Gary Brennan seldom gets the chance to showcase his outstanding football talents for a national audience. But the Clare captain has won an army of admirers, including International Rules boss Joe Kernan, as the Banner’s footballers begin to rise again.
A visit to the house Gary Brennan is renting in Ennis and it doesn’t take long to spot enough clues in the main living room to suggest that the occupant is immersed in sport.
It’s not that there are any framed photographs of Brennan playing for Clare or Munster or Ireland, or of a signed Irish jersey featuring all the big names he played with in Croke Park against Australia last November. There are no awards on the mantelpiece, no self-involving memorabilia on the walls, not even a gearbag or a misplaced sock on the spotless floor.
What is framed on the wall is a montage of photographs and tickets from the last Olympics.
Brennan and a couple of his housemates were lucky and alert enough to secure seats for Katie Taylor’s semi-final and final wins in the ExCel Arena, and took in a soccer game in Wembley and the closing stages of the Olympic handball event while they were at it; if his PE students at St Flannan’s College wonder why he started teaching them that sport in the first place, now they know their answer.
Then there is the bookcase. A few novels and political autobiographies feature all right, “for show” he smiles, but most of the shelves are taken up by books relating to sport.
At the moment he’s reading Matthew Syed’s Bounce, with Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code next up. There are multiple autobiographies, ranging from the good to the bland.
Dennis Bergkamp’s Stillness And Speed is one he’d recommend; “when you read that, you could predict what would happen to [Louis] Van Gaal at United – too rigid”.
Paul Galvin’s he thought was “brilliant” for its candour and insight; Brennan doesn’t mark every book he reads but his copy of Galvin’s is littered with highlighted sections.
Mickey Harte’s diary of the 2003 All Ireland winning season is another old favourite that he still picks up every now and then, along with Jonny Wilkinson’s first book, Lions and Falcons, written a couple of years before the Englishman won the World Cup.
“I was really impressed with his mentality, his attitude to practice. That’s one of the things that frustrate me most about the county season. It’s hard to get time to go individually practice.” It’s a common dilemma throughout the country, he feels, and makes him wonder: are guys actually getting more skilful? In Clare he has to say they are, but for the general playing population, he doubts it.
“It’s becoming more tactically aware for sure but across the board there isn’t as much kicking with confidence as there should be.
“When I was trying to do extra fitness early in the year, I’d pack the night before my breakfast, my snack for 11(am), my lunch, my snack for four o’clock and have the whole lot in a shopping bag to bring to school. Then I’d go for a run at 7.15am, shower and have my bite to eat before school.
“I’d like to be spending more time on kicking scores and my tackling. I often go in an hour before training and start kicking, but the problem with that is then everyone comes out and they’re all trying to kick points, and some fellas will start taking ridiculous shots and that annoys Colm (Collins). You get more benefit out of it if you can go out there and do it on your own. But so much of football is now team-based and fitness-based, that is hard for fellas to do.”
Another book on the shelf has a title which describes him perfectly: The Mindful Athlete, by George Mumford. It was a bit of added reading he took on after it was referenced in Phil Jackson’s classic Sacred Hoops. Brennan’s conscientiousness and curiosity has extended to reading Richard Wiseman’s Wake Up To The Power of Sleep, another book heavily marked.
“It’d really sharpen your mind when you’d read it: God, this is the damage you can do if you’re not sleeping properly. I got great at it for a while. I’d switch off the phone an hour before going to bed and not have too much electrical activity in the brain. And through deep breathing, focusing on relaxing the body before going to sleep rather than trying to order yourself, ‘Come on, go to sleep!’ I was actually getting proper, restful sleep.”
Maybe his more recent reading can sometimes stimulate a bit too much electrical energy before bedtime but whatever he’s doing appears to be working. There are very few more disciplined or better footballers in the country.
When you ask him what it’s like to be an inter-county player, he says it has many upsides, mentioning nutrition and strength and conditioning. Instead of looking at them as impositions, he views them as tools for healthy living which inter-county football has exposed him to. But it says a lot about just how demanding inter-county GAA has become when even someone as meticulous as Brennan finds it can be a struggle to keep it all going.
It’s not as joyless as some Sunday newspapers make it out to be, but yeah, it can be “draining”.
“It’s not what it was when I started out. This is my 10th season and it’s completely different. In a lot of ways it’s better but in some ways it’s tougher too.
“I suppose the thing I find hardest is I get to spend hardly any time with my club. You could look at our schedule and say we’ve four or five days a week with Clare which leaves two other days for the club but I find that I need to get away from the pitch and football on those nights to be able to give what I have to give to the county.”
He’d favour a separate season for club and county. Play with the county from February to June, maybe mid-July, then you can focus exclusively on the club.
It’s possibly compounded by the fact he’s such a conscientious teacher. Often if he’s not out training he’s correcting copies or devising class plans. Physical education and Irish are two subjects he not so much teaches in St Flannan’s as evangelises.
That’s why he’s accepted recent invites to appear on TG4 Beo and Seó Spóirt. Not for any self- promotion or thrill of the limelight but to show his students that the language isn’t just confined to poems and literature; it’s something you can converse about everyday matters like sport in.
As for PE, sure it can be a hard sell at times selling the benefits of gymnastics to wannabe hurlers and footballers or those not interested in sport at all, but it doesn’t deter him. He’s seen how his ankles strengthened from such a discipline. He often says he didn’t know how to run until he studied PE himself in UL and John Stacey showed him the benefits of the knee drive to develop a longer stride. He wishes he’d played basketball when he was younger because of the spatial and tactical awareness they’d have developed for his football. He’d like if he’d the time to coach school teams in it, even. Finding the time just to coach football is demanding – if rewarding – enough.
“Niall [Moran] has spoken very well on this, and I’d have to agree with him that it’s kind of nonsensical that none of the time we give to teams is included in the 33 hours [in the Croke Park agreement]. That’s up for review now but regardless of what happens I’d still want to get involved with school teams.”
Another passion is his club. Last summer Clondegad reached the senior county semi-final for the first time in club history. But in that semi-final they would be beaten by Cooraclare and on the bus back from Kilmihil, Brennan had it in his head that he wasn’t going to take up Joe Kernan’s persistent offer to try out for the International Rules squad.
“I felt in that game I had let down the boys around me, I had let down myself and I had let down the club. I was thinking, ‘Who am I to go playing for Ireland when I hadn’t played well for my club?’ But in the end, I decided these chances didn’t come around too often and I had nothing to lose.”
From the moment he arrived up there, he felt at ease. There was no sense of inferiority because no one was going around with a sense of superiority. After his first night up at the trials he found himself sitting down for something to eat with Donal Vaughan; turned out Brennan had gone to college with a cousin of the Mayo man. He regularly roomed with Eoin Cadogan. Another time he roomed with Bernard Brogan. A few months ago he popped into Patrick Bourke’s menswear in Ennis and who was there but Diarmuid Connolly dropping something off and they took off where they’d left it in Dublin, talking and laughed away.
“Something I thought Joe and his management team did very well was to create an atmosphere where you could go out and play and enjoy it. I had been at trials where there was a huge tactical emphasis from day one. It wasn’t as if Joe neglected tactics but on the Saturday morning he’d have us break into groups and worked on developing your skills. It was kind of refreshing to actually get to spend so much time kicking the ball again.”
One of the other key skills Kernan emphasised was catching and in the last quarter of that test in Croke Park Brennan splendidly exhibited the art. “We’d lost our composure,” the Armagh man would tell reporters afterwards, “but just when we needed it most, Gary Brennan had a fantastic last quarter. His three catches were unbelievable and I think everyone in the whole country would be proud of him.” Instead of being daunted by the situation, Brennan had thrived on it.
“I can remember there was a natural nervousness but I wasn’t saying ‘I’m not able for this.’ When we were walking out and the anthems were being played I felt this real sense of calm. If I was at home watching this on the telly.”
It was a game Brennan had played 10 years earlier, as part of an U17 squad with Michael Murphy that played three tests in Australia.
There was a competition among the four ‘weaker’ Munster counties and on the night he caught the eye of the Munster scout John Landers. It was a sweet moment for Brennan. Only the previous year he hadn’t been considered good enough to make the Clare U16 development squad.
That oversight had grated with him. “I was a bit gangly, maybe a bit sluggish, but I still think I should have been on it.” Football had always meant everything to him. His father Martin, who played minor, U21 and some league football with Sligo, coached Lissycasey to an intermediate county title in 1994. Five-year-old Gary was the team mascot. He stood in for the team photograph and all, crouched down in the front row with his best game face on. “Mom asked why didn’t smile for it. I said, ‘You can’t smile in a team photo! You have to look serious!’”
He wasn’t just there for the big days. He was there at training every night, the most loyal and enthusiastic ball retriever in the county. “There’d be footballs flying in behind the goals and I’d be grabbing them and trying to kick out these size fives. I might only kick them as far as the 13m line and someone would have to come in and kick them further out again, but I always remember how good they all were to me.” Colin Lynch was on that team. Martin Daly too. Brennan was too young to go to the 1992 Munster final when Daly nicked the goal that secured the most famous win in Clare football history, but he was old enough in 1997 to see Daly work his magic again by scoring an injury- time goal that brought a legion of Corkmen to their knees. “I can remember the ball hitting the net and the banging on the back of the stand in the (Cusack) Park.” The memory of that ignited a desire to himself create some glorious memories for Clare.
Ten years on from ’97 though, Clare football was at its lowest ebb in decades. In 2007 Clare were knocked out of the Munster championship by Waterford. By failing to escape from Division Four yet again, it meant there was not even a backdoor available for them. It was the Year of Páidí, the kind of story that would make a fascinating ESPN 30 for 30 but hardly the most glorious for either party. The one positive legacy Ó Sé did leave was handing a teenage Brennan his league and championship debut.
“The first time I met Páidí was on the sideline at an U21 challenge game against Cork in Shannon. I got a bang in the head going for a ball and got taken off. Our liaison officer Michael O’Neill came up to me and said, ‘Páidí would like a chat with you.’ So I went down to Páidí and said he’d like me to come in and join the senior panel. I said, ‘God, Páidí, I’d like to get on the 21s first.’ He said to me, ‘Don’t worry about that, you’ll be on that!’ “I remember getting into the car with him one evening. He’d the phone on the dashboard and you could see 57 missed calls.
“There’s a lot of stories about his time in Clare that wouldn’t reflect well on him and he definitely wasn’t the right man for us at the time; it took us back a few steps considering what was there the year before with Donie (Buckley) and Michael Brennan. But I had to respect his football brain. You could see he knew what he wanted us to do.”
Another big-name football brain he encountered was Liam McHale. To this day Brennan remains in touch with the genial Ballina man. “Liam made me feel like I could compete at the top level. If I was out kicking before training, he might come over and encourage me to throw in a dummy. I always left his company feeling better. That’s a rare quality he has.”
He now finds a lot of the same attacking principles being preached by Mick Bohan, the coach Colm Collins boldly recruited in the offseason.
Clare are now moving the ball much quicker from one end of the field to the other before opposing defences get set up.
The two goals in the league final against Kildare in Croke Park last month were as much a testament to Bohan’s work on the training ground as Brennan’s aerial ability and awareness.
For the first, just before half-time, Brennan laid a ball off to Keelan Sexton, looked inside, and identified there was space there.
“Mick would talk to us a lot about just finishing your run so I did.”
Next thing, Sexton’s ball dropped inside to Brennan who laid it off to David Tubridy.
Towards the close of the second half then Brennan leapt up to take down another ball, this time offloading to Dean Ryan. “I was in no man’s land only for Dean to arrive at the back post. Again, a lot of that goes down to Mick. He’s always encouraging guys to run for that back post.” It was a big win for this Clare team, especially as it was a tight one; they’d lost too many close ones for their liking.
That’s two promotions now over the last three years under Collins. Now they want their progress reflected in championship. It starts with Limerick. Next spring there might be two divisions between the counties but Brennan can’t remember a championship game where there was more than a kick of a ball between them.
He’s steeled for a similar situation tomorrow in the Gaelic Grounds.
As high as he’s flown in Croker, this mindful athlete’s feet remain firmly on the ground.
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