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'I got a call once from Tadhg Kennelly' - Fenton on AFL trial offer

Brian Fenton also discusses the time he was dropped from the Dublin minor panel by Dessie Farrell.

Brian Fenton in Parnell Park as Mitsubishi Motors Ireland announce official vehicle partnership with Dublin GAA.
Brian Fenton in Parnell Park as Mitsubishi Motors Ireland announce official vehicle partnership with Dublin GAA.
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

BRIAN FENTON HAS revealed that Tadhg Kennelly contacted him over attending AFL trials after his debut campaign with Dublin in 2015.

The Kerry All-Ireland winner was the AFL’s International Talent Manager when he was in touch with the Raheny man.

Fenton, who at 26 is already considering one of the greatest midfielders to ever play the game, has the athleticism, height and skill to potentially thrive in Aussie Rules. 

His team-mate Ciaran Kilkenny was 19 when he signed a contract with Hawthorn in 2011 but returned home just four months later to continue his GAA career. 

Fenton was called up to the Dublin squad for the first time in 2015, lifting his maiden Sam Maguire that September. Shortly before the Sky Blues were set to jet off to Thailand for their team holiday that winter, a call came through from the Sydney Swans and Kingdom legend.

“I got a call once from Tadhg Kennelly when I was in my first year with Dublin,” he says.

“I was 22 and the trials were on at the same time as the Dublin holiday that year. We went on holiday in December after winning the All-Ireland.

“They just clashed and I never heard from Tadhg again. I haven’t regretted staying, certainly not.”

While Fenton admits the prospect of a professional lifestyle would be “tempting”, it’s not a sport he’s particularly drawn to. 

“When you’re a kid, you see the highlight videos – the unbelievable catches. You see the boys out there now on their highlight videos, the likes of Mark O’Connor. I’ve watched a few games and the ball leads to it being scrappy.

“Obviously the highlights, the big catches and stuff, maybe that’s where the offensive mark came from. But I find it a bit of a scrappy game. I look at Gaelic football and I get a bit more juice out of that. I never found myself watching games or following it or anything.

“The lifestyle of a professional athlete is obviously very attractive when we’re training borderline professional. It’s always tempting. I can see why lads go to live that life and see what it’s all about.

“But at the same time I’m very lucky to play in this generation with Dublin and I wouldn’t change anything for the world.”

The AFL never came calling again after 2015 and Fenton never looked back, going on to become a driving force in Dublin’s five-in-a-row winning side. He’s still the holder of one of the most remarkable records in GAA: unbeaten in championship football five-and-a-half-years into his career. 37 games and counting. 

brian-fenton-lifts-the-sam-maguire-cup Fenton lifts the Sam Maguire. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Last month, Dessie Farrell became only Fenton’s second manager at senior level following Jim Gavin’s abrupt departure in late November.

It came as much of a shock to the midfielder as it did the rest of us. He was in Spain when he heard the news. 

“We were due to be getting together for a team photo and I was happy enough to forgo the team photo because I was lucky enough to get a trip away with my girlfriend,” he recalls.

“So I was away and I got a call from her dad who let me know that Jim had stepped away. He was like, ‘Did you see the news?’ and I said, ‘What news?’ So I didn’t have a clue.

“It certainly came as a shock to us all. I missed the session then that night in Dublin, which was a big regret. And that’s not a pitch session! So I missed that.

“Look, it was a huge surprise but you think about his reasoning and taking all things into account, can you really blame him? He certainly owes us nothing and we’re very lucky to have worked with him and worked under him. So lucky.” 

dessie-farrell Dublin boss Farrell. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Farrell, who Fenton has previously described as one of his heroes, was appointed following two weeks of media speculation.

“I was following the headlines and the tweets like everyone else. We didn’t know and I don’t think any players were asked – maybe they were.

“I’m not too sure but when Dessie was appointed, who better would you pick? With the relationships he’s had and the success he’s had – he’s All-Ireland medals at minor and U21.

“Obviously a difficult gig to follow, going on the stage after Jim but we all know and respect him. What he’s achieved even as a player, he’s a Dublin legend so no better man to take the reigns.

“As has been documented a lot of us were very close to Dessie from previous days out underage with Dublin.”

Fenton smirks when he’s asked how many years he was managed by Farrell during his underage career.  

“Just one,” he says, before correcting himself.

“One and a bit, maybe. He sort of turfed me aside at minor. I had about six months of him then before I was cut.”

Fenton has spoken before about the conversation with Farrell when he was told, ”Listen, this isn’t going to happen for you.’

By the time his last year at U21 came around, he had enjoyed a growth spurt and developed as a ball player. That chip on his shoulder from being dropped at minor level didn’t do any harm either.

“I think you always have a chip on your shoulder if you’re told you’re not good enough,” he admits.

“You just drive on and luckily, I was still in Raheny, my life sort of facilitated me just staying at Gaelic football.

“I was in UCD and there was an excellent Gaelic football set up there. So at the age when a lot of youngsters drift away from it and you know, might have to go to college in Dublin if they’re living in Sligo or something like that.

james-dolan-with-brian-fenton Fenton on Sigerson Cup duty for UCD in 2015. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“I was very lucky, the stars aligned in lots of ways and I was driven and I was eager to play with Dublin. That was the dream and luckily it came through.”

A recall came from Farrell halfway through 2014 and Fenton finished the year by starting at midfield in their All-Ireland U21 final victory over Roscommon in Tullamore.

“I’ve never spoken to him about it, I won’t be now for the next few years either. But yeah, he cut me at minor and brought me back in in the next few years then for the U21s so I’ve a lot to be thankful to him for.

“He’s just an absolutely incredible man in terms of footballing knowledge and how he drives players to be their best. He’s just a great person and a wizard at his craft as well that he’ll dedicate almost too much time to it. 

“We’ve a great relationship. He’s cut from the same cloth as Jim, and we’re very lucky to have had Jim and now Dessie.”

From that victorious U21 team, Fenton, Eric Lowndes, John Small, Jack McCaffrey, Niall Scully, Paul Mannion and Cormac Costello have all become regulars on the senior side.

“Luckily that U21 season went more successful than the minor season did and Jim gave me a call that winter,” he says.

Farrell stayed in touch with many of them and acted as a mentor as their careers progressed.

“I’ve certainly developed a huge relationship with him deeper than football and it’s just a genuine friendship with him. You’d go to war with him certainly, absolutely no questions asked. Great to have him there.”

brian-fenton-celebrates-with-manager-jim-gavin-after-the-game Fenton celebrates with Gavin after the five-in-a-row. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

He says the Dublin players developed a strong relationship with departed boss Gavin away from football too.

“Of course you do. You’re at functions with their families and there’s social activities where you develop relationships with these people. At the same time, you’re a player and they’re the manager so you have to have that boundary and professionalism.

“Off the pitch and away from football I’ll have a great relationship with Jim and hopefully meet him at functions, for coffee and lunch and stuff. There’s a genuine bond between players (and the manager) – you’d see it in every county.

“The love Tyrone people have for Mickey Harte and Kilkenny people have for Brian Cody, no more so than ourselves.

“We have that with Jim, and with Dessie as well, but at the same time I’m conscious that I’m a player and I need to stay in my lane in that regard.”

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Kevin O'Brien

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