Brian Fenton takes Tyrone’s close attention as a compliment
Raheny man and four-time All Ireland winner still unbeaten in championship football
Bruised but unbowed: Dublin’s Brian Fenton at the final whistle. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
If you can keep your head while all about you are trying to get inside it. If you can wait, not be tired by waiting, don’t give way to hating. And if you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue ... then your name must be Brian Fenton.
Only with Fenton it’s not so much the if, but the when. He wasn’t the only Dublin player who stood up in the face of the unkind – from the throw-in, as it turns out – but he was the sheer embodiment of it, forcing heart and nerve and sinew to serve their turn long after they were gone, with two neat souvenirs to prove it. Not just his two points from play.
And at 25, a fourth successive All-Ireland and still incomprehensibly unbeaten in a senior championship match. No wonder Fenton emerges from the Dublin dressing room about an hour after closing time, beaming, with no dressing on those two bright beaming souvenirs, directly above and below his right eye.
These are the battle marks of a player sent to war in midfield. Tyrone sent a player directly on to him for the clear and present purpose of putting him off his game: Conor Meyler, a late replacement for full forward Richard Donnelly, straight away went in on Fenton – or rather into his face and ear and everything else within reach of it.
And everything failed. Fenton won’t be tested on his virtue in the aftermath but it was clear Meyler tested it during the game, on and off the ball and everywhere else in between. And when Dublin’s heads were needed, Fenton was always there, turning the kick-outs irrepressibly in their favour, 29 of 31 won by the end, directly influencing those around him.
“I think that [black eye] was from the throw-in,” Fenton says with a smile. “I remember after the throw-in just feeling it. So yeah, it was physical all right. But to be fair, I did have a man in my face for most of the game, talking the talk, but look, you have to take that. It’s a compliment I suppose from Tyrone, that Mickey Harte would put a player looking after you, man-marking you, but you’re well used to that at this stage. It’s just so special to come out with the win.”
The Raheny man came in at the start of the 2015 All-Ireland with no great reputation, other than having been a champion underage swimmer. He finished that season with a man-of-the-match performance in the final.
In truth Fenton was a contender for that honour here, too, even as the likes of Paul Mannion, Ciarán Kilkenny and Jack McCaffrey showed their virtues as well, but something about the way he kept putting the motion back into his poetry sets him apart. Unruffled, undaunted, unbreakable.
“I was just saying to the lads, it’s those first couple of seconds and minutes, straight after the game, when you see your family and your friends, and you get to share all that with the players, is something so unique, and so special, and just incredible. And just feels amazing. To play for Dublin, in this era, is such a privilege, and to be healthy and young and playing in Croke Park, it’s a dream come true.”
Mannion’s penalty, lethally converted, lifted Dublin’s game but never did their heads drop.
“Yeah, and we really did need that,” says Fenton, “because Tyrone started with such an intensity. We definitely needed that penalty to bring us back in it. But look, we all know it’s a 70, 80 minute game at this stage, and we knew we had time, and the lads to come in off the bench, and everything else in favour. So we didn’t worry, we didn’t panic. Obviously it wasn’t the ideal start but thankfully we came through.”
And all while keeping their heads.
“Our guys don’t blink,” noted Jim Gavin, “which is a great characteristic to have.”
Even when tested off the ball?
“It’s an All-Ireland final, there’s a lot on the line, so players are pushing each other really hard. It is a physical contact sport, it is what it is ... We go after the skills of the game, we have worked hard at that in the last number of years and we probably got due reward.
“In the opening 10 or 15 minutes, we were a little bit wayward. The Tyrone boys put them under pressure, but the mental resolve in that Dublin team is just a pleasure to witness. The collective ethos they have, they see the prize serving the county not the self. It is team, team, team ... and I think they have demonstrated that again today.”
Fenton’s Raheny clubmate Brian Howard is likewise unbeaten in the championship, collecting his second All-Ireland. Not something either of them could ever have envisaged.
“It is, yeah, unbelievable, but not something I particularly think about either. I’m just one of 15 on the pitch, one of 26 on the match day, and that’s not just saying that. I have some part to play, but there is a lot more going on than just me. As I said, to play in this era, with these players, under Jim Gavin, is so special, and I’m so lucky to be a part of it.”
Only now, inevitably, comes the talk of Fenton continuing this unbeaten championship run with Dublin in 2019, for a fifth successive All-Ireland, and crossing that precipice of history.
“It is, it is, but my dad is a Kerry man, and keeps reminding me of the heartbreak of 1982, and the Offaly last minute goal. But look, four in a row wasn’t talked about at the end of last year, so we’ll just enjoy this. I’m sure Jim Gavin will have a plan to go again in December, January, but we’ll enjoy this for a while, then hopefully come back as strong next year.”
Not if, but when.