How Brogan reacted to a reduced role in his post-prime years showed his true measure

At his brilliant best, Bernard Brogan soared to heights few other forwards have reached.

Bernard Brogan in front of Hill 16 in 2011.
Bernard Brogan in front of Hill 16 in 2011.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

ABOUT THREE WEEKS ago, Bernard Brogan was due to sit down with manager Jim Gavin to discuss his future with Dublin.

Question marks were hanging over the careers of Brogan, Stephen Cluxton and several other Dublin veterans, plus even Gavin himself, following their historic All-Ireland win in September.

The expected avalanche of retirements from some of their older heads didn’t follow. Kevin McManamon and Philly McMahon have already indicated their willingness to return in 2020, while Michael Darragh Macauley has hinted he could also be back.

Brogan’s retirement announcement this afternoon makes him the first member of the five-in-a-row crew to step away from the inter-county game.

Several players like Alan Brogan, Denis Bastick and, most recently, Paul Flynn hopped off the carousel before the Sky Blues completed GAA history, but nonetheless played major roles in the five successive titles.

In the immediate aftermath of their various Sam Maguire wins in the last decade, the Dublin squad and backroom team members gathered in the Croke Park dressing room for what Gavin described as “the most satisfying moments.”

Gavin would implore them to soak up the moment. He’d remind them that injury, retirement, a loss of form and other commitments would likely mean they’d never be together as a group in the same room again.

Of course, each season he was right. A player or two would retire, the squad would be freshened up with new blood, while there’d be the odd change to the backroom team.

jim-gavin-celebrates-with-bernard-brogan Gavin and Brogan after the 2018 All-Ireland final. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Brogan’s retirement means Dublin have lost the second-longest serving member of the squad, behind only Cluxton, who has been on the scene since 2001.

Given his lack of game-time over the past couple of seasons, Brogan’s decision isn’t a surprise – even if he refused to rule out a return just a matter of few weeks ago.

His last act was to force his way onto Dublin’s bench for the All-Ireland final replay win over Kerry.

While he didn’t make an appearance on the field, it was a source of great pride for the 35-year-old to make the matchday 26, particularly after Diarmuid Connolly re-entered the equation mid-summer and forced him further down the attacking pecking order.

“I nearly fell off the chair,” he recalled of finding out the news from Gavin that he’d made the squad for the replay. “I was expecting the worst.”  

If patience is indeed a virtue then it’s one that Brogan possesses in abundance. 

His inter-county career was bookended by frustrating Sunday afternoons sat among the substitutes. 

He never played minor football for Dublin, lining out with the county’s hurlers at the grade instead after he was overlooked by Mick Bohan. While he was part of the Dublin U21 side that lifted the All-Ireland in 2003, with Gavin as manager, Brogan didn’t log any playing time and was far from an underage prodigy.

He was 21 before he was called up to the Dublin senior squad. Shortly after joining the set-up he suffered a season-ending cruciate knee ligament injury.

Upon returning from surgery, Brogan was forced to bide his time for a breakthrough. He didn’t make his senior debut until 2007 by the time he was 24, three full seasons after he first joined the squad under Paul ‘Pillar’ Caffrey. 

bernard-brogan Brogan during his first Leinster SFC final against Laois in 2007. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

For context, four-time All-Ireland winner Con O’Callaghan is still just 23. At his age, Brogan hadn’t even featured in the league for the Dubs.

“I went out kicking on my own, I really wanted it,” said Brogan a few years ago. “I went to the gym more and I went after it and that’s what got me there in the end.”

After serving his apprenticeship on the bench, he eventually became a regular starter under Pat Gilroy. Even then, Brogan was forced to change his game in order to survive.

The inter-county game was shifting towards a more defensive style and forwards could no longer get away without putting in tackles and tracking runners.

“I thought it was easy being a full-forward,” said Brogan in 2012, “that you can swan around and kick scores and get away with it. I’d been doing that for years and getting away with it for years.

“It was unnatural for me. An out-and-out striker like myself, a full-forward, you just try to get on the ball and kick scores and not work back or track back. 

“Pat was the manager and if I wanted to play in the team, this is what I had to do.”

Brogan admitted adapting to Gilroy’s mantra didn’t come easy, but he did so and started to thrive, becoming their talisman in attack.

He soared to heights during his peak between 2009 and 2015 that few other footballers have even come close to reaching. Across those seven summers, Brogan scored 19-171 in championship football to become one of the deadliest finishers the game has seen.

He never finished outside the top eight in the scoring charts during his apex, top-scoring for Dublin in each of their All-Ireland winning seasons of 2011, 2013 and 2015.

He was crowned Footballer of the Year in 2010 when Dublin didn’t even reach the All-Ireland final – an exceedingly rare achievement.

bernard-brogan-celebrates-a-late-point Bernard Brogan celebrates a late point aganst Meath in 2012. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Brogan’s championship scores 2009 – 2015

2009 - 2-20 in 4 games, 6.5 per game, 6th highest-scorer
2010 - 3-42 in 6 games, 8.5 per game, 2nd highest-scorer
2011 - 0-29 in 6 games, 4.8 per game, 3rd highest-scorer
2012 - 3-23 in 5 games, 6.4 per game, 4th highest-scorer
2013 - 3-19 in 6 games, 4.7 per game, 8th highest-scorer
2014 - 2-17 in 4 games, 5.8 per game, joint-7th highest-scorer
2015 - 6-21 in 7 games, 5.6 per game, 3rd highest-scorer

At his best, Brogan was virtually unmarkable. 

His movement and intelligence meant he’d usually lurk on the edge of the goalkeeper’s area. He’d often go long spells without touching the ball but once it came in, Brogan was sharp and ready to pounce.

Above all else what endeared him to his team-mates was that he was a big-game player. The bigger the occasion, the better he’d play. On All-Ireland final day, Brogan would exude confidence. 

In the 68th minute of the 2011 decider, with Kerry and Dublin deadlocked at 1-10 apiece, he sat in the pocket, took a pass from Macauley and curled over a brilliant point off his left foot to edge his side in front.

Two years later in the final against Mayo, Brogan was the match-winner after bagging 2-3. Both goals arrived from his hands – the first a flick into the net when he was sandwiched in between Ger Cafferky and Robbie Hennelly. For the second he was teed up by Denis Bastick for another poacher’s finish. 

Source: officialgaa/YouTube

Flynn spoke about going on shooting sessions with Brogan and how the St Oliver Plunketts Eoghan Ruadh clubman would obsessively focus on connecting properly with his strike, rather than worrying about the outcome.

Brogan often said he never possessed the god-given talents as some of his team-mates, remarking in 2016: “I’m not a Cormac Costello or a Ciaran Kilkenny that is just naturally gifted. I worked really hard to get to where I am with Dublin.

“I obviously went the longer route around it and it took me a while to break into it and get my head right to be able to offer something on the pitch.”

He further endeared himself to his team-mates with the way he reacted to being dropped for the All-Ireland final replay against Mayo in 2016.

“Jim told me before the huddle and before he named the team,” said Brogan earlier this year. “I just said I was going to stand tall, look everyone in the eye and portray a bit of positivity.

“For someone who’s been involved for so long for 10 years, starting every game…to not be involved in the big game, they might have thought I’d throw the toys out of the pram or react differently. So I just stood up, looked everyone in the eye and just said ‘I’m here whenever needed. This is about the group.’

“I got a lot of feedback from lads that they got energy from that so (I thought) that that’s the right way to be.”

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Brogan was able to draw on that experience during the latter stages of his career when game-time became harder to come by. He was reduced to the role of impact sub in 2017.

bernard-brogan-warms-up Brogan became an impact sub in his latter years. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Although he scored five points from five shots against Kildare in that year’s Leinster final, he only arrived on as a 65th-minute substitute in the All-Ireland final win against Mayo.

Determined to get a head-start with some extra fitness work, Brogan skipped the team holiday to South Africa the following January. He started the league on fire against the Lilywhites, scoring a point and set-up both of their goals with some brilliant link-up play in a sharp outing.

But 12 days weeks later, disaster struck. During a shoot-around at training, he landed awkwardly on his knee and felt a familiar pop. 

Ironically, it was another cruciate injury that signalled the beginning of the end for him in the Dublin jersey. 

Brogan refused to write off the remainder of the season and worked his way back in record-time, appearing off the bench in the Super 8s against Roscommon in just 23 weeks.

He was frustrated not to make it onto the field again in 2018, while game-time also proved hard to come by this year.

He dropped 4kg in weight to give him a leaner frame better suited to making an impact in the closing stages of games, but Dublin’s host of options in attack and Gavin’s inclination towards youth meant he watched on from the sideline for the majority of 2019. 

Some may argue that it was easy for Brogan to hang around the squad as they embarked on a five-in-a-row bid, but he was never content with just being there. 

In a training game the week before the replay, Brogan rediscovered some of his best form and kicked four points from play – which ultimately convinced Gavin that he was worthy of a place among the subs against Kerry.

bernard-brogan-runs-out-onto-the-pitch Brogan runs out at Croke Park for the final time as a Dublin player last month. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

His experience proved invaluable too. After O’Callaghan struggled in the drawn game, it was Brogan who imparted some advice that helped the young Cuala star shine on the second outing. 

“I had a chat with Bernard Brogan before it,” said O’Callaghan last month. “He would have a very wise head on him and would see things; kind of little nuggets of wisdom.” 

If Brogan couldn’t contribute on the field, he ensured he made his mark off it. 

“I’ve had the days of personal glory,” he said recently. “As long as you know you’ve added something, I’m comfortable with that.”

He finishes up with a Footballer of the Year award, seven All-Irelands, four All-Stars, five National Leagues, 13 Leinsters and captained Ireland in the International Rules series.

He was the most devastating finisher in the game during the glorious middle part of his career and will go down as one of the best forwards of all-time.

But perhaps it was how he handled himself before and after his prime years that showed the true measure of the man.

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Kevin O'Brien

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