Brogan’s real value to Dublin will only be evident in his absence
For all their strength in depth, champions may miss a finisher of his proven class
Bernard Brogan: his experience and guile invaluable when Dublin need a forward whose brilliance lies in turning a match on nothing moments. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
Divining anything real or substantial from league football is like the art of reading tea-leaves: you can see whatever you choose to see and because everything is so vague, nothing is really wrong.
That’s how it went after Saturday night’s entertaining Dublin-Donegal match in Croke Park, when the visitors surprised everyone by pushing the All-Ireland champions until the very end.
Some interpreted those 70 minutes as evidence that the pack is closing in on Dublin and that Donegal demonstrated how to make the champions feel uncomfortable.
The counter argument was that even on a so-so night, Dublin rattled off 0-20, took ownership of the critical closing 10 minutes and offered a formidable glimpse into the sky blue future in the athletic, free-scoring performances of Brian Howard and Colm Basquel.
Bernard Brogan had been pencilled in to start in that game but it was announced shortly before throw-in that Paddy Andrews would be replacing him. Then on Monday, it emerged that Brogan had torn his cruciate ligament at training the previous Thursday night, leaving his availability this season hanging in the balance.
The reaction to the news was surprisingly muted; sympathetic and bolstered with words of hope that he would fight back from the injury and return for the 2019 season, when he will be 35.
But there was no real sense that anything had changed in the greater scheme of things. In any other county, losing a player of Brogan’s calibre – a four-time All-Star, a former footballer of the year, a five time All-Ireland medallist (and MOTM in one of those finals, with a 2-3 return against Mayo in 2013) – would cause an instant re-evaluation of the prospects for the season ahead.
Most counties have one attacking player whose absence would cause incalculable damage. Kerry have more riches than most but nonetheless, a period of general mourning took hold in Kerry in the weeks after Colm Cooper suffered a severe knee injury while playing for Dr Crokes in the club championships in November 2013.
That was a terrible blow for a player who had seemed to be made of titanium but also deemed fatal to Kerry’s chances of competing at the highest level in what was Éamonn Fitzmaurice’s first season in charge.
In retrospect, the series of early-season disasters and setbacks followed by the summer charge and the reappearance of the totemic Cooper in the squad for the All-Ireland semi-final replay looks like a staggering example of Kerry cuteness. Everyone writes them off; James O’Donoghue fills the void by having the season of his life; Kerry win a surprise All-Ireland and Cooper is there, in the wings, ready for the following season. Even when all was lost, Kerry somehow won.
The difference with Brogan and Dublin is that the All-Ireland champions are regarded as having limitless riches. They absorbed the loss of full back Rory O’Carroll after 2015 and still went to win the All-Ireland – twice. They facilitated Jack McCaffrey’s period away from the game in 2016 without suffering any visible diminishment in performances.
Last summer, they shipped the blow of Diarmuid Connolly’s long summer suspension and sailed through to the All-Ireland final anyway. The glittering debut season of Con O’Callaghan seemed to offer proof that the next generation of Dublin players will just keep pushing the standard. Brian Howard was billed as the name to watch prior to this season’s league and in the opening three league games, he has just slotted into the Dublin attack as though he has been there all of his life.
In addition, Brogan spent most of last year’s championship as part of the most decorated substitute bench in Gaelic football history, unable to get a proper look in as the new crew simply cruised to the All-Ireland final.
He was introduced in the 65th minute of that game. This can be interpreted as proof that he had indeed moved to the periphery of Jim Gavin’s plans or as evidence that, when it came to it, Dublin absolutely wanted him on the field during the critical passage of play in a gripping finale against Mayo.
One of the minor intrigues of Dublin this season was watching to see how the senior stars like Paul Flynn, Michael Darragh Macauley and Brogan would respond to the challenge of reclaiming pitch time. On the opening night of the league, Brogan started in Croke Park against Kildare and he was outstanding, creating both Dublin goals with back-to-the-goal touches which were wonderfully efficient.
“You could see he had that zest for the game,” says Andriú MacLochlainn, the former Kildare man-marker specialist who was given the task of shadowing Brogan as he gradually developed into Dublin’s marquee forward.
MacLochlainn feels that the consensus is probably correct; that even if Brogan is unable to recover from his injury this season, Dublin will simply absorb his absence as they have done all others. But he agrees that Brogan is unique in the variety of threats he presents as an attacker.
“He offers a really good mix of threats for management because of the ways in which he can cause difficulties. Because he is not a small lad but he is not a massive guy either. He is not lightning fast but he is by no means slow either. He can take a ball whether it is in front of him or over his head and then the critical thing for any good forward is that he is comfortable on both feet once he has half a yard of space. Those are the key things.”
And that is the exceptional thing about Brogan. He doesn’t rely on what has become the overwhelming quality of the Dublin collective: speed. He never tries to burn his man a la Kevin McManamon or Paul Mannion or, more recently Niall Scully or Con O’Callaghan or Brian Howard.
Brogan’s game is based on that deceptive ability under a high ball but most of all on his infinite patience; the willingness to remain almost invisible until the moment arrives when his marker loses a step or concentration or gets sucked towards the play when one of Dublin’s platoon of aggressive ball carriers – Macauley, McCarthy, Bastick/Fenton, Connolly – come charging down the central column.
Then you’ll invariably see Brogan, hanging on the very edge of the play, receiving hand raised and always, always perfectly positioned to turn towards goal. The most striking difference between Brogan and the other stellar attacking players –Kilkenny or McManamon or O’Callaghan – is that their prevailing qualities are either obvious or, in the case of Diarmuid Connolly, downright extravagant.
What Brogan does isn’t necessarily the jaw-dropping stuff. Those two goals in the 2013 final were point blank goals scored with his hands. Yet the first he created out of nothing: a teardrop kick into the square where he had to beat both fullback and goalkeeper to the ball with his back to goal.
And that goal – like the one in the second half – was a lifeline to his team. When you watch Brogan, he seems to have this uncanny ability to find himself in the space to kick relatively simple points regularly. As he made the metamorphosis into one of the brand faces of Gaelic football, his opportunities for introspection tapered off but in a podcast-thingy he did with former Meath defender Anthony Moyles a few years ago, he offered this astute self-assessment.
“I am not naturally gifted at football. I work hard at what I do. If I lay back and don’t practice my kicking the percentages and it goes off. I have to kick 50 balls three times a week to make sure I am sharp on match day. It is something I learned. I had to work harder than the other people out there.
“We all train four and five times a week but I had to do more because what I was doing wasn’t enough. If I take a couple of weeks off and carry a niggle, I struggle. So keeping well and fit is very important for me. As a striker or someone who takes scores you need to have the ball in your hand and practice. There is no substitute for it.”
There’s an irony in the parade of fully-formed ball players crowding the auditions for places in Dublin’s starting roster now in that Brogan’s emergent years couldn’t have been more different. He was 20 when he tore his cruciate ligament, a setback that delayed his progress by almost a year.
Even after that, he had to labour in obscurity while his brother Alan became a Hill favourite, waiting until 2007 until he made his full debut and coming to prominence during three summers when Dublin went through scalding and valuable losing experiences.
“It wasn’t until Dublin started to develop a system in which they were unselfish and he was the guy doing a lot of the finishing that he came into his own,” says MacLochlainn.
“He was obviously putting a severe amount of work on his frees as well and he made those an add-on to his game. The way Dublin play tends to mean a lot of overlaps and Bernard doesn’t mind stepping out of the direct play and creating the space where he can go through and score a goal. He is a very clever player and he has developed that as he has gone on.”
The GAA has become notoriously ageist but at 34, there was nothing to suggest that the best of Brogan lay in his past. It remains to be seen if he can rehabilitate the injury without surgery and perhaps yet play a part as Dublin push on. Either way, he will be hell-bent on ensuring that it doesn’t end on this aggravating note.
And if that’s the last we have seen of Bernard Brogan for the 2018 season then it can be said the All-Ireland champions have lost the one player for whom they have no automatic replacement. And that absence might only be felt if the cast of young stars fail to flare at the critical moments of the championship. It’s only then that Dublin will truly need a forward whose brilliance lies in turning a match on nothing moments. So the odds on Dublin retaining the All-Ireland championship didn’t budge whatsoever with the news that Brogan may be out. But maybe, just maybe, they should have done.