Freestyle footballer Dennehy pledges to handle pressure and conquer world

He’s got silks and tekkers. His locker holds all the tricks. Standing 6’2", he’s the owner of your classic good-feet-for-a-big-man.

But Ireland’s world-class freestyle footballer names heroes from Bryan Sheehan to Michael Jordan to the Munster rugby team and says he was a better Gaelic footballer than soccer player.

He’s a meditator who eats gluten-free, organic, non-GMO. He’s an athlete, gymnast and footballer in one. He’s turned pro at his emerging sport, ranking second in the world two years ago.

Depressingly, Ireland’s football culture preferred he knocked it long.

Daniel Dennehy is off to Salvador in Brazil, where the Netherlands kicked off Spain’s dethroning last summer. The Red Bull Street Style world finals runs from next Friday through Sunday. More than 40 of the world’s best freestylers. Sold-out arena. Live on Brazilian TV. Romario among the judges.

Pressure cooker. Two guys in a ring. Three minutes. Six rounds. Thirty seconds to do your stuff, then pass on the whistle. Back and forth. Five judges deliver a verdict. Loser goes home.

“It’s pretty crazy that your entire year of training can come down to one and a half minutes with the ball,” says Dennehy from his London training camp. “It is a lot of pressure. If you’re a footballer, you have 90 minutes to settle into the game. I would say 95% of it is mental at this level. Everyone is going to have world-class skills. You have to learn how to navigate through the pressure.”

“I have a sports psychologist that I do sessions with. And I’m big into meditation.”

He was hooked watching footage of Jordan drain buzzer-beaters. “He credited meditation for a lot of his calmness under pressure. He’s not even thinking of the consequences of scoring or missing. He’s just living in the present moment.”

Tactics in the ring? Better to be drawn first with possession?

“It depends on your mindset. Sometimes it’s good to go first and put some pressure on your opponent and make him nervous. Or it can be an advantage to see what he does and know what you have to do in reply.

“I have set rounds prepared. But I like a bit of freedom as well. If my opponent does something, I like to react to it. Maybe do the same thing, but do it better. And forget the plan.”

Dennehy first drew national attention in 2011, when he made the final of the All-Ireland Talent Show. “I’ve probably trained two or three hours per day for the last seven or eight years, often more,” he says. “At the moment, I would say I train as hard as any other professional athlete in Ireland. I’ve a strength and conditioning coach, a nutritionist. It’s a professional-level sport that maybe hasn’t reached the audience of other sports yet. But I’m sure it will.”

Finished his degree at DCU, which backed him with access to its high-performance gym, the three-time Irish champ made the sport’s elite world tour last year. An athlete’s salary. More income from sponsors, corporate performances and TV commercials allows him train full-time.

Growing up, he dreamed of playing for Ireland. He played top-level schoolboy football in Dublin. Why did the game lose him?

“I probably would have been decent. When I got the ball, my head would be up. If there was no pass, I’d try to take it myself and dribble. But there were people stronger than me or faster than me. In the Irish system it’s all about who’s the strongest, who’s the fittest. It got to a point where the coaches were telling you get rid of it, get rid of it. It just wasn’t enjoyable for me. But there was no fall-out. I just felt my calling was freestyle.”

His dad, Tadhg, played minorfootball for Kerry. When the family first returned to Ireland, from California where Daniel was born, he played underage with St Mary’s in Cahirciveen, won a couple of South Kerrys.

A “handy corner-forward”, he still keeps an eye out for Sheehan or Maurice Fitz on August trips for the festival.

He was in Croker last month. The bit of Kerry in him suggests keeping the head down before his showpiece, see how things pan out. “My dad wouldn’t like it. It’s always taboo to say you want to win something. But I’m coming for the title.

“I think Irish sports always punch above our weight. Like the rugby team. I think I’m going to wear Munster shorts out there. We have great athletes. But we need to get out of the underdog mindset and we need to start believing that we can be world champions.”

The first trick mastered.

- Watch Red Bull Street Style live November 14-16 on redbullstreetstyle.com. Or check out Daniel’s tricks on worldclassfreestyle.com.


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