Undefeated in Championship as a Dublin senior footballer — all of 35 games and yet to experience a defeat. Five All-Ireland medals from five attempts. Four All-Stars. 2018 footballer of the year.
Success, we might believe, has come as easy for Brian Fenton as his movement around a field but we would be wrong. “I’ve been lucky… but yeah, I’ve a couple of soppy stories to tell,” he says.
His reacquaintance with Dessie Farrell brings that fact into sharp focus. It was Farrell who cut him adrift from a Dublin minor panel nine years ago and it was the same man who felt he wasn’t good enough to start as an U21.
Fenton knew he had been struggling as a minor. Yet to fill out physically or come close to his eventual 6’ 5” frame, he had known before he was told by Farrell that he would be surplus to requirements.
“He sent Noel McCaffrey as a warning first. Noel was our team doctor at the time and I was very close to Noel being very close to Jack (Noel’s son). I got this text from Noel one day saying, ‘Come on and we’ll go for a walk down the coast in Raheny’.
“He said, ‘Look, you’re not playing well.’ I said I knew and I remember leaving that conversation bawling my eyes out, like. I was more or less told it’s not going to happen and I met Dessie and it was more of the same.”
And so it was that Fenton watched on from Hill 16 as Dublin dramatically lost to Tipperary in that year’s All-Ireland final.
A dislocated knee then upset his Freshers experience in UCD but he was able to work on rehabbing that as well as conditioning in the gym.
At the same time, he flourished with Raheny under the management of Ciarán Whelan.
“It was a blessing in disguise to get injured because I would have been on the conveyor belt type thing and maybe fallen off it.”
After being called up for a brief spell for the U20s under Jim Gavin in 2012, Farrell came calling the following season. Only he was unable to claim a starting place with Shane Carthy lording it in midfield.
Fenton had suffered the loss of his mother in late December 2013 but Carthy’s battle with depression reached a peak prior to the following April’s All-Ireland U21 semi-final against Cavan. It opened a door Fenton didn’t anticipate despite his protestations to Farrell following a team meeting around the time of that year’s Leinster U21 final.
“I remember pinning Dessie out in that (Parnell Park offices) corridor — ‘Dessie, I’m f...ing playing well.’ Well, I was very timid at that time, I was ‘please, Dessie.’ I said, ‘Look, I feel like I’m going well. I haven’t come on as a sub.’ I think I came on as a sub in the first round against Carlow. I said, ‘What can I do?’ and that sort of stuff.
“He gave classic manager sort of answers — ‘Stick with it, you might get a break’. Then everything just unravelled and I was in.”
That was in spite of Fenton, so frustrated with his lack of game-time, swerving a training session just before the All-Ireland semi-final.
“I actually went to a college ball. I was like ‘I’m not going on’, this bullshit and whatever. I went to a college physio ball on a Thursday night, ballsy enough and missed a session. I was like ‘look, I’m not getting on, I’m pissed off here’.
“Dessie rang me on the Friday, number one giving out to me. And number two, ‘Do you want to start?’ I started, played well, started the final, played well and I went from there and got a call from Jim.”
Other than the odd well-intended jibe in the media, Fenton has never broached the experience with Farrell. There’s an intimidating factor, he admits. “I still get nervous when Jim used to ring me. You’d see “JG” on the phone – ‘what did I do?’
Farrell wasn’t best pleased with Fenton or pretty much any other starter at half-time in Croke Park last Saturday but it was the sternness of James McCarthy that catapulted Fenton into life as Dublin had been 10 points down after 30 minutes.
“You’re looking around the dressing room at half-time and you’re almost embarrassed. People have come to watch you. It’s a crap day. Hill 16 is half full. Your family is there. So I don’t know.
“You have the likes of James McCarthy in the dressing-room staring you down. You’re saying, ‘Right, I better shape up in this half.’ We were just sniffing away. Even late on, we were still eight or nine down with 10 to go. But you never know, like.
“For me, I don’t know whether it’s a personal thing or a chip on the shoulder, but you never want to be beaten. Or certainly not lie down. You’re better off seeing what happens. Gamble. Plans are out the window and you just tear into it.
“And it’s a nice way to play football. Because so much of it now is planned. It’s great to play off the cuff. It’s more than a pride thing. Challenging each other and being competitive. Then the stats – who got more tackles? Who got the highest GPS? Who put it in the second half? Who stood up?
“Because I know in sport, successful teams die off. And it may happen. But hopefully not. Because there’s a desire in our dressing room that goes beyond awards and medals. It’s just competitive. I’d hate for Ciarán (Kilkenny) to beat me in distance or Ciarán to beat me in tackles. It’s just the competitive nature among us. That keeps driving us.”
Brian Fenton was speaking at the launch of Dublin GAA’s new official car partner Mitsubishi.