They were veritable goal machines, 44 between them in 12 championships seasons.
Kilkenny’s Eddie Brennan and Armagh’s Stevie McDonnell spill their secrets
Natural born killers compare tools of their trade. Their reputations precede them but they’re misrepresented by perception.
Stevie McDonnell’s weapon of choice was the claymore. “I don’t think I ever got better at it. I didn’t place too many of my goals into the net. When I got the opportunity I just wanted to make it count and that was always with power.”
Eddie Brennan also employed the blade but it was more often down to the execution of the cut rather than the swiftness of the blow with which he was more commonly associated.
“I remember the famous quote from Fan Larkin about some Wexford lad marking him and that he was going to run rings around him. Fan said he can run all day if he didn’t have the ball.
“Speed is one advantage but a lot of the players have that now. Having that bit of guile and cuteness around the goal is what helps more,” Brennan reflects now.
Neither was directed in the ways of the kill. “You can’t teach it,” says McDonnell. “You either have it or you don’t. That composure — it’s instinctive.”
Brian Cody never attempted to embellish something Brennan was innately good at. All he did was tell him to “just turn and go because no corner-back wants you taking them on”.
A club-mate of McDonnell reminds him that he once said he liked scoring points but loved netting goals.
“The buzz you get from scoring one, not only for yourself but knowing the lift it gives your team-mates and supporters.
“To be on the end of one of those goals, maybe a deciding factor in a game, and making tens of thousands of people rise out of their seats because of one thing that you’ve done is spectacular.”
Armagh team-mate Cathal O’Rourke once warned him about taking his point, but McDonnell always wanted to make the net dance.
He was Joe Kernan’s knight in shining armour, arriving on the scene just when it mattered most. The 2003 and ‘05 All-Ireland semi-finals, the first Ulster final game in ‘05 to name but three.
“In the mid-2000s when I was scoring most of my goals I was getting more attention from defenders. They dried up on me towards the end of my career not because I wasn’t getting into positions to score but ‘cos I was not as ruthless as before.
“Guys in that five or six-year period when I was scoring goals knew I could make a goal out of nothing so they didn’t give me too much space or time on the ball.
“They were paying me close attention. That’s the reason you play — for that respect.”
If McDonnell was Kernan’s knighted favourite, Brennan was Brian Cody’s hooded hangman. He usually struck early too, his goals in the 2007 and ‘08 All-Ireland finals helping to snuff out each game as a contest.
“Particularly in ‘07 and ‘08, we just felt we were up against two inexperienced teams (Limerick and Waterford) and if we knocked them early it might knock the fight out of them.”
Brennan’s own duel against a teenaged Seamus Hickey in ‘07 was branded man against boy afterwards. He took 1-5 off that season’s young hurler of the year, bullying him into submission.
“In the run-up to that match, I had a bad All-Ireland semi-final so the head was fairly tuned in and there was a question mark over whether I started. I had a fair idea I was going to be marking Seamus Hickey. Up until that, I knew he was having a great year and he had a lot of strengths.
“But the Limerick management seemed happy to let him do a lot of media work and in hindsight that was a mistake to let someone so young and experienced do that. I just felt I’ll keep my head down and focus on what I have to do. That’s no black mark against Seamus Hickey but I avoided the press conference that year.
“It was a watershed year for me because up until that I hadn’t performed in All-Ireland finals to the levels I would have liked and that was a personal thing.
“He was young and nerves were going to be a factor. The very first chance I got I was going to take him on and it opened up well from there. I was targeting a weakness I knew he had having been in his shoes and having flunked a few All-Irelands. You’d prey on that for all the world.”
McDonnell agrees. The slightest chink must be seized upon. Bang over a couple of early scores. Get your marker agitated. My friend, you are the quarry.
“Then I’d think ‘the next time I get a ball in I’m going for goal and see what happens’. That’s how you weigh up your opponent.”
Brennan remembers his misses as readily as the hits. The 2003 Leinster final against Wexford springs to his mind when he was foiled a number of times in the first-half.
Maybe it’s because he found himself substituted more than McDonnell in the early part of his inter-county career.
The Killeavy man is certainly more forgiving of himself. “I learned from an early stage in Championship football that if you get even half a sniff of a goal you must take it. If you missed, you missed, but at least you had the balls to take it.”
Read that line and it’s difficult not to think of Conor Gormley’s brilliant block on McDonnell in the ‘03 All-Ireland final.
But the goal was on. It usually was when McDonnell was in range. Whatever about hurling, with so fewer goals being scored in Gaelic football they are a more precious commodity. Or, as Conor O’Shea puts it, energy shifters.
“With blanket defences now, it’s more difficult to get them,” notes McDonnell. “In football, never let anybody ever say a goal is a bad goal. They’re all good.”
Both excellent fielders of the ball, McDonnell and Brennan agree reading the game was paramount to their goal prowess.
As Brennan says, “A lot of my goals came from creating the two-on-one and asking the defender to either go for the man without the ball or the attacker. You’re creating the chance for one of ye.”
Like Brennan, McDonnell was an accomplished accessory too.
“You had to be thinking three or four moves ahead of the play because your marker is always trying to second guess you.”
The classic chess scenario. Check mate.
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