The Kilkenny team holiday in 2007 took us to New Zealand, and I found myself rooming with Eddie Brennan. It was just a random pairing – it wasn't like they made corner-backs bunk in with corner-forwards or anything. Even in Kilkenny we took holidays to be holidays.
Early one of the mornings we got a call to the room. The night before had been a late one, so we were probably still a bit sleepy when we picked up the phone. But we woke up pretty fast when the voice on the line started talking. It turned out one of the panel members hadn’t made it back to the hotel.
It wasn’t totally clear what had happened but the upshot was that he had gone missing and his phone was turned off. Only a few of us knew about it, and almost to a man we were freaking out. We hadn’t a clue what to do about it.
I say almost to a man because there was an exception. Eddie was completely calm while the rest of us were beside ourselves. He left us to our worries and went and made a few inquiries and sorted everything out.
What really struck me through it all was that he was so assured and relaxed about everything. Eddie was calm and almost like a daddy figure to us. You always felt safe around him.
That was off the pitch. On it was a different story. Any time Eddie slipped me with a shimmy and a quick turn and got inside me in training, he was the one player that forced me to act on instinct.
Usually in that scenario you have a moment to assess where you are, where your man is, where the goal is, where the cover is. It might only be a split second but that’s usually enough. When you’re in that situation enough times you don’t need much more than that to know what to do.
It was different when I had Eddie to deal with. Nobody had pace off the mark like he had, and nobody made up his mind quicker as to the best route to goal. You didn’t have the luxury of thinking. If he was in behind you not even 36 inches of ash could bridge the separation he would have created in that thinking moment. Whatever you were going to do, you had to do it straight away.
When he got inside you there was a shot at goal coming more often than not. Your only hope was to foul him or pray that you had cover. He had the instincts of an assassin. I found it out to my cost in training – Seamus Hickey, Eoin Murphy and Paudie Maher and others all found it out in matches. High-calibre players that he made look like junior hurlers at times.
The speed in his legs was only ever a part of it. I always felt that his speed of thought was just as potent a weapon because it was what made him ruthless. He didn’t settle for a point if he thought a goal was on – and nine times out of 10 he basically decided a goal was on once he got a bit of space. You had to match instinct with instinct when you played against him. Your reaction had to be instantaneous.
Eddie’s belief in himself as a finisher was bulletproof. He didn’t mind you catching and clearing a ball or two ahead of him. Actually, that’s not the right way to put it – he minded alright but it didn’t affect his mindset. He never thought, “ah look, it’s just not my day”. Eddie’s thought process would always have been, “you have to be lucky all the time, I only have to be lucky once”.
He would bide his time and as the game wore on and tiredness and mental fatigue crept in, Eddie became more dangerous. One chance, one goal. Five chances and you were probably looking at 4-1 – either that or you were depending on your goalkeeper to dig you out of a hole.
Mix it all in together and it’s no surprise to me at all that Eddie has leaped into the bainisteoir’s bib. Or that he has started getting results straight away. When you combine an ingrained killer instinct with that calmness and ability to step back and be patient and see the whole game, you have the sort of mind that marks you out as management material.
Eddie was always a leader in our dressing room. He was always looking at different ways to be different, if that makes any sense. If you stood still or if you kept coming back each year with the same tricks up your sleeve, then you became predictable. As a forward, he felt he couldn’t afford that. He had deep confidence in his abilities, but he felt he had to be an innovator as well.
It was on that basis that he remodelled his game as the years went by. As he got older, he found a way to be useful. He changed the thing he was best known for just so Brian Cody would be forced to keep finding a spot for him. That's the sign of someone who is both a deep thinker on the game and a problem-solver.
It’s not an easy thing to do either. Far from it. Go back and look at who Eddie Brennan was in the late-2000s. He was seen as one of the best corner-forwards in the game, if not the best. Definitely the best goal-getter in the game. He had All-Ireland medals and All Stars.
Above all he was judged to the highest standard anyone can be – the number in brackets after his name in the next day’s paper. If it was anything less than four points everyone decided straight away that he’d had a poor game. It didn’t matter what else he had done or contributed, he had to be delivering.
By 2009-10, he was in his early 30s. The burning pace that allowed him to skin the last defender was never going to last forever so he knew he had to change. As well as that, Richie Hogan, TJ Reid and Colin Fennelly were coming onto the scene. Younger, fresher players who could do things he couldn't go on doing.
Eddie has such an intelligent hurling brain, and he saw this as a challenge rather than an obstacle. He was so used to adapting his game and changing it up from year to year that he basically thought his way into a new role. He became a grafter, forced himself to be a ball-winner and moved out to the half-forward line.
I will argue all day that Eddie’s finest 60 minutes in a Kilkenny jersey was in the 2011 All-Ireland final against Tipperary. He was a few weeks short of his 33rd birthday and he had been on and off the team through the championship. But on the biggest day of the year Brian Cody started him in the final at wing-forward and gave him the job of nullifying Paudie Maher’s influence in the game.
It was Eddie’s last ever game in a Kilkenny jersey and he went out with a bang, doing something totally different to what he had made his name for. Apart from setting up Richie Hogan’s goal, the achievement of shutting down Tipp’s main provider of quality ball out of defence was massive.
I was marking Lar Corbett that day, and I felt Eddie's influence throughout. Lar had buried us the year before with his hat-trick in the final but we were able to contain him this time around.
Paudie Maher was normally such a regular supplier of pinpoint ball into Lar but on that afternoon Eddie harried him and hassled him to his last nerve. So much so that the ball he was hitting into Corbett was scarce – and what did come in was hit off the back foot, sending it high into the air and having it come down with snow on it. Any corner-back will deal with that sort of delivery all day long. I still owe Eddie a pint for that day. That’s his hurling IQ.
Watching Laois last weekend you can see his stamp over everything they did. He got his match-ups right, the prime example being the decision to draft in Eanna Lyons to go toe-to-toe with Chris Crummey. He showed serious flexibility in picking John Lennon as a sweeper, a tactic they hadn't used since the Waterford game in the league.
Jack Kelly went on Danny Sutcliffe, and then when he tired they got fresh legs on to continue to curb Danny's influence. He brought Charles Dwyer to midfield and then put him back into the full-forward line when he fatigued and released Aaron Dunphy back out the field. All the way through the game you could see his hurling brain at work. Constantly adapting to get the best out of his team.
But a big thing that jumped out at me was how they used the ball. The guy in the best position always gets the ball – something Cody drilled into us for years and years. Importantly, Eddie has a good management team around him in Niall Corcoran and Tommy Fitzgerald, which is another thing he would have seen first-hand under Brian.
Who knows where he’ll end up as a manager? He has learned from the best, and he’ll keep learning because that’s the way he’s always been.
Sunday will be a big test for Laois, but they have nothing to lose so he will let them go and enjoy it. One thing is for sure, he’ll be a massive calming presence for those players on the biggest day of their lives.