Brian Fenton as central as ever in Dublin's plan to take five
Player of the Year has had a massive impact and is yet to lose a championship game
Brian Fenton celebrates after Dublin’s victory over Tyrone last September which sealed the four-in-a-row for the reigning All-Ireland champions. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
Leinster SFC quarter-final: Dublin v Louth
Throw-in: 7pm. Venue: O'Moore Park, Portlaoise. How to follow: The Irish Times GAA Saturday liveblog will begin at 6.30pm.
Dublin’s opening shots in the campaign that will decide the fate of the historical five-in-a-row ambitions will be fired in Portlaoise on Saturday evening against Louth. The champions haven’t been beaten in Leinster for nine years and few expect any surprising developments in that narrative this weekend.
Wheels within wheels: the county’s attempt at immortality will be assisted by – in one way – the most successful championship footballer in history.
Centrefielder and current Player of the Year, Brian Fenton, has now completed 25 unbeaten matches since making his debut, totalling 1,861 minutes [source: Gerry Callan’s comprehensively excellent Complete Record of Dublin Football] – more than any other player in the four-in-a-row.
Since making his championship debut in 2015, he has risen to become regarded as the top centrefielder in the modern game. John Divilly, his Sigerson coach in UCD, has no doubts on the matter.
“I don’t remember Jack O’Shea but, in my time, Brian’s the best midfielder I’ve ever seen.”
He emerged from Raheny, which has become a production line of Dublin centrefielders since Ciarán Whelan, continuing through Fenton and then last year’s latest All Star, Brian Howard.
There was a fair degree of publicity after last year’s All-Ireland that the three nominations for Footballer of the Year were all from the Dublin cohort of 1993 but whereas the trajectory of Jack McCaffrey and Ciarán Kilkenny was astral from the word go, Fenton was a slower burn.
“I would never have seen him where he is today,” says Raheny’s Brendan Keane, who first brought the player into senior.
“He was a late developer after minor. It’s unusual because in Dublin if you’re not flagged at 14 or 15 chances are you won’t break through. Brian was involved in development squads on the way up but he wasn’t ‘destined for greatness’ like Jack or Ciarán.
“There were more talented players at 17 and 18 but they didn’t have his attitude and self-drive. I took him into the senior panel because of the usual summer numbers situation – people away on holidays or gone for the summer on J1s.
“Initially I thought, ‘he’s so skinny he’ll be blown away’. Ciarán Whelan worked with him and he wasn’t sure that Brian would make it. But he shot up at 18 and 19 by which stage fellas have normally finished the growth spurts.
“What I saw in him was firstly that instead of placing him at wing half forward, he should be an out-and-out midfielder and secondly his balance and ability to kick off both sides. Also he’s phenomenally intelligent.”
Fenton did surface on the under-age scene despite being hampered by injury along the way and lined out at centrefield for Dublin’s 2014 All-Ireland U-21 win under the management of Dessie Farrell.
There was a further intervention earlier in the year that was by consensus, critical. He had enrolled in UCD to study physiotherapy and came within the ambit of Divilly, the Galway All-Ireland winner and former UCD Sigerson medallist.
The more immediate, local influence, came from the late Dave Billings, college GAA development officer and an encyclopaedia on the Dublin club scene.
“Dave tipped me off that he was coming,” says Divilly, “and earmarked him as a player that could really develop. I started him at wing forward and he struck me as a really skilful footballer, left and right and with great balance – always had time of the ball. Maybe in the early days he was a little bit casual but in the Dublin camp he acquired a great work ethic. Also very coachable and very intelligent.”
These qualities were on display in his first year with Dublin. Fenton went in against Mayo in the 2015 semi-final acutely conscious that his eye-catching progress up to the last four of the All-Ireland had been comparatively untested.
His apprehensions looked prophetic when turning over possession three times in the first half and Dublin ended up lucky to survive with a draw. Just six days later, though, his performance was transformed and needed to be as the team again flirted with disaster until an explosive last quarter lifted them clear.
Fenton provided assists for two of the three Dublin goals. It was a striking testament to his ability to absorb lessons, analyse and adapt. A fortnight later and he was rampaging through the Kerry centrefield on his way to picking up the Man of the Match award in the All-Ireland final as well as an All Star in his rookie year.
“He’s very calm, relaxed individual,” according to Divilly, “with a nice personality. But on the field, he’s a warrior. He doesn’t go around belting lumps out of his opponents; he’s not a Darragh Ó Sé, who outmuscled and dominated physically. He glides around and has this great pace.
“He doesn’t look for contact but doesn’t lose the ball either and he can sidestep defenders and shoot off either foot. When he played for UCD first at wing forward, his instinct was to foot-pass, pick out forwards inside. We had to say, ‘you’re allowed shoot, yourself!”
In his career he has leveraged his sporting profile and physiotherapy degree to work as a specialist surgery sales executive for Tekno Surgical, the medical devices and equipment company.
Despite a busy life, Brendan Keane says Fenton remains a staunch club man.
“His friends are still there and he helps out with the nursery and other teams, always available – he’ll turn up of an evening to watch the hurlers and when he and Brian Howard are playing for the footballers there’ll be a crowd in St Anne’s Park.
“It’s brilliant for the club.”