Bernard Brogan’s story shaped by a savage internal refusal to quit
So long the star, Brogan had to graft his way back from injury and fight for every minute
Bernard Brogan celebrates a goal in the 2016 All-Ireland final against Mayo. File photograph: Inpho
“I was angry. I was pissed off,” concedes Bernard Brogan, not traits you readily associate with one of the most smooth and unruffled forwards of the modern game.
“I had all of those emotions,” he remembers over a morning phone conversation. Like most of the world, Brogan is working from home at the moment: routine is muddled.
“I wanted to play. Everyone knew that. I was fighting like hell on the pitch. But you can’t let that disappointment show.”
Dublin’s five in a row has already come to look like a glittering and noisy Irish cultural story from an era that, in this year of the virus, is both gorgeous and irretrievable. Brogan rode shotgun from start to finish, from key man in Dublin’s renaissance year of 2011 to last man on the bus for the 2019 All-Ireland replay and seventh championship of the decade.
His story is essentially about the gruelling loneliness of high level sport, even for those who bask in the dream rays
You might have seen him on the Late Late Show on Friday night, affable and chatty and perhaps privately surprised that he has reached this point of talking about his Dublin life in the past tense. He’s had wild personal and team successes. But the story of the struggle he endured to return from a serious knee injury to try and convince Jim Gavin and the Dublin selectors that he still had the right stuff for just a few minutes is an unguarded admission of just how desperately he wanted to remain part of the show.
There’s a line on page 14 of his biography The Hill which illuminates itself as the moment around which his football life revolves: ‘I got the start the following week in the league final against Kerry but when three consecutive balls were kicked in over my head, it was as if Jim decided I was no longer a starter.’
On the surface, Brogan’s story is one of unalloyed success. Here he is: the scampish if exceedingly well-raised 1980s kid from one of the anointed Dublin football households, the boy who slowly emerges from the shadow of his preternaturally gifted and athletic older brother who sauntered onto underage teams which he himself would struggle to make.
The late bloomer, then, into an inimitably dangerous and complete inside-forward and darling of the Hill, fortunate enough to be on the scene even as Dublin football is going through the metamorphosis from flamboyant theatre act into remorseless football machine; pleasant and no hard task for photographers and therefore in hot demand for commercial opportunities; sufficiently brave and ambitious to develop with his cousin and friends two distinct communications businesses and, just last September, finishing his career with the last of seven All-Ireland medals and the joy of walking around his beloved Croke Park with the twins boys he has with his childhood sweetheart Keira.
But when Brogan and Irish Examiner writer Kieran Shannon sat to collaborate on his biography they had no interest in presenting a glossy compendium of career highlights. Many biographies are backlit by harrowing personal stories and some are more vital than others.
Brogan, fortunately, has a relatively happy and optimistic disposition. But what he also has is a kind of savage internal refusal to quit. Appearances are indeed deceptive. His story is essentially about the gruelling loneliness of high level sport, even for those who bask in the dream rays. He has had plenty of knockbacks and reasons to convince himself he just wasn’t in the same bracket as his father and brother. The most vivid example is the day when he is found hitting a sliotar against the wall in the back of the house.
He had found out that he hadn’t made the Dublin minor football squad the same afternoon. He immediately set his sights on the hurling squad - which he did make. But at 17, that refusal to mope or dwell on the disappointment is a quality he will need in the coming years.
And it’s a quality that he is still honing in the autumn of his football life, when he is battling furiously to stay relevant in the eyes of Jim Gavin and his selectors. It’s clear that by 2018 and 2019, the All-Ireland football championship that the public was enjoying was not quite the same as those in which Brogan first participated.
There’s a passage midway through the book: it’s the 2018 Super 8s championship game against Roscommon in Croke Park which Dublin are cruising by an eye-watering 20 points and Brogan is in the stands with the substitutes, heart pounding at the hope of getting a run. He’s just gone through a long grind to come back from a cruciate injury and has played his way back into the matchday 26. But something Gavin has said at training is haunting him.
‘Something a bit odd,’ he remembers in the book: that he wouldn’t want to put Brogan in a position where he let himself or the team down. But at 20 points up? He’s convinced he will get a run now. Instead, the call comes for Andrew McGowan. And the former footballer of the year, one of Dublin’s top three all-time championship scorers is left stewing and fuming and so hardly hears when his name is actually called: he gets his moment as a blood substitute.
He’ll remember the feeling of getting back on the field and hearing the crowd and just the rush in what was an academic game as “what may just be my proudest ever moment in blue.” And in the dressing room everyone congratulates him for making it back, including Gavin. But he is still disheartened and completely in the dark as to where he stands.
And he’ll continue in that vein, striving in the vague hope of a last chance. He did everything he could, busting a gut at training, re-inventing himself as a crafty link man and creator of scores, meeting Gavin to argue his case and never, ever allowing his frustration to become a drag on the overall mood in training. And part of it, he can admit now, was stubbornness.
“That is my personality. When you question me I am going to prove you wrong. I knew I was never going to start but I wanted to be a 15-minute man and be as efficient as I could. I knew I could add value and it was about proving it to myself as well. As I say in the book I was exactly where I should have been at that moment in the replay [IN 2019]. I was there on merit and I fully believe that if that game was going down to the wire in the last 10 minutes I would have been called in.
“There was massive frustration. And I have had plenty of knockbacks in my life. But you make the decision not to show those. And I would have bought into that idea of not showing your hurt or annoyance to the team. The last thing you want to do is pull away energy from the group.”
You can read whatever you wish into Brogan’s perseverance through what could be interpreted as a humbling closing passage to a brilliant career. Few players have soared to his individual height. Many would have walked without a backwards glance when they weren’t getting the game time they were used to. Against that, Brogan understood he was dealing with a manager who had to find roles for an embarrassment of attacking riches and who was wedded to the philosophy of changing the look of his team annually.
In 2019 Brogan remained high quality but he was out of fashion. His respect for Gavin is absolute: it was, as he says “an unconscious bias” on the part of management. And there’s always this unwritten sense as you read that for all the public perception of Gavin as ruthless and businesslike, he is trying to let Brogan down gently in those summers; that he has too much respect for him to actually call time on his Dublin career. After all, it’s one of the toughest tricks in any sport: getting the timing of your exit right.
“I had a conversation with people over the years about: when do you leave. And I kind of made a decision while I was still playing that I would stay going until I am not needed. I didn’t feel I needed to leave as soon as I wasn’t a guaranteed starter I really enjoyed the craic and the training hard and the endorphins that go with it. We are all egotistical and driven men and want to play. But I never felt I had to leave because I wasn’t starting.
“And I wanted to show the humility to the group that if there was a time when I had to be a bit-part player in the group, I wasn’t against that. You look like Kevin Mc who wants to start like everyone else but who reacted so well to coming off the bench and has won All-Irelands for us on numerous occasions. So I made that decision that I would go on that journey for as long as the team needed me.”
He acknowledges that while he, like any player, was looking at things from his perspective, Gavin had 29 other perspectives to manage - plus backroom staff. He’s vying for attention to the last: absolute dejection after not making the matchday squad for the 2019 All-Ireland final and then miraculously being back in for the replay.
At training between those two games, he abandoned his improvised role as wise attacking facilitator and rediscovered the true-forwards’ instinct for giving two fingers to the world, banging four balls over the bar in a 20 minute game.
Along with Eoghan O’Gara, who went ballistic in the same session, it was like a howl in the dark from two of the great survivors from Dublin’s original 2011 All-Ireland run. And he had his reprieve; back in the jersey for Dublin’s five-in-a-row coronation, if not on the field of play.
Gavin met him for lunch when Brogan confirmed his retirement. And Gavin tells him warmly that they had no choice but to pick him for the replay squad after that electric training performance; that they just wished they’d seen it six weeks earlier.
“That was a dagger in the heart,” he laughs now. “Someone should have told me that six months ago. I was trying to bring something that I thought was the answer because of unconscious bias or whatever. I always thought I was good at unlocking a pass or being a pivot man so I just went down that route of maybe doing it better than others. I thought they wanted that because of possession play and cutting through the middle or whatever tactics were going on.
“But I reverted to type and looked at Con O’Callaghan - put the head down and take the man on and bury it. And that’s magic. And even though I might not be able to do it as well as Con, I just decided I was going for it. I got four points in a 20 minute game and O’Gara as well. So when I heard that, I was: ‘why didn’t you tell me to do that then. You’re the legacoach!’”
But he was as shocked as anyone when Gavin himself stepped away just six weeks after their meeting. It felt like the velvet curtains were drawn on an age of splendour. Brogan’s first winter away from the scene has flown by: a young family keeping them busy at home and the swooping assault of the Covid-19 virus forcing a swift change of practice in the company Legacy Communications. He left a career in sports taxation accountancy to slowly build the company, originally struggling to be taken seriously before gaining traction and a strong reputation.
Now, the virus is threatening to hollow out the commercial and actual heart of the Dublin business scene and they’ve tasked themselves with responding to that.
“Covid has raised the importance of human wellbeing and importance and how people interact. There is no ‘team’ anymore because of the remote environment. We have a platform that integrates the organisation and we create opportunities for conversations - kind of a Netflix of wellbeing - with mindfulness and meditations and personal growth so that staff in organisations we work with feel part of something.
There is actually a meeting soon for a 10-year reunion for the 2011 team, which is . . . scary”
“People are at home and driven by task orientation - they are on a Zoom call or doing work or making a sale . . . there is no time for heading to the canteen or meeting up socially just now. So there is a world of problems that Covid will throw out. I think we need to create opportunities to get together. Look at it from a human point of view - do people feel like they are part of a team? If it comes down to robots doing tasks, then that isn’t going to work in the long term.
“We are working with managers trying to give them tips . . . I always talk about inviting feedback and sharing. Show vulnerability. Talk about your challenges.”
He can trace many of those lessons and thoughts back to the Dublin dressing rooms. One of the distinctive elements of Dublin’s evolution was the preponderance of measured and even corporate language used in post-game interviews and conferences. It got up some people’s goat. But it sold the message. Both Pat Gilroy and Gavin were sincerely committed to the idea of the football team as an avenue towards personal growth and fulfilment.
Their environment was one of ambition. It wasn’t perhaps quite as colourful or character-filled or sweepingly romantic as Heffernan’s revered team which his father played on, the team which seemed to transform Dublin city into Technicolor. But there’s a telling moment at the end of the book when Brogan remembers his father’s enduring disillusionment at the end of his own Dublin career. He got injured and was simply never contacted again- beyond being told to drop back the jersey he had worn at some stage.
There seems no question that the class of 2019 had a more holistic experience. And as the Gavin era hurtles into the past, who can argue that those gargantuan clashes against Donegal and Kerry and, abidingly, against Mayo weren’t just about as good as sport gets? And who would ever voluntarily walk away from that?
“We had an environment of vulnerability and trust,” says Brogan of what he thinks it was that made Dublin what they’ve become. “We had conversations about loved ones who broke away and really got to know each other. There is a bond that we have, much as there might be digging going on when we meet in the club championship.
“I see it in the Dublin Seventies team. I’d walk down the street with my Dad in Listowel and people coming up and talking about the goal. And at Anton O’Toole’s funeral, even on a sad occasion like that, I was in awe just to see the energy of that team when they met each other again and Dave Hickey came over to my Dad and you see the brightness in their eyes. That is what I dreamed for in my Dublin career. We don’t meet every day of the week. It might be once a year or even two years. There is actually a meeting soon for a 10-year reunion for the 2011 team, which is . . . scary.”
And then 2013. And ‘15. And.’16 And . . .
What a run.
*The Hill by Bernard Brogan with Kieran Shannon is published by Reach Sport.