When Alan Brogan recently selected the 15 footballers he felt should be honoured at Friday’s All-Stars, he ran out of superlatives for Brian Fenton.
“It’s difficult to find something to say about Fenton that hasn’t already been said.”
Everyone that follows and covers Gaelic Games could identify with Brogan — there’s only so many times you can mention the Raheny man has yet to lose a championship game in a Dublin shirt — but crunching the numbers, we’ve found there is something new and significant to say about Fenton’s brilliance.
This past season he not only was the highest scoring midfielder from play in the national league but in the summer he went on to score more than any other midfielder has from play in a single championship.
Fenton had always been able to chip in with a point since breaking onto the team in 2015. In his first three league campaigns he scored a total of 1-10 in 21 appearances, 17 as a starter, an average of 0.62 points per game. In the championship he registered 0-11 over 20 starts in those first three summer campaigns, an average of 0.55 points per game. Essentially you’re talking about someone who was good for four points over the course of a typical league or championship for Dublin.
That’s a decent scoring rate. More than decent in fact. An all-time great like Darragh Ó Sé, who was well able to bomb over a point himself when he felt the occasion demanded it, had a career-championship average of just 0.40 points per game, with 1-3 over a six-game championship campaign being the most he ever clocked up in a single summer.
In 2018 though Fenton’s game — or at least his scoring — took his game to another level, as he metamorphosed from merely a midfielder who could score into a scoring midfielder akin to Sean Cavanagh or his own clubman and childhood hero, Ciarán Whelan, albeit a less swashbuckling version.
It’s something of a statistical landmark for a Gaelic footballer to average over a point a game, especially a non-forward; Lee Keegan is the only back in football history with at least five championship campaigns in the bank and a career scoring average over the 1.0 mark.
In this year’s league, Fenton averaged 1.7 points a game, racking up 1-9 from play over seven league outings.
No other Division One midfielder scored more than six points from play. In fact, Fenton outscored every other Division One midfield pairing. Tyrone had a litany of revolving midfielders who between them racked up 1-8, still one point shy of Fenton alone. In Division Two, Gary Brennan of Clare stacked up 1-6 from play, and in Division Three John Heslin scored 1-11 from play in all, but at least four of those points were as a nominated forward. The entire Kerry midfield scored just 0-2 over the spring, Mayo’s only 0-4.
There have been more eye-catching and high-scoring league campaigns from midfielders – in fact, from midfielders from Fenton’s own club. In 1999, Whelan was the only All-Star whose team failed to progress beyond the provincial final but no eyebrows were raised when he approached the podium to receive his statuette; en route to contesting that season’s league final, Whelan racked up a ridiculous tally of 3-15 over 11 games.
That campaign though was an outlier. What Fenton did this past spring was as impressive as anything since.
In the championship, Fenton went to another stratosphere, not only surpassing the one-point average mark but smashing the two-point ceiling.
Over the course of seven championship games, he ran up 1-13, more than any midfielder has ever scored from play in a single summer.
The only midfielder to even come close to that in the pre-qualifier era is Jack O’Shea. O’Shea was a phenomenon, with an exercise like this, scouring his scoring records, only underlining the already-formidable case that he’s the greatest player to ever play the sport.
In 1981, he scored from play in all four of Kerry’s championship games, including the goal that wrapped up the final. It was after the failed five-in-a-row bid though that his scoring rate went into overdrive, hitting the 2.0 point average rate for a remarkable five summers in a row.
In 1983, he scored 4-1 in just two games. In 1987, another campaign when Kerry failed to get out of Munster, he notched 2-5 over three games.
Sandwiched between that, Kerry won three consecutive All-Irelands with O’Shea scoring 4-19 over 13 championship games.
His largest single-summer return was in 1985 when over five games he ran up 3-7, matching Fenton’s return this summer of 16 points.
The only thing was, some of O’Shea’s scores were from deadballs, his goal in the All- Ireland final coming from a penalty. That’s why he now lags behind Fenton’s past summer (Mick O’Connell was another high-scoring midfielder that didn’t quite match Fenton’s return from play, but would if you included scores from frees and 45s).
To appreciate just how remarkable O’Shea was though, you only need look at the scoring rate of every other All-Star midfielder in the 1980s. Fourteen times in that decade a statuette was handed out to a midfielder not called Jack O’Shea. Only two of them — Eugene McKenna and Willie Joe Padden — managed to score more than three scores over the summer for which they were honoured. Nine of them managed just the one score.
Anthony Tohill assumed O’Shea’s status as both the most complete and highest-scoring midfielder in the game but like O’Shea wouldn’t quite hit from play what Fenton did this past summer. (Surprisingly, the highest average return from play by a midfielder in a single season during the ’90s was Cork’s Shay Fahy in the year of the De Double; before booming over four astonishing points against Meath in the final, he had fired 1-4 in Cork’s three previous games, for a championship average of 2.75 ppg).
In the backdoor era Sean Cavanagh took up the torch from Tohill, his idol as a kid. In his first year operating in midfield, the seminal summer of 2003, the Tyrone man racked up 1-9 in seven games. In 2004 he ran up 1-11 in six games. In 2005 he hit 0-12 in 10 games.
Even in ultimately disappointing seasons like 2006 and 2007 for Tyrone he still matched or surpassed the 1.0 per game mark.
Ciarán Whelan would similarly hit or surpass the point-per-game rate for five consecutive summers. In fact prior to Fenton, he was the possessor of the record for the highest return from play by a midfielder in a single summer. In 2001 he kicked 1-12 over six games.
This year though Fenton exceeded that, kicking an extra point with an extra game.
No-one came close to him this summer. In fact no midfield combination did. Monaghan’s pairing of Niall Kearns and Darren Hughes were the nearest, kicking five points apiece over nine games. Tommy Moolick of Kildare was the only other midfielder to even hit the 1.0 mark, scoring seven points from play in seven games.
We can’t say for sure but it would appear as if it’s one of Dublin’s Key Performance Indicators and targets to outscore the opposing midfield. Only once in their 16 league and championship games this season was their midfield outscored by the opposition’s.
Even when Fenton was rested for the dead-rubber Super 8 game against Roscommon, Paul Flynn and Michael Darragh Macauley continued ‘The Process’ by scoring 1-3 and 1-1 respectively.
There’s so much more to midfield play than scoring, just as there’s so much more to Fenton’s game than scoring. But even with orthodox midfield play on the decline — in as fluid a set-up as Tyrone, anyone from Mattie Donnelly to Padraig Hampsey to Cathal McShane could be Colm Cavanagh’s nominated midfield partner, and even then Cavanagh will be dropping back in his famous patrolling-sweeping role — it seems an obvious place to make gains for teams hoping to close the gap between themselves and Dublin.
Take Kerry. Each of the past two summers their midfield pairing has combined for just 0-6 over five championship games.
Maybe Jack Barry is on a similar, upward trajectory to Fenton in his early years, scoring 0-3 in his rookie year of 2016, 0-4 last summer, but Kerry need him or another midfielder to start cracking the 1.0ppg threshold.
Mayo, for all the big names and talents they’ve had around that sector, haven’t had anyone approximate that scoring ratio. In both their defeats last summer they managed only a point from midfield. They got no scores from midfield in either of their two defeats in 2017.
In fact there hasn’t been a single championship defeat this Mayo side have suffered since James Horan’s first appointment in which their starting midfield outscored the opposition’s.
Fenton, in contrast, has scored five points in five All-Ireland finals, just as he has scored five points over five All-Ireland semi-finals, and his championship career total has now hit that magical 1.0 mark; with 1-24 from 27 games, he’s already just six points shy off Darragh Ó Sé’s career-championship tally despite playing only a third as many championship matches.
Not that he’ll be getting notions. Jacko once kicked 0-5 from play in a single semi-final, against Galway, in ’84.
But that’s the company Fenton is orbiting now. That’s the conversation he’s in: with Tohill, Whelan, Cavanagh, Darragh, even Jacko.
He may or may not pip his fellow Dubs Jack McCaffrey and Ciaran Kilkenny to the 2018 Player of the Year award.
But going down as the greatest non-Kerry midfielder in history is a possibility as well.
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