WHEN we think of Eddie Brennan now, we picture him roaring down on goal, smashing it past some helpless keeper and then furiously springing into and thumping the air; another goal and kill completed.
Only DJ Carey in the last 25 years scored more championship goals. Only Ring, Shefflin and Doyle have won as many All-Ireland medals on the pitch. Well before the end of his career, he had come to personify so much of what Cody’s Kilkenny has been about. He had power as well as pace; steel as well as style. He was ruthless, relentless, resilient: in short, a winner.
The beauty and brilliance of Brennan’s career is there were times during it that no one saw him in such terms. He was seen as flaky and all flash; a man who couldn’t produce at the highest level or on the biggest stage. His retirement might have been extraordinarily low-key just as his career itself was extraordinarily brilliant, each perhaps because of the shadow and influence of more totemic figures like Cody and Shefflin, but there was a time when people wouldn’t have expected any mention of him at all.
Up until his final year in St Kieran’s, the coaches of the school senior team didn’t even know he attended. Denis Philpott just happened to be at a minor championship game between James Stephens and Graigue-Ballycallan one evening when he was struck by the pace of Graigue’s wing forward. When he enquired who was the lad at number 12, the woman beside him proudly piped up: “That’s my Edward.”
Only until that conversation with Kathleen Brennan did Philpott learn about the greyhound that had been under his nose.
Brennan was different that way. While prodigies like Keher, Carey, Ronan, Shefflin and Hogan came to you, jumped at you, some Kilkenny mentors had to go out of their way to come across Brennan. When Richie Power first scouted him for the Kilkenny U21s, Brennan was playing for his club junior team. At 21 he still couldn’t break onto the club’s senior starting line-up — in fact he’d play senior championship for Kilkenny before he’d play it with his club.
Who was he going to get in ahead off in the club’s forward line? Micheál Hoyne had played three years for the county minors and was considered a better prospect than his brother John prior to an accident. Denis Byrne was on the verge of becoming an All Star. Eddie O’Dwyer was another brilliant underage player. Damien Cleere scored four points from play in the 1993 All-Ireland minor final. Adrian Ronan was once seen as the equal of his St Kieran’s classmate DJ Carey. Brennan wasn’t a blue-chip talent like that.
As a kid he was small, and by his own admission, “a bit timid”. While he was devastating picking up ball in the open space, he would struggle to win independent ball.
A couple of years playing Fitzgibbon hurling for the Garda College under Ken Hogan toughened him up, while Power with the U21s helped him develop his first touch. Within a year of Power seeing him score 2-2 for the club juniors that night, Brennan would strike for a goal in both an All-Ireland U21 and senior final for victorious Kilkenny teams.
Even then there were further tests and doubts. The transition of going from playing junior hurling one summer to playing with DJ and Shefflin the next wasn’t an easy one. It took until 2002 for him to break onto the Kilkenny first 15. Even when he was outstanding for most of 2003 and 2004, people were quick to jump on the fact he failed to score in both All-Ireland finals. To the cynic, he hadn’t the nerve or the bottle of a real legitimate Kilkenny forward.
How he changed all that. In 2006 he reinvented himself as a dogged ball-winning wing forward more than adept at making scores as well as taking them.
His response to drawing a blank in back-to-back All-Irelands in 2003 and 2004 was to reel off 3-9 between the 2007 and 2008 All-Ireland deciders. On the eve of that 2007 championship, he admitted: “I was often standing back and waiting for it to happen [in finals] rather going out and making it happen.”
Suffice to say, against Limerick and Waterford those two Septembers, he made it happen, effectively killing each game when pummelling the net.
In the 2009 final while Shefflin only touched the ball once in the opening 60 minutes, Brennan in the first half alone scored three points and set up two more. Last year’s All-Ireland was effectively sealed by a Richie Hogan goal he created. Add that to his contributions in 2007, ‘08 and ‘09 and can you think of a forward of the last 40 years that has served up more vintage All-Ireland final displays? And to think they once thought he was a choker. And that he himself used to think he was timid. In shedding all the labels Edward Brennan helped carve out hurling history.