Ciarán Whelan believes Brian Fenton is facing into the biggest challenge of his career this summer, but one he is eminently capable of meeting.
Fenton arrived on the inter-county scene in the spring of 2015, seemingly fully-formed as a footballer and needing little or no time to adapt. Man of the match in that year’s All-Ireland final, he followed it up with a series of superb displays in the Dublin engine room in 2016.
The midfielder’s first defeat with the county wasn’t stamped until this season’s league final against Kerry and Jack Barry did an effective job in neutralising the input of the Raheny man who had also been kept relatively quiet when the sides met a month before in Austin Stack Park, Tralee.
“Brian is at that level now where he’s recognised as probably the top midfielder in the country,” said his clubman and illustrious predecessor Ciaran Whelan.
“That’s his challenge this year, to be able to deal with being the target of the opposition, that they are going to try and nullify his influence.
“It is a new challenge for him. How he’s handled himself so far has been fantastic. He’s still only 24 — he has seven or eight years ahead of him at this level and he’ll be well able to cope. He has the smarts to do that.”
Whelan was a man who opposing managers sought to ostracise from the game as much as possible during his own playing days but the only time he took on that man-marking role himself was as a half-time substitute in the 2009 Leinster final when he was told to curb Kildare’s Dermot Earley.
“It wasn’t that difficult to do but I wasn’t that effective, if you know what I mean, in general play,” he explained.
“The game has changed because at that time there was a lot more kick-outs and you are just trying to break it up and keep a guy out of the game.
“It’s a lot more difficult now with the role that midfielders have. Brian Fenton is a ‘21’ to ‘21’ player. He’s up and down the field. It’s very, very different to the old days but that’s something he’s just going to have to get used to.”
Who partners Fenton going forward is another matter.
Michael Darragh Macauley was excellent when coming off the bench after 50 minutes in the league final but has had his ups and downs in blue. Ciaran Reddin availed of considerable audition time this last six months and then there are less obvious possible lieutenants like James McCarthy or Ciaran Kilkenny.
And it may well be young Brian Howard further down the line. Whoever it proves to be, the onus this summer will lie increasingly with a younger officer corps expected to take the lead in an evolving side that will surely account for Westmeath in much the same way they did Carlow before moving on to a tasty provincial decider against Kildare.
“The night of the national league final we said it: these young players, people are saying these are the guys that are influencing Dublin.
“These are the new leaders. It’s a new stage for them going into their careers and that’s how it evolves.”
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