on the college's senior selectors. By then his inter-county minor years had passed him by without even a call for a trial. Worse, there was no sense of injustice about it.

"That wouldn't have made it any easier for him," says Ronan. "Like, you have a fella in Kilkenny and he goes to Kieran's and then he doesn't make the Kilkenny minors. Fellas would be saying where's this fella coming from? Why didn't he make the team? Is there something wrong with him?"

When Graigue-Ballycallan were winning county titles in 1998 and 1999, Brennan should have been a fixture on the team but he still hadn't established himself. It was late that summer when Richie Power, county under-21 manager, came to have a look and was impressed enough to draft him on to the panel. What happened next took everybody by surprise.

A week after they lost the senior final against Cork, Kilkenny faced Galway in the under-21 final in Tullamore. PJ Delaney had been viciously assaulted outside a Thurles nightclub the night before and Kilkenny hurling was badly in need of a pick-me-up. It came from Brennan's stick just shortly before half-time, the goal that in the end proved decisive. Brennan left for home with a broken collar-bone and, out of nowhere, a future as a Kilkenny hurler.

The next two years brought more promise: two county titles and a brief appearance in the 2000 All-Ireland victory against Offaly. The transition wasn't seamless, though. As Graigue-Ballycallan manager Neary's problem was how to channel Brennan's pace and energy into the structure of his team, the same task faced Cody at county level. From midfield onwards Neary thinks he tried him in every position but arriving at a definitive conclusion took time.

"He'd been at corner-forward but I remember one day we played him midfield and he was absolutely brilliant so people decided it was a midfielder he was. Then I moved him to half-forward but no matter what we did Brian Cody continued to play him at corner-forward. But his whole game is based on open space and speed. I think myself it depends on the day and on the opposition as to how beneficial that can be."

His years under Cody have been mixed, combining splendid feats with sustained spells on the bench. In 2003 he was an All-Star and probably a half-decent All-Ireland final performance away from being named hurler of the year. A year later he was the year's top scorer with 8-18 from play.

Yet he approached the summer of 2005 with no guaranteed place on the team and little purchase on the affections of the Kilkenny public. To a degree, Brennan's problem has been one of confidence. "If he started well he always looked like he'd take his man asunder," Teehan says. "He'd get his 1-2 or 1-3 and he'd be marked up. The problem was when he wasn't going well. Down here when you're not going well a manager wouldn't be slow to take you off. You'd see Eddie hit a wide and he'd be looking over at the sideline. A lot of the time he was never sure and he'd get into a rut."

This summer Teehan has watched Brennan grow and prosper. Today he will line out against Seán Óg Ó hAilpín and if Brennan manages to come out on top the surprise will be mild at most. "Seán Óg is a wonderful athlete," says Teehan, "but Eddie will run him and run him and I'd say he's more hurling in him."

'Everybody's talking about Shefflin, Fitzpatrick and Tommy Walsh. The lad I'm more afraid of is Eddie Brennan'

Whatever happens, it will be an intriguing contest. The outsider, who was warmly embraced by his adopted community, against the local boy who has had to struggle to earn the respect of his own. For Brennan the stakes are high. A commanding performance and he knows no one will ever say he doesn't deliver on the big days again.

Those who doubt he can are a dwindling bunch. Two weeks ago Teehan attended the All-Ireland intermediate final between Kilkenny and Cork in Dungarvan. During the course of the game he got talking to the man sitting next to him, a Corkman, whom he soon identified to be passionate and knowledgeable about the game. Inevitably, their conversation drifted to the outcome of the today's final.

"It will be a toss-up," the Corkman said. "Everybody's talking about Shefflin and Cha Fitzpatrick and Tommy Walsh. I tell you the lad I'm more afraid of is Eddie Brennan."

"Sure my own clubman," Teehan smiled.

"I have a woeful thing about him this year," his companion continued. "Devil the fellow, sure there's no talk about him at all. In my opinion if he's not dealt with, he'll do harm."

If he has convinced those outside the county Brennan will know he is half-way there. Convincing his own is the next step. It is where he stands, 70 minutes away from a full stay of execution, when the charges against him are finally and irrevocably dropped.

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