The question may have seemed innocuous — “Do you see anything of Ciaran Whelan in Brian Fenton, Jim?” — but the Dublin manager knew that any reply that hinted even vaguely at agreement would have resulted in the comparisons being plastered across the newspapers this week.
“Fenton heir to Whelo’s throne.”
“Gavin hails new midfield colossus.”
You get the gist of it and that would simply not do. Not when Gavin has spent the past four years preaching the gospel of the collective and one which even the experienced Alan Brogan can repeat without blinking an eye when he discusses his role off the bench. Instead, Gavin paused ever so briefly before batting the grenade away with a competence you would expect from a man with his military background, and one who has no superior when it comes to talking at length without revealing much of note.
“Well, they are from the same club,” he offered in reply at last week’s All-Ireland final media day at Parnell Park.
“Ciarán was a different player, but if he can be half as good as Ciarán in his career he will have done well.”
Fenton is already doing pretty well for himself.
Whelan himself remarked some months back that Fenton’s would be a name tripping off everyone’s lips by the summer’s end and the younger man has proven him right by not just earning a place in Dublin’s midfield but by assuming the role of general, too.
Injuries to Michael Darragh Macauley and Cian O’Sullivan helped open the door for him during the spring, but it still took Fenton time to emerge from a peloton of players that all got game time and included Denis Bastick, Emmet Ó Conghaile, Tomas Brady, Darren Daly, and Shane Carthy.
It was April before Fenton made his break from that pack, scoring 1-3 in the back-to-back games against Monaghan before starting alongside Bastick for the first time in the league final against Cork.
He has been a constant since. Fenton has played all 420 minutes plus stoppage time for the Dubs so far this summer. Macauley has banked 294 and Bastick 268. It is a startling state of affairs given Macauley was footballer of the year in 2013 and Bastick has a decade of inter-county experience under his belt.
If Gavin is surprised he hides it well.
“Not from what I would have seen of Brian coming through the underage teams with Dublin, the minor and U21 teams and then with UCD and his club Raheny, so he has been very much one of that group of players that we have been watching for many years and we have full belief in him.”
For Gavin, it was simply a case of finding the right waters in which to launch a player they had long tracked on their radar. Selector Declan Darcy reiterates that point and adds that the management had been aware that midfield was an area they needed to buttress this season. Fenton was impressing with Raheny for a while but had fallen in and out of various underage panels through the years. He was raw and Whelan was among those to question his workrate, but the skillset was all present and correct. All that was required was some fine-tuning.
A run of injuries a couple of years ago held him back, but he used the time wisely, working on his fitness and physique while Sigerson Cup football under the late Dave Billings at UCD served as another apprenticeship, even if it may have hindered him initially in terms of Dublin.
“He needed a bit of development,” said Darcy, “he needed to be exposed a bit more to that level of competition. And sometimes with the younger kids, when they are involved in the Sigerson, it doesn’t allow them to play in the O’Byrne Cup which is the time that they get [intercounty] experience and we can see them. And then we can bring them into the National League. So, for some young lads in Dublin, the Sigerson can be a hindrance because they don’t get the game-time in the O’Byrne Cup, but he has got his chances throughout the league and held his form throughout the championship. It is a great bonus for us.”
O ONE questions his workrate anymore. Gavin singled out his athleticism as a chief trait while Darcy spoke about how he has the full set of implements needed to prosper in an area of the field where the demands have shifted remarkably since Whelan’s heyday. It may be that youth is his best ally tomorrow.
“When you are at that age all you want to do is go out and play football the best that you can,” continued Darcy.
“And I think he is in that bubble at the minute. He is in a great place. He is not over-thinking it, but he is an intelligent guy and he is really enjoying his football. You can see that in his play.”
It goes without saying that Fenton and his colleagues in the engine room face a task tomorrow considerably greater than any they have encountered this season: Namely a Kerry midfield which presents strength as well as strength in depth. In David Moran they possess a candidate for footballer of the year despite his muted display against Tyrone and the rest of the cast around the middle eight pickets, allied to their sniffer dogs up front, will present Dublin with many an imponderable in terms of their kick-out strategy alone.
“Yeah, they were outstanding there when they played us in Killarney [in the league] during the year and, particularly in that replay game against Cork, they certainly won that midfield battle and they’ve won every one since,” says Gavin.
“Moran and [Anthony] Maher are two colossal players, but Bryan Sheehan can step up there and Johnny Buckley as well. Donnchadh Walsh too can win that primary possession around the midfield area. It is one of their strengths and nobody has been able to go after it yet, so it is a big challenge for us.”
The biggest of young Fenton’s life.