‘It’s a kind a magic’: The life and times of Brian Fenton
Dublin midfielder: ‘My overriding memory is how lucky we were to get another crack at it’
Dublin’s Brian Fenton celebrating with manager Jim Gavin after the All–Ireland final replay in Croke Park. Photograph: Oisin Keniry/Inpho
There is a time and a place for every Dublin footballer to find his peace from all the noise, and Brian Fenton is nearly there. It’s somewhere between another night before and a proper getaway the morning after, and it’s to meet his old man for a pint in the Raheny institution that is The Cedar Lounge.
“You’re lucky you caught me,” he says. “I’m off to Spain in the morning, and the last few days have just been, ah, amazing, intense. It’s nice just to sit down, take stock, have a local pint. Brian Howard lives around the corner, he’ll be there with his dad too. Jack McCaffrey might knock in. Something about that. It’s a kind of magic.”
Lucky, magic: Fenton repeatedly echoes those two words in the generous time he gives here, and after taking some stock it’s easy to understand why. For a start he’s still feeling the magic of the night before, when a session broke out in another Dublin institution that is The Lord Edward and sounds very lucky for those who were there.
“Ah, I live for those moments. After last year’s All-Ireland we had a session with Kevin McManamon, who actually lives with Danny O’Reilly, from the Coronas, out in The Dropping Well. Danny’s mam Mary Black was there, and I’d be a huge fan of them in their own right. They showed up, played a few songs, it was just incredible.
“We’d a few videos and actually this year Jack McCaffrey texted me to say ‘would I send him those videos’ one of the days after the drawn match. We’d had a tough week after a close game, and Jack just said, ‘will you send me those videos of Mary Black singing last year’ just as a little pick me up or something.
“So this year we had another one in The Lord Edward. We had Mary Black again, Danny again, Christy Dignam sang. We’d a fella who reads open poetry Stephen James Smith. It’s genuinely one of the reasons I do it, to celebrate in moments like that with your team mates, your partners, your loved ones.
“I know there seemed to be that sort of narrative over the last few years, that we’re a team of robots or whatever. We are genuinely such good friends. And to hear Jack McCaffrey speak earlier this week about what football meant to him, after visiting the children’s hospital. I’m just so proud to know him.
“To have Ciarán Kilkenny, Brian Howard, my personal best friends, then to play with Stephen Cluxton, Bernard Brogan, Michael Darragh Macauley...
“It’s great when you also get to see a bit of these personalities. There is a love there, and that I really think that is the secret. The bond, the friendship, it’s such a special place to be. And I know I’m just so lucky to be a part of it.”
It’s clear these aren’t shallow emotions, that the meaning of it all runs far deeper than simply winning that record fifth successive All-Ireland by the age of 26.
It’s also about what it means to the Brian Fenton who is his dad, and would mean to the loved one they both lost when his mother Marian died in 2013, just before he began to become the Dublin footballer he is now.
That’s also behind the magic he conjures up on the football field, and why meeting his dad is always part of the peaceful aftermath, not to talk possessions or assists or how many championship matches he’s now gone unbeaten (36, for those who are counting). For starters his dad is a Kerry man, born and bred, and there’s a different kind of magic about that.
“My dad is old school, a man who keeps his cards close to his chest, but we’re all emotional humans, we want that bit of recognition. When I catch his eye in the stand after a game there are no words, just a look that says ‘I’m proud of you’, and that’s how I get my kicks.
“He played quite a bit himself, was a bit of a troubadour. So he went to Templemore, to join the guards, straight out of Killarney aged 18, 19. Then got stationed in Dublin, played a bit with Beann Eadair in Howth, a bit with Ballymun Kickhams as well. Then he was stationed in Donegal for a while, played there, still has good friends up there.
Old school mentality
“Then he came back to Dublin, was an inspector in Raheny, bought the house here, then all us sprogs came along. I’ve moved out of the family home the last few months, still ring him every day, but when I was there I’d come home from training and he’d want to know everything.
“You know, the last thing you want to talk about is training, but he’d want to know was I okay, sleeping enough, just wanting the best for me, that old school mentality.
“So I know I owe it to a lot of people, the likes of the late Dave Billings of UCD, the likes of my mam, always, that I want to pay back. Which always makes it an emotional few days in that way too.”
The Cedar Lounge might be vaguely familiar to those who remember certain scenes from The Snapper, only for Fenton it brings things back in another sense. He grew up around here at a time when Dublin couldn’t win an All-Ireland to save their lives.
He was born in 1993, was two years old when Dublin won their last All-Ireland before 2011, and when he was first called into the senior team in 2015, relatively unannounced beyond an All-Ireland under-21 title the year before, Dublin were actually a beaten team from the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Donegal.
No one could have expected he would be unbeaten in 36 championship matches in all five summers since.
“It was exactly like that, so not expected, which is why the team makes it for you. I remember, yes, I was star struck, in awe of these fellas. But at the same time you want to prove yourself. You probably even have that bit of a chip on your shoulder.
“I remember 2015, my first year on the panel. Clucko was so welcoming in the first place, then I get an invite to his wedding with his now wife Joanne. I still felt like an imposter, the number one Dubs fan, and here I was at his wedding. To play with than man, ah, I could talk for the next two hours about him.”
There’s a picture that captures that, Fenton with his arms around Cluxton, taken just after Saturday’s replay win over Kerry, James McCarthy beside them. In those moments there is nothing said. “It’s just telepathy, you could see the emotion in his face. It’s like relief, release, but also the elation.”
Still, all this is nothing without some innate drive, something Fenton says was instilled from an early age through his mother, an Irish champion swimmer and sister of Irish Olympian David Cummins, who swam in Moscow in 1980.
“I was that kid in the playground or in class that absolutely hated losing. Probably from the group of friends I hung around with as well. Sport was everything, and we wanted to compete in whatever sport it was. I knew no different, swimming on a Tuesday, Gaelic football on a Wednesday, maybe a bit of soccer on a Thursday.
“My mother was the main driver behind the swimming, and I won an under-14 medal in the 100m butterfly down in Limerick. I remember I played a soccer match that morning, and my mam drove me down straight after. I also did the breaststroke, which I was better at, but hated it.
“My sister, Anne Marie, was a very good swimmer, got to compete for Ireland in the Youth Olympics. She also won one of these Irish Examiner sports awards, and Seán Óg Ó hAilpín was there, Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh was there. When I saw the pictures the next day I was thinking ‘oh my God, I need to achieve something like that’, and maybe that’s where that came from. I certainly haven’t lost it, and I’m still hungry for more.
“With swimming as well you’re training 11, 12 times a week at that age. For me I couldn’t commit to that. My love was a team sport, which is why I think it was always going to be GAA, and I’ve got to thank my dad for that.
“And I’ve probably been to more Munster finals than Leinster over the years in Killarney. We’d be drinking outside Jimmy O’Brien’s bar, someone would point out Jack O’Shea, or some other legend, ‘look over there, he’s won this many All-Irelands’. Maybe that does seep into you.
“Where else it came from I don’t know, but I know I have to give credit to what Jim Gavin has created, and the likes of Clucko, Jonny Cooper. The culture they created, and which allows the likes of myself to come in in 2015, and then Con O’Callaghan a year later. Just be that footballer we are now, to keep bettering ourselves.”
There is his life outside of football too. After three years working as a physiotherapist at Beaumont Hospital he has gone back to do his masters in business management at UCD Smurfit, having already moved into the business side of the profession with Tekno Surgical. He lists off some of the many other professions within the team, and then takes some gentle offence even before the subject of money comes up.
“Look, I know the money thing is always thrown at us. I just wish people knew what it was like on the ground for us. Yes, we have an amazing coaching staff, an amazing medical team, but we train in Innisfáils in the winter, train in DCU in the summer, and people are just so competitive to progress their careers on and off the field.
“And as much as people like to think AIG pay our wages, they don’t. I see the headlines, the €17 million in funding over so many years, and I honestly don’t know enough about it, where that goes, but I know it doesn’t pay for the hard work we put in as athletes.
“It can be frustrating when you’re painted with that brush, ‘oh, they’re all professionals’. I’m not bitter about it because we see how hard Cian O’Sullivan worked to get back for replay, Jonny Cooper, Darren Daly coming back. Look, we’re competitors, always looking to know where we can do better.
“And that is a big thing in our dressing room. Jim is such a big advocate of getting the balance right, having that good relationship with the girlfriend or partner, being good at your job, making sure there’s no stress.
“In a way I think a lot of that was released after the drawn game. It was right back to brass tacks, just win the match. We knew we didn’t perform to our best, and if we did the next time we’d put ourselves in a great position.
“For sure, after the drawn game, I had to fight my own demons. I’d be slumping around for a day or two, thinking you didn’t play well, people saying ‘he got roasted’, whatever.
“That’s always a challenge, to fight those thoughts, remember what you’re good at. I still haven’t watched the drawn game fully yet, honestly. I just remember it being absolutely frantic, and once the man was sent off some things do go out the window and we went into survival mode. My overriding memory is how lucky we were to get another crack at it. You’re trying so hard to get on the ball, and sometimes it does just pass you by. That happens.
“And personally coming into this year, having won footballer of the year, I thought maybe there was this bit of a trend. That a footballer of the year doesn’t always have the most successful year the year after they reach a certain height. So a big drive for me was to be more consistent. Can I score more, prove my worth from last year?
“I didn’t want to have anyone say, ‘that footballer of the year, it went to his head’. I don’t want to let any opponent outdo me, which is why for the replay that little extra motivation was there. So it’s certainly not as easy as it might look sometimes for any of us.
“Look, I was, still am, genuinely a fan. I was on the Hill in 2014, and to think I’ve been out there since, I know I’ve been so lucky, that I came at this time, into this team. I could have been born 10 years before or 10 years later.” Luck or magic, take your pick.