When Declan Brennan formed the Club Players Association two months ago, it was to stand up for GAA members left without a voice. It’s part of his relentless drive to unlock potential.
Declan Brennan has his arms folded on the other side of his office desk, as if he’s protecting something, like himself from himself.
As the afternoon goes on, he’ll open up to make a fascinating interviewee but, here at the start he’s a reluctant one.
You’ve just asked him about a couple of things other than the Club Players Association (CPA) as there’s a lot more to Declan Brennan than the Club Players Association.
For starters, he’s the performance director of Motorsport Ireland.
He’s also the owner and manager of the DBSM Centre of Excellence, his own sort of miniature Institute of Sport here in the remote Monaghan townland of Castleshane, a few miles from his native Clontibret. You know those old sayings. If you want something done, ask a busy man to do it. If you want something done, do it yourself. That’s Declan Brennan. He wanted someone to stand up for the club players of Ireland so he decided he would, as busy and all as he was.
That’s why he’s agreed to talk to you, to promote the cause of the CPA. But he’s guarded about talking about other matters, in case he could be perceived to be promoting himself. He doesn’t want the CPA to be seen to be some kind of vehicle for him, as much as he’s into his vehicles.
What he can say is that all those projects have one thing in common. They’re all about “unlocking potential”.
This year in the motorsport, he helped launch the Team Ireland foundation to support talented drivers in rallying, racing and karting. Last week, he brought them over to the UK where the likes of World Rallying Champion Malcolm Wilson gave a workshop on what’s involved at the elite level of their sport, making them think if it’s what they really want to do with their lives. Seventeen-year-old James Roe from Kildare has been out in Abu Dhabi and Dubai driving in Formula 4. It’s meant discussions with his school, Newbridge College, as to how best balance his education with his racing ambitions, and Motorsport Ireland providing the youngster with private tuition. Whatever can help him fulfil his potential.
The same ethos he feels drives his operation here at DBSM. It seems a rather peculiar, remote location to build a one-stop centre where an athlete can avail of physical, psychological, and nutritional services under the one roof, but Brennan is from the Ray Kinsella school of thinking: build it and they will come. And so they have. Motorsport racers. Boxers. Athletes. Inter-county and club GAA players from all over Ulster and beyond. And just ordinary, local people, maybe with MS or other health issues that can avail of the anti-gravity treadmill that allows them get in a bit of exercise that they couldn’t walking the roads.
“Whether you’re 18 or 88, it’s about helping the overall standard of people’s lives,” he says. “I suppose that’s the biggest attribute I have as a person. From 25 years of being involved with some fantastic sportspeople, I hold keys that can unlock potential. It’s the same with the CPA. I’ve helped put some great people around me and we’re unlocking the nervous potential and the frustration that’s about.” In trying to remind the GAA of its roots, he’s essentially returning to his own. For all the sports he’s interested and involved in, he’s first and foremost a GAA man, a club man. He played county minor for three years, county U21 for four. Then he broke his leg in three places and after a couple of unsuccessful comeback attempts, took over as manager of his own club, Clontibret. He was 22 at the time. They were intermediate. Within two years they were playing in the Ulster senior final, getting within a point of eventual All-Ireland finalists Bellaghy. Even at that age, that’s how galvanising and dynamic a figure he was.
After winning a few more counties with the club, he went on to be a selector to the county seniors in Colm Coyle’s time in charge.
Then he moved up to DCU where along with Dr Niall Moyna, he helped transform it into the most dominant force in third-level football, establishing their sports academy, managing their Sigerson and freshers teams.
They’d recruit big names and make great friends and on the outside even more haters. Their team was loaded with established inter-county stars. Stephen Cluxton. Conor Mortimer. Seanie Johnston. They aggressively identified graduates. But more than signing up big names, they cultivated other ones.
There was a time when Bernard Brogan was the third most skilful inside forward on that DCU team, behind Mortimer and Johnston. But from being around high performers on and off the field, he’d bloom into being probably the outstanding inside forward of this decade. Here in the corridors of DBSM there’s a framed signed Dublin jersey with more than half of the current Dublin team, all DCU graduates, extending their gratitude to Brennan and what he created there. That legacy and friendship continues.
“Lads got to see the work ethic that was required. And it was the same off the field. You talk to the likes of the Bernard Brogans, Eoin Lennons, David Kellys, there was serious pressure put on the lads to get through their academic side. The most successful thing about the academy was that 99% of the lads came through the college with their degrees. And academically, DCU is no soft touch, you’ve to earn your degree. To me, that was a greater measure of the success of the programme than anything we ever achieved on the field.”
It wasn’t just footballers that he mentored and befriended in his time in DCU. Brennan was especially close to Darren Sutherland.
The genial, bubbly kid that lived with him and won an Olympic medal in 2008. The confused, distressed kid that died in 2009, all alone in a London flat.
Brennan no longer has his arms folded. Instead he has tears in his eyes, recounting the Sutherland he knew and the last time they’d met.
He had sensed something was wrong with Darren and had headed over to London for a few days before flying home on the Friday. He was due to fly back out again on the Monday and bring Darren to Portugal, only to get a call on his way to the airport that Darren had been found hanged.
In the inquest, it emerged a note with Brennan’s handwriting had been found in a bin. The note referenced how Sutherland would be “destroyed” by his promoter, Frank Maloney, if he quit the sport. Brennan would testify at the inquest that the term was Darren’s, not his, and the note was penned in Darren’s company; as Darren’s mentor, he was facilitating and documenting a pros and cons exercise of him quitting the sport, with one of the downsides being Maloney would demand a large part of his signing-on fee back. Maloney would come under serious fire at the inquest, especially from the Sutherland family, but the English promoter would shoot some bullets of his own in the direction of Brennan, accusing him of “bullying tactics”. For Brennan, those comments had no validity but where he did feel he did Darren a disservice was not staying with him that weekend when he was in such a vulnerable state.
“The reality is I knew there was something wrong with him but we weren’t allowed to take him to seek help. That will always be a regret, that we didn’t just take him to get help. I had to go home that weekend for a county semi-final that Clontibret had on the Saturday. And that’s another regret — that I went home. That I had to go home.
“That game had been moved from the week before. If it hadn’t been moved, Darren might still be alive today.
“You ask me what triggered me to set up the CPA. Well, I suppose that’s part of it. Everybody has had to move family or personal situations because a GAA game has been rescheduled at late notice. You look at other sports: rugby, soccer. It doesn’t change.
“So if you want to know, and it took a long time for me to get that out, that’s one of the things that has annoyed me about the GAA and is a major regret. The timing of that semi-final county championship game.” For what it’s worth, Clontibret won that county semi-final. And the county final two weeks later. At the time, Brennan gave it everything. Once it was over, it hardly meant anything.
He points to a framed picture on the wall behind him. Look at it close enough and you’ll spot familiar, well-known faces: Conor McManus, Vinnie Corey, Dessie Mone, and Dessie’s brother John Paul.
It’s the kind of photo you’ve seen countless times: a jubilant team and its management on the pitch after just winning a county.
Only there’s one figure at the far right whose mood and mind is in a completely different place to those of his clubmates.
“Look at me. I’m as white as a ghost. When the news of Darren broke, everybody said, ‘Declan will drop. He won’t be about.’ I tried to stay strong, I wanted to be loyal to the guys around me.
“But as soon as that county final was over, then it hit me, what had happened. It hit me like a tonne of bricks, the whole Brennan thing.”
Brennan would shortly later finish up at DCU. Just too many memories of Darren at every turn. Jordanstown offered him a new start to build something like he had in DCU but after 18 months he quit. The change of scenery hadn’t changed anything; wherever he went, there he still was. He was ill. Mentally and physically.
“I’d Guillain-Barre syndrome, which is a blood virus. I’d basically lost all the power down my left arm and my face. And I had depression. I wasn’t the rock that I thought I was and all kinds of awful, negative thoughts came into my head. I’d a chemical imbalance. But there was medication I could take for that. There was support I could get. Thanks to the help I got that time, I was able to come through it and I’m able to look after myself properly now.” At the front of the DBSM premises, there’s a placard with the old saying, “Every cloud has a silver lining.”
That episode, along with other experiences in sport, prompted him to place it there.
“The reality is in sport, in life, you’ll have far more clouds than you’ll have clear skies. But in every cloud and in every loss you have, you can gain from it and learn from it. I’ve seen sportspeople pick themselves up from the ground and get back up fighting and winning. And that’s what I’ve tried to do myself after the hard times.
“I’m a genuine fella. At times I can be a bit too blunt and not the most diplomatic but that’s something I’m working on. My wife calls me Mother Teresa because I’m always available to people and take a lot of people’s problems on board. But I don’t think it’s a bad fault to have.”
And so now he’s decided to take on the problems of the club player, by mobilising them all. He’s just seen too many come through the doors of his centre frustrated with how the game is scheduled.
“They’re mentally and physically drained from football at the minute. It’s causing a lot of frustration within families. How can a club manager realistically plan out his year? Or what about his wife wanting to book a holiday?
“Somebody said to me, ‘Are youse going to strike?’ The club players are already striking! Just look at the footfall. They’re going to America, they’re going to other sports, they’re quitting sport altogether.
“Nobody is to blame but club people themselves, including myself. Everybody sat back and did nothing. We’ve been forgotten because we allowed ourselves to be forgotten.
“In fairness to the GPA, they were given a remit to look after a 1,000 people. But there are 99,000 other players in the country. And while we’re not going to be able to look after them all, what we’re doing is giving them a voice to say, ‘Listen, hold on, stop here!’ You can’t ignore a 100,000 people who are saying something has to be done. That the calendar has to be shortened, the county season has to be condensed and that everyone gets a chance to properly plan their year. That’s what we’re saying.
“We’re not looking for confrontation. But we are saying ‘Stop!’ We’re saying ‘Stop. We have put good people in place. We are not going to let up until we make change.’
“Can I see an off-season? Yes. Can I see a change to the calendar? Yes, I can. And we’re not going to let up until it happens.”
He knows Paraic Duffy well. Duffy was a teacher in St McCartan’s College when Brennan was a student there, captaining the school team, and getting out of the odd class to practise his frees. He knows Duffy to be genuine and senses Duffy perceives Brennan and the CPA to be likewise.
“We’ve had dialogue with Croke Park and they know that we’re doing everything by the GAA book. We’re not trying to come in from the outside and throw stones. Yes, there’ll be some people who will try and crush us; there are some dinosaurs in our association. But I can assure you, with the number of people we’ll have behind us, our voice is going to be heard.”
The old ways and solutions just haven’t worked. Take the third-level scene which Brennan knows well.
“It’s just my personal opinion, not the CPA’s, but you can’t have both the Sigerson and the higher-education league. It’s just too much. If you do have it, the people that are on county panels shouldn’t be playing because it’s interfering with their development and academics and putting them under too much pressure, physically and mentally.
“You can talk all you like about communication; that it’s just a case of some communication between a player’s manager at club and county and college. It doesn’t work that way. In DCU I had more rows with inter-county managers. ‘Look, just leave them in Dublin, we’ll train them during the week and they can go home to you at the weekend.’ But for some managers that wasn’t good enough, thinking we were doing it for our benefit. No! It was for the benefit of the players! Instead of them sitting in a car for three hours up and down, they could just train with us, following whatever training their county man wanted.
“Communication goes out the window once an inter-county manager comes under pressure. It’s ‘Right, lads, we had a bad day today. I want everyone down the road Tuesday night. No excuses.’”
He sees the CPA doing things differently from the GAA and the GPA. For one, there’ll be nobody employed to run it on a day-to-day basis; it will be completely voluntary. There’ll be no expenses or hauling people up from the country unnecessarily when a conference call suffice.
They will all be coming together though on January 9 for the launch of the CPA. At the moment, Brennan and some of his co- founders are finalising a proposed constitution. It’s challenging, exciting, a bit for him like when the GAA was founded.
“That’s what I’d compare it to, like when the GAA itself was created. That’s how important it is. That’s why I want to help.”
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