Seán Moran: Brogan’s dogged perseverance one of his great attributes
Outstanding forward epitomised Dublin’s transformation but endured frustrations
Bernard Brogan lifts the Sam Maguire after Dublin’s victory over Tyrone in 2018. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
It was Jim McCartan, pioneering Down All-Ireland winner and father of James, who first floated the line past me.
I was curious why he hadn’t been among the small group of players who had won all three All-Ireland medals with the county in the 1960s given that he had been still in his 20s in 1968.
He said that it had been put to him by Armagh All Star Paddy Moriarty’s father, a Kerry man who shared Jim’s interest in greyhounds, that it was better to go and have people wondering why you’d gone rather than stay and have people wonder why you were still there.
Bernard Brogan was, until his retirement nearly a year ago, the highest-profile name in the most successful playing group in football history.
Yet in a frustrating coda to his brilliant career, Brogan spent the last three years battling away – with minimal encouragement – to reclaim for himself a role in the Dublin team on its way to making history with five successive All-Irelands.
At a SuperValu launch the May before last, he spoke with such enthusiasm and determination about “adding value” to the panel that he seemed convinced that there would be a marvellous epilogue despite his ominous omission from any role in the defeat of Louth a few days previously.
In the autobiography The Hill, written with Kieran Shannon [Reach Sport, €20], Brogan agonises over the exclusion, which includes being left out of training matches, essentially outside of the first 30.
Occasional one-on-ones with Dublin manager Jim Gavin – by Brogan’s own assessment, not great at breaking bad news – appear to the reader to be damning with faint motivation but instead provide the player with the fuel to blast on.
His wife Keira becomes weary of the constant drama. After his umpteenth railing at exclusion from some league panel – “Am I wasting my time here, do you think?” – she replies, “I can’t answer that question for you. Sure I thought you were gone weeks ago!”
He perseveres all the way until he sits on the bench for last year’s Kerry replay and the fabled fifth title. Except by then he’s suffered so many setbacks that the selection – he doesn’t get to play – comes as a surprise.
Naturally these difficulties have absorbed most of the attention of those reading the memoir but there are matters of greater complexity and nuance in what was a seminal career in the service of his county, as Dublin became the dominant force in football.
He and his older brother Alan helped to forge a dynasty – his father Bernard and uncle, Jim – were part of the Kevin Heffernan revolution in the 1970s. Another brother Paul and cousin, James were also involved in the last decade before injury prematurely shut both of them down.
At first he’s only following and writes unaffectedly about how he was happy to be simply “Alan’s brother”. Alan captains the first Dublin team to win an under-21 All-Ireland while Bernard is on the sideline as an unused replacement. A compelling talent in his own right, it still takes time for him to get noticed.
Even Alan isn’t sure, telling his brother that it’s only when the latter kicks 0-7 from play, off Paul Griffin in the 2008 county final that he realises “I was going to become the player that I would”.
Bernard remains grateful to Paul Caffrey for being the first Dublin manager to pick him but in whose management style he detects principles that won’t prove universal, like players paying their dues by serving an apprenticeship before becoming first-choice.
It was a hard road that he travelled but his eyes are opened when Jim Gavin makes significant changes in the first year of management. By then Bernard is in his pomp and one of the most (justifiably) feared forwards in the game and so radical change poses no threat.
Yet it is under Pat Gilroy that Brogan becomes a dominant force. This process is uncomfortable, as the new manager pushes him hard to realise potential, demanding increased work-rate and cracking down hard when the player tries to argue from first principles that keeping two fresh forwards inside preserves a more plausible attacking menace.
He allows that he would track a defender to the 45 but no farther. Gilroy snaps on him like a Venus fly trap. “Oh, right. So you think someone else should cover your runs and you can save your energy, is it?”
The team meeting laughs at Brogan and prompts the slightly wounded recollection: “I find it funny now but I didn’t find it funny then”.
But by the time that season is done, Dublin are established contenders and he is Footballer of the Year, 12 months before Alan takes the same accolade.
Brogan becomes such a central influence that he almost defines Dublin until well into the decade. His goal in the 2010 semi-final sets up the performance that nearly derails Cork’s All-Ireland-winning summer and announces his team as a new presence whereas the five-in-a-row might never have happened but for his tour de force in the replayed 2015 semi-final against Mayo.
His detailing of how he evolved his mental preparation is well observed and at times amusing: “visualisation – as a kid I just called it day dreaming”; it also explains how he worked at acquiring the mental discipline not be distracted on the field.
He also makes interesting observations about a host of other topics, for instance how he finds kicking a big tally of points more satisfying than scoring goals.
Together with his cousin James, Brogan establishes a consultancy business and as the most recognisable face of Dublin he has already made contacts with plenty of PR firms – to the extent that he frankly acknowledges sponsorship opportunities as an issue within the dressing-room when about to demand earlier ball into the forwards.
“I’d be conscious of that because I’m a striker and I’ve done more commercial work and media through the years than other lads so there’s a slight possibility for someone to misinterpret my motives; I leave calling out to someone like Kevin Mc(Manamon) whose motives will never be questioned.”
Someone who’d know Bernard Brogan a lot better than I would said that he still found out new things about him when reading the book. That’s a fair recommendation about someone whose polished media image never cracked during a long career.
And what a career.