Gary Brennan: ‘I won’t pretend I’ll fully understand hurling’

When Gary Brennan tries to describe his relationship with hurling and this magical, unlikely journey he and Ballyea have found themselves on, he’ll often break into a light laugh.

Ballyea's Gary Brennan takes to the field before the Munster Club SHC Final against Glen Rovers at Semple Stadium. Picture: James Crombie
Ballyea's Gary Brennan takes to the field before the Munster Club SHC Final against Glen Rovers at Semple Stadium. Picture: James Crombie

Yes, he’ll accept, his hurling has possibly come on and he’s definitely had the hurley in his hand a lot more than he normally would.

“But at the same time,” he’ll interject with a self- deprecating smile, “I won’t ever pretend that I’ll fully understand hurling!”

Its randomness and simplicity can bemuse him as much as it has charmed him. A lot of the time it can seem as if the sport is just a matter of getting it and thumping it.

“You’d be looking at it as a footballer, going, ‘Why wouldn’t you pass it to a free man?! Or at least give it to the forward’s advantage rather than just lashing it?!’”

In football, the play is going to go through you at some stage, no matter where on the field you play, especially, though not that he’ll say it, if you’re Gary Brennan, one of the most complete midfielders in the county.

In hurling, he finds you can go large periods of the game being bypassed, a virtual spectator. When Ballyea laid siege to their opponents in the Munster final against Glen Rovers and again in the All-Ireland semi-final against St Thomas’, there was little need for Brennan or the rest of the full-forward line to ram down the drawbridge; by accident or design, it ended up being almost exclusively a surface-to-air assault both days, such was the precision bombing of Niall Deasy, Tony Kelly, and Gudgie O’Connell from out the field.

Not that Brennan had any problem with that.

“I was quite happy to see it going over my head and over the bar. I was quite happy to be just watching the play!”

Anyone following Ballyea’s run to Croke Park will quickly disrupt Brennan’s stream of modesty and point out that it was Brennan himself who fired probably the most important shot of the entire campaign. Deep into injury-time of their Munster semi-final, Ballyea were trailing Thurles Sarsfields by three points. As Tony Kelly would point out afterwards: “We needed a wonder moment to get back into it.”

Brennan would provide it with a magnificent catch, run and strike to bring the game into extra-time. “If it was inter-county level,” Kelly would say, “you’d be raving about Gary’s goal.”

Brennan himself though will qualify the majesty of the goal. “If I was a hurler, I’d be real proud of it!” he laughs once more. “But I can’t claim I had it in my head that I was going to go out, catch that ball, turn around and bury it to the net.”

He had calculated alright that if Jack Browne connected sweetly with his sideline ball it could land in his vicinity; in such an eventuality, Brennan wanted to be coming onto the ball instead of being caught underneath it.

But after securing possession above his head and turning towards goal, his immediate thought was “Help!”

Pearse Lillis provided some by peeling his run off to the right, taking another defender with him, but that then created another difficulty for Brennan as he bore down on goal.

“I had gone so far, I said, ‘Feck this, I’ve to hit this now! See what happens!’ I’d already caught it twice so I hit it straight off the hurley. Honest to God, it could have gone anywhere. I think it went about an inch under the crossbar, so there was a lot of relief when I saw it hit the net.”

By this point you’ve probably accepted that Brennan will never feel totally at ease with a hurl the way he would with a football, but what you must also understand is that he’s always felt totally at home and at ease with Ballyea. Although football is the game he’s given preference to, he’s always viewed himself as much of Ballyea as Clondegad, the club that caters for the big ball in the locality.

One of the joys of this adventure has been the memories and reflective gratitude it has triggered, like the days when Eddie Liddy used to coach in the local national school. They only had enough to field seven-a-side, with two kids apiece coming from third and fourth class, and in one final they’d be annihilated by Ballycar from the traditional hurling stronghold of Newmarket-on-Fergus, but what Brennan remembers most is Liddy’s gentle and inspired tutelage.

He’d take them through the art of the blockdown, making sure that the striker of the ball in any drill was facing away from the river that ran beside the school. One day Brennan and his partner lost their bearings and when Brennan failed to properly execute the blockdown, he momentarily had visions of a precious ball floating out of sight; to his relief, he’d just about got enough on it for it to clip a fence that corralled the ball to safety.

It was Liddy who also taught him that a properly-structured forward line should operate like a pulley; if one forward moves out, another has to come in.

“Even then,” says Brennan, “he was teaching us the principle of always having someone in front of the goals to stretch the play.” Through the years county football would come to consume much of his time but Brennan would view hurling with Ballyea as sort of his social life and way to still hang out with close friends from home like Niall Keane. Even when the club would see little off him for long stretches, he’d be conscientious enough to still get in an alley session to make sure his touch was in some order for when the club would need him.

Now that they’re all getting to see much more of him, they’re all learning from him. Jack Browne is a county man himself, with the hurlers, but Brennan’s application has astonished him.

“He’s the ultimate professional,” says Browne. “At training he’ll be the first man to call a stretch, and when Gary calls a stretch, everyone listens, because you know you’re going to be doing it right. Even the other night at training Gudgie [Gearóid O’Connell, another county hurler] was asking Gary for advice about his diet. He does everything at 100%.”

Team selector Raymond ‘Reggie’ O’Connor gushes about his “sports head”; in other words, his game intelligence.

“You can see the more time Gary has with us, his hurling is getting better and better. But a huge part of his game for us is what he does without the ball. Other teams will be looking for fast puckouts but he’ll be roaring at one of our lads to come over and split that triangle. People don’t see the organisation that he brings to it.”

More than once over the campaign, Brennan has had it thrown at him by his marker: Stick to the football! The intention would have been to provoke or distract him but instead all it would have prompted was more laughter.

“I love hearing that! Because it’s like ‘No problem – I will be going back to it!’ One fella in particular had a right few gos at me and I just had to laugh, as if to say, ‘Hey, this is only upsetting you, it’s not upsetting me! I’m quite happy to be the footballer playing hurling. You’re the guy hurling all the time!’”

A few of them have got the same treatment. Pearse Lillis, Martin O’Leary, and Damien Burke are other members of the Ballyea attack that have played football for the county and the way they’ve come to view it, their limitations are also their strengths.

“The fact we have lads who would be seen to be footballers, we value our workrate more. We know that if we can disrupt the ball going down the field, it gives our backs a better chance.”

So, he keeps it that simple. Work hard. Win your battle. As much as Ballyea have got so much from Brennan’s big-time experience along this journey, he’ll be looking to take a lot of the Ballyea approach back to his inter-county football. He’d be a cerebral footballer. At times, too cerebral.

“Niall [Deasy] was quoted after one of the games saying we’ve no game plan, we just go out and hurl! It’s not quite as primitive as that but it’s all based on simple values. And I think the simpler it is for players, the freer they are then to express themselves. If all that’s in your head is to just go out, work hard, win the battle, win the ball, then with the talent we have on this team, everything else flows from that. Your mind is not cluttered playing with this team. You’re not sitting in tactical meetings for half an hour, there’s not a heap of video analysis and being told ‘You’ve to watch out for this fella when he turns this way....’

“I’m a big fan of video analysis and being prepared for things but you can certainly overdo it. And the simple approach suits this group. This group likes not having too much to focus on.

“I’ve tried to take some of that back to the football. In my own head I can complicate things. I don’t put the same pressure on myself when I’m playing the hurling. I’m more relaxed in my approach.

“If I went out and didn’t play well in a hurling game, I might be a bit frustrated but I wouldn’t be as down on myself as I would with the football. And so that makes it more enjoyable.

“I’m trying to bring more of that approach to the football.”

Already this year he’s played a couple of games with Clare. A little over an hour after Ballyea beat St Thomas’ under the Thurles floodlights, he was hopping into a mini-bus driven by Colm Collins’ brother Gerry, alongside his fellow clubmen Pearse Lillis, his own brother Shane, David Egan, and Michael O’Neill, the former county chairman, their destination — Letterkenny.

By the time they arrived at the Clare team hotel it was midnight but they barely felt the journey. The recovery blow-up compression pants the team’s S&C coach Keith Hennessy had ready for them to slip into eased any aches and pains from their earlier exertions while their spirits were giddy at the anticipation of both a club hurling All-Ireland final and more imminently, Clare’s first game in Division Two in 15 years.

“I didn’t feel like ‘God, it’s a trek going up there.’ And the next day up in Derry, I probably felt more energetic than I had in a lot of previous league games in February. People had been saying ‘God, it’ll be a busy weekend’ but an All Ireland semi-final and Division Two football were two things I’d always dreamt of playing in.”

It’s been quite a heady past 18 months for Brennan. Playing and winning for Ireland against Australia in Croke Park. Lifting a league trophy there with Clare, then helping them get back there for the first summer in 24 years. Now he’s heading up there with the club, a hurley in his hand.

Some of it will feel a little odd — his old close friend Niall Keane will be in the red and white corner for his adopted club Cuala — but even then Niall’s family has helped make this journey feel so right. After every game this past autumn and winter, Brennan’s met Niall’s father, Michael, out on the field. Eddie Liddy as well. Old mentors. Friends. Neighbours.

“Representing and captaining your county is very, very special. But when you’re then representing the houses beside you, the people beside you, when you have a brother and a first cousin [Brian Casey] involved, it elevates it to another level again.

“Over the Christmas [team manager] Robbie [Hogan] called into my grandparents with the two cups and it just hit you. How much this has connected the whole community and the different generations. How much it means to my family. There was a picture after the Thurles Sars game where I made a fist pump to the camera and my sister behind me did the same. She’s mortified about it! But it’s that emotion you can’t control.”

With the football final to follow, she and the likes of Eddie Liddy and Michael Keane won’t be allowed onto the field in Croke Park afterwards. But for one day, that’s okay.

For someone as honour bound as Brennan, it’ll be like they were already out there with him.

© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved

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