The game against Dingle last Sunday was a couple of minutes old when Tony Brosnan stood with the ball in his hands, ready to kick a chapter closed. He had number 28 on his back, parachuted into the Dr Crokes line-up for their first group game in the Kerry county championship. It was a regulation free, on the Dingle 13, perfect angle for a left-footer. It was nothing and it was everything.
He shouldn’t have been back this quick. For a while there he had no idea if he’d be back at all. When you’re in hospital with a collapsed lung, your laptop up in front of you, your team losing an All-Ireland final you should be playing in, you’d need a pretty sunny disposition to see the road back. Sunny is not how Brosnan would describe his mood at the time.
On the Monday before this year’s All-Ireland final, he was ready to go. He was unlikely to start the decider against Dublin but he was a certainty to come off the bench. This had been comfortably his best season in a Kerry jersey. Jack O’Connor’s side had played 16 times in league and championship and had used 38 players. Brosnan was one of only six to feature in every game. (Hat-tip to @TheNumbersGael for the stats.)
He had been edged out of the starting line-up by the time the summer reached Croke Park but he was still a weapon off the bench. Only the two Cliffords and Seán O’Shea had scored more than him for Kerry in the 2023 championship. Seven years to the day after making his senior debut, he was on the brink of playing in his first All-Ireland final.
And then it all went to hell. On Tuesday morning, he started his day with 20 minutes on the spin bike in his house in Killarney. He went for a shower and came downstairs to make himself a coffee. Then, out of nowhere, he got a pain in his chest. An extreme, venomous dart of pain that felt like he was being stabbed.
“At first I was like, ‘Aw Jesus Christ, what is this?’” Brosnan says now. “But looking back, I’d say I knew straight away what the feeling was. I didn’t really want to think about it. I was trying to put it out of my head. I was trying to calm myself down.
“I remember sitting on the couch and I was caught for breath. I was the only one in the house at the time. I was kind of freaking out a small bit. I texted my girlfriend and said, ‘Something’s not right here, my chest is in serious trouble – it could be the lung thing again.’ And she was like, ‘Not a chance – you couldn’t be that unlucky’.”
There’s a backstory here. In the summer of 2020, Brosnan’s lung collapsed for the first time. The technical term for it was a spontaneous pneumothorax and it came completely out of the blue (the clue was in the name, he says). It wasn’t totally uncommon but it usually happened to very tall teenagers who had just gone through a rapid growth spurt. Brosnan was neither tall nor a teenager and his growth spurt days were long behind him.
So his doctors were a bit flummoxed as to how it came about. They patched him back up and got him to rest. He missed the climax of Crokes’s championship push because of it (without him, their top scorer, they lost the Kerry semi-final by a point in extra-time). The doctors told him that as long as there wasn’t a recurrence of the problem inside three years, they were as sure as they could be that it would never happen again.
Two years, 11 months and a fortnight later, he was sitting on his couch trying to catch his breath.
“That was around lunchtime on the Tuesday,” he says. “I just tried to relax myself. I wasn’t going into training until that evening. For a few hours it was grand but I’d say I knew it was the lung again. Anytime I got up off the couch, I was struggling to even walk 10 yards. It was a scary few hours to be honest. But it was the week of an All-Ireland final so I was telling myself I would be fine.
“I was 100 per cent convincing myself that this will be gone by the evening. I was overthinking everything. I managed to get myself as far as training. I still had full intentions in going out on to the pitch. But when I got there I said, ‘No, I can’t do this to myself.’ I’m going to have to say this to someone here.”
When he did, things happened quickly. He went to the physio room in Fitzgerald Stadium but didn’t want to be broadcasting his woes with it full of lads getting rubdowns before training so he tried to look busy and hope nobody noticed him. Once it emptied out, Kerry physio Paudie McQuinn saw the look on his face and asked if he was okay. Brosnan just about got the words out without crying and asked McQuinn to do a test on his lung.
“He knew my history. So he sat me up on the table and he did two tests and he knew straight away. He knew something wasn’t right. He didn’t want to be jumping the gun so he called over Jimmy Galvin and Mike Finnerty [physio and doctor]. The three boys agreed that something wasn’t right and that I had to go over and get an X-ray straight away.
“It was tough. I was waiting for John Rice, another team doctor – he was bringing me to the hospital that evening. All the boys were out training on the pitch and I was sitting looking at them, waiting for my lift. I was like, ‘Is this actually happening’?”
It was. And it was serious. In Tralee General, they didt the X-ray and as soon as they got the results back, they rushed him to he emergency department to get a drain put in and to reinflate his lung. The problem now was more critical than it had been in 2020. This time around, he had a tension pneumothorax. “Essentially,” he explains, “your lung collapses but it shifts over so it starts to put pressure on your heart. That’s what they were really concerned about.”
He was transferred to Cork University Hospital, where he spent the next fortnight. Initially, he held out a small bit of hope that they might be able to get the surgery done and out of the way in time for him to at least go to the game as a spectator. No dice. Surgery was scheduled for the following Tuesday.
When Kerry lost to Dublin on the Sunday, Brosnan was in his pyjamas in CUH, watching on his laptop and feeling just about as miserable as he thought it was possible to be. Only to have his operation on the following Tuesday and come to find out what real misery tastes like.
“The tough days started after the surgery,” he says. “There was a small defect or weakness in the lung and so effectively then they had to cut off the top of the lung where the defect was and then glue the lung back to the chest wall. That was Tuesday morning and I’d say I was asleep until late evening after it.
“The Wednesday, Thursday and Friday were extremely tough. I couldn’t eat. I was actually hooked up to the bed so I couldn’t leave the bed for about three days. There wasn’t much moving out of me.
“There were these three lads in the recovery room with me and they were all after having triple bypasses done. And they were up and about every single day, moving around. Whereas I was stuck in the corner and couldn’t move or get out of bed for three days. I’d say they were looking at me wondering, ‘What’s this fella’s problem’?”
Though the operation was a success, he felt wrung out by it. Brosnan has never been a big dude – a lot of his off-field work since he came on the scene has been about adding muscle to a featherweight frame. It took him a few years and a lot of sweat to build himself up to an intercounty level and all of it seemed to basically evaporate on him in the space of a few days in a recovery ward.
“The biggest thing was that I lost a lot of weight. I lost about 10kg, which would be big when you’re playing football. I couldn’t eat for about three days – you’re on so much medication and your body can’t handle it. It was just a shock to the system. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. It was an extremely painful couple of days.
“The first couple of years that I was with Kerry, that was my main problem. I was very light going into county football. I worked over the years to put that size on. Then to lose it in a couple of days, it was very annoying.”
He stayed in CUH for a fortnight. His girlfriend Ailbhe put in the hours alongside him, staying every night. Once he got out, he spent most of the ensuing weeks in her house in Galway recuperating. “I’ll be repaying her for a while,” he reckons.
At the time, nobody was even talking about a return to football. Everyone presumed he was gone for the year. A tentative return date of January was floated out into the general hubbub, as much to shut the conversation down as anything. But the doctors said he could get back on the spin bike within a fortnight and he took it from there.
“I feel a lot better now. I’m nearly back to myself. The first week or two, I had a few bad gashes where they did the procedures – three in my side and then one in my back, so four altogether. I was just kind of minding them for the first while. That was the main concern. But everything is back to normal now. Just trying to get back training and to get my fitness back. I’ve put about five or six kilos back on as well.”
Last Friday, he had a consultation with the surgeon in Cork who told him he was happy enough for Brosnan to go back to contact. Whether he quite meant the sort of contact you’d find in the Kerry championship, Brosnan wasn’t hanging about to find out. He went out and top-scored for Crokes against Dingle on Sunday (five points, three from play) and although they came up a point short in the end, getting back was a giant leap.
“I was lacking a bit of fitness and sharpness but I was happy to be back and the lads were happy enough too. I played the full game. It was my first 60 minutes since the Louth game, so that’s probably about three months ago. It was definitely good to get back out there. The sharpness wouldn’t have been great. The eye for goal is probably not quite where I want it to be. But it will be on the up hopefully over the next couple of weeks.
“The lung is probably the best it’s been. I felt no after-effects from the game at all. When it first happened three years ago, that defect has been there ever since. It never went away and it just slowly deteriorated really. But now they’ve removed that defect and so it’s the best it’s ever been. I shouldn’t have any more problems now. Unless the other one goes.
“I couldn’t be that unlucky!”