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'He was probably beginning to doubt himself and wonder what direction his career was taking'

We chart Brian Fenton’s winding road to the top.

Fenton

“Of course, it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards 10 years later. You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart even when it leads you off the well-worn path, and that will make all the difference.”

- Steve Jobs

A COUPLE OF nights after winning the 2018 All-Ireland final, Brian Fenton strolled on his own into the Raheny GAA club bar for a few quiet pints.

Basking in the afterglow of a campaign that would see him crowned Footballer of the Year for the first time, Fenton had the week booked off work and was content to spend the night among his own people in the club that formed him. 

For the Dublin star, it was a nice opportunity to chat football with fellow clubmen who watched him grow from a scrawny youngster into the most dominant midfielder in the game. 

“The club would have been dead, you’d have had only a handful of people in there,” Ciaran Whelan tells The42. ”My father was down having a pint and in came Brian. He just pulled up a chair beside him under the TV and had a couple of pints.

“That’s literally a couple of days after the All-Ireland. Here’s a guy, the best player in the country and he’s in celebratory mode but all he wants to do is go into his own club and sit down with whoever happens to be there and have a pint and a chat.

“That’s the great part to him. Some of the best days I had in my career I always made it my business to try go back to the club the Sunday or Monday night and go back to that environment. Brian certainly continues that. He’s so popular around the club and so grounded.”

Two weeks ago when he was awarded Footballer of the Year for the second time, Fenton sent a lengthy text message to Pat Ivory who has coached him since he was four years old and is currently part of the Raheny senior backroom team.

“When the programme ended it landed on my phone,” says Ivory. “It was a lovely text, it really was. He just mentioned a couple of the things we did: ‘If they only knew, Pat!’ Private stuff and good, fun things we did.  

“He just thanked me for everything. He just said I taught him everything he knows, he’ll always appreciate it and he loved me. It was lovely to get, really nice. 

“There was no need for him to send me that text. And I’d be roaring and shouting at him at senior training if I don’t see him pulling his weight because I expect so much of him.”

  • For more great storytelling and analysis from our award-winning journalists, join the club at The42 Membership today. Click here to find out more >

At 27, Fenton has two player of the year awards, six All-Irelands and five All-Stars already in his medal collection. But at one stage in his late teens, it was looking far from certain that he’d even forge a career with Raheny, let alone the Dubs.

A rocky period in Fenton’s life started when he failed to make the Dublin minors.

He enjoyed a promising rise through the underage ranks on a star-studded Raheny side. Fenton played on north Dublin development squads alongside Ciaran Kilkenny and Jack McCaffrey managed by the latter’s father Noel, from U13 through U16.

ciaran-kilkenny-celebrates-after-the-game-with-brian-fenton Fenton and Kilkenny played together since they were youngsters. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

He was deemed too small and didn’t make the cut for Dessie Farrell’s minor panel. Noel McCaffrey, who was coach with that side, met Fenton for a walk in Raheny to deliver the news that he wasn’t cut out for minor county football.  

Though it was a devastating blow, Fenton always maintained it was built into him that, no matter what, he was going to play for Dublin. The ball skills were always there and his desire didn’t wane, but at the time his size was working against them.

“He was smaller than everyone else,” recalls Ivory. “Everyone else was taking off and Brian would have been only up to fellas’ shoulders. You look at him now and he’s 6’5.

“When he was 19 years of age, in 12 months he grew 13 inches. He was like a beanpole.”

“When he first came out of minor I was looking down at him; now I’d be looking up at him,” says Whelan. “He was a very late developer in that regard. But I think he epitomises that it’s never too late to develop or get better.”

After completing his Leaving Cert, he decided to study physiotherapy. Realising that his physio work could take him anywhere in the world, he later admitted it was the only time he countenanced the idea that playing senior football for Dublin might not happen for him.

Once he progressed from minor ranks, the injuries started. He suffered a bad one playing in UCD, dislocating his knee cap. Surgery was recommended but he decided not to go under the knife.

He spent a summer on a J1 in the States and the injury forced him to miss about a year of football in total. He was unfit when returned to action with Raheny’s second team in the Junior A championship while wearing an unwieldy knee brace.

At that stage, he was toiling away with Raheny’s juniors in the backwaters of Dublin’s AFL Division 8, lightyears away from the summer days in Croke Park he envisioned for himself.  

Ivory vividly remembers a chat he had with Fenton on the way to a Junior A championship final that year.

“He travelled with me up to the game and I just said to him, ‘Look, I don’t know if you can play with the knee but play if you want to and see how you get on.’

“Even with the injury, he won that game on his own for the team. After the game I said to him, ‘You still have your football brain, don’t worry about all the other stuff.’ We had a talk and he knew that as soon as the knee injury healed that he would be back.

“I know Ciaran Whelan would have been in his ear as well, and he listened to us. When he heard it from us I suppose it did boost his confidence, because he was at an all-time low then.”

Raheny’s senior manager at the time was Dublin legend Whelan, who had closely monitored Fenton’s progress since he was a youngster. When he fixed early morning training sessions for the senior squad, Fenton complained that he’d be feeling tired in college afterwards.

“I was training the lads in a typical club environment,” says Whelan. “You had plenty of excuses in the evening time with study and everything that was going on so I mixed it up a bit with them. I had training at 6am for one winter period and I remember him having a moan about that to me.” 

Whelan remembers thinking to himself that “the towel was on the shoulder” and his commitment to football was wavering.

“He was probably beginning to doubt himself because he was going through such a bad run. He hadn’t made the [Dublin] minor team, that had been a bit of a setback to him, and then he picked up his knee injury.

“So I didn’t really have him for the few years I was there. I got him on the back end of it when he was beginning to come back. He had the knee heavily strapped but you could see there was always a spark to him, there was always an X-factor. 

“I remember thinking, ‘By God if I could get him back here he’d make a huge difference.’ He was extremely frustrated at a particular point and beginning to wonder what direction his football career was taking because he had a bad run of injuries when he came out of minor.

ciaran-whelan Former Dublin and Raheny midfielder Ciaran Whelan. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“There were family reasons to stay at home and managing to put the injuries behind him was a massive turning point from his perspective.”

Around that time, Fenton was considering an offer to head to Cork on a 16-week placement as part of his studies in UCD. Ultimately, his decision to take a placement in Dublin instead was down to personal circumstances. Things were in crisis mode at home where, having been sick for a number of years, his mother Marian was dying of cancer.

“His mother got sick and he was in UCD at that point, injury free and beginning to get going,” explains Whelan. “It was a really tough time for him.

“For a young kid of around 19, 20 it must have been a very, very tough time in life. With everything going on – college, his physio course, I’d say it was a hugely challenging period but he showed his resilience.”

When she passed away in late 2013, it was a sad and poignant moment in Fenton’s life.

“Myself and my wife find it so sad that Marian never saw him play for Dublin [seniors],” says Ivory. “She never actually saw him play for Dublin. It was just terribly sad.

“I remember we brought her down to a U17 tournament in Galway. She was in the car with us and she saw him playing in it for Dublin. I don’t think she saw him put on a blue jersey after that.

“It was so sad. I’ll tell ya, we were devastated. We were absolutely choked. Things were tough at that time, they really were.

“Marian and my wife were great pals. It was a tragedy for everyone, but Brian wasn’t at it. He wasn’t interested in football or anything.”

******  

Marian’s death helped Fenton realise how precious life is. Her lengthy battle with illness brought the family – his father, Brian senior, and three sisters – even closer together.

She was always a strong voice in her children’s ears encouraging them to pursue sporting excellence. The Fentons grew up without a Playstation at home, quite unusual for a young household in the 1990s. 

Every evening of the week they had something on. Sitting at home wasn’t an option.

Fenton followed his sisters into Irish dancing for a period, even partaking in a show at the Gaiety Theatre. He did guitar lessons and played soccer at the Kennedy Cup – the elite national soccer tournament for U13s.

Swimming, Marian’s first love, was a big part of his early life. His uncle David swam at the 1980 Olympic Games. Marian, posthumously inducted into Swim Ireland’s Hall of Fame, coached Irish youth teams and won national awards for her volunteering work.

When the Dublin team of the 2000s would decamp to DCU for a recovery session after big games in Croke Park, Whelan would always stop for a chat with Marian who coached there.

Fenton’s father hails from Spa just outside Killarney in Kerry. An uncompromising corner-back, the Garda instilled his love of GAA into his son, who was part of an outstanding crop of players born in 1993 that emerged in Raheny. 

Their team included current professional soccer players Dan Byrne (Shelbourne) and John O’Sullivan (Morecambe), two-time U21 All-Ireland winner Patrick O’Higgins, former Dublin senior panellist Gavin Ivory and Fenton. Eight of them currently make up the senior team.

They were trained by Ivory, current senior manager Paul Dempsey, Philly Kane and the late Christy Reid.

Fenton’s crew went unbeaten at home for five years across league and championship, winning every county title on offer from U11 to U16.

brian-fenton-with-the-sam-maguire Fenton won plenty of silverware during his underage career. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“That’s incredible, that record will never be beaten in our club anyway,” recalls Ivory. 

“From U11s right up, nobody beat us. Fento loved it. He knew the special treatment we gave them. We dedicated 20 years to them. But Fento was the leader. 

“I couldn’t believe how good a reader of the game that guy was even when he was a young fella. It was just incredible. I never had to teach him, he just knew it. Unbelievable football brain.”

The night before every county final over the years, Fenton’s mother would arrange for the squad to come over to the pool in DCU for a swim. “Marian was with us all the way up,” says Ivory.

Their games would draw hundreds of people to watch and Whelan remembers the team weren’t afraid to go around club saying how good they were. The became known as the “arrogant little shits that were unbeaten”. 

Ivory breaks out in laughter at that suggestion. “They were a bunch of arrogant little shits,” he concurs.

“They just oozed confidence, every single one of them. I think it was because they were such a good team. They played with so much flair. 

“They were barred from the club twice for a month,” he laughs. “The whole team weren’t allowed go inside the club. They weren’t allowed use the dressing rooms or go into the lounge. 

“I’m going to defend the players here. They didn’t destroy the pool table. You’re not going to stop young fellas playing pool up in the club. They put their drink on the side of it messing and one of them would spill a drink on the cloth – that sort of thing. We used to give out to them.

“There was photographs of some of the players behind the bar and there was ‘wanted’ signs over their heads,” he says, struggling to hold back the laughter.

“I suppose there was six of them that were just wild. It was just one of those things. But they were super, they were all great kids.”

Ivory has fond memories of driving across the city to games and training sessions with half the team in the back of his Transit van, Fenton among them.

“I could have been arrested. I used to bring nine of them home from training, would you believe, on top of all my gear for work. They used to just pile in there and kill one another.

“I’d do that Tuesday and Thursday, every night of training for years. Every time I meet them, they say that to me. ‘Do ya remember the van?’ You wouldn’t get away with it now.

“We were stopped twice by the guards. We were stopped on Collins Avenue going to Na Fianna. He pulled up beside me in the car. I told the kids in the back to stay quiet. He didn’t know they were all in the back so there was four guys in the front where there should have been only three.

“He asked, ‘Is there seatbelts on all those kids?’ I said, ‘There is.’ He must have been a Gaelic guy because I said, ‘The throw-in is in 15 minutes, we’re late, we’re playing Na Fianna.’ He said, ‘Right go on, go ahead.’ If he had got out and searched the van there were six other guys in the back of it.

“Fento used to be piled into the back of the van as well, of course he would.

“I used to bring them to watch the senior team in Croke Park. I wanted to get them to see what it was like to play for Dublin, because I really had ideas that so many of this Raheny team would play senior football for Dublin, I really did. You do have these aspirations. That’s why I used to bring them into Croke Park and they loved it. They were wild days but it really introduced them to watching the senior stuff.”

They went on trips every year, to exotic places like Cork, Wexford, Dundalk and the west of Ireland. Fenton captained them on a run to the All-Ireland Feile final in Carrick-on-Shannon. Ivory still remembers the excitement on the team bus when they heard Whelan was attending the game. 

At one stage, Fenton asked Ivory: ‘Pat, why do you put so much time into the team? What will you get from it?’

He responded: ‘If I’m standing up on the Hill and I see one of my players on that pitch that will be our reward.’

“I used to say that. And sure look at the way it worked out.”

******  

By 2014, Fenton had undergone surgery on the knee, recovered fully and started to look like his old self. Only this time, he was 6’5. 

Whelan believes making the UCD Sigerson Cup team was the first step on his rise to the top.

He played on a top class side laced with inter-county talent alongside the likes of McCaffrey, Mannion and John Heslin. He was chipping in with a point or two in each game against elite teams such as UCC and Jordanstown. He started to regain his confidence.

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

“That was a high level,” says Whelan. “He began to perform at wing-forward and was a regular in that team. I remember looking at him thinking he’s on the right path.

“Dave Billings would have spoken to me regularly about him at the time and always knew him from a kid growing up that he had great ability even though he hadn’t make the minor team.”

The late Billings was a big influence on Fenton at the time. On one occasion they cycled up together to the north side from UCD, chatting football on the way. Fenton later recalled how Billings taught him things like “you don’t have to catch every ball, you can flick a ball on, stuff you’d never thought about”.

He played in two Sigerson weekends with UCD but never won one. The year he graduated, John Divilly’s side finally delivered the third-level title. After winning two Sigerson in three years following Fenton’s departure, McCaffrey still slags the Raheny man about the ‘Fenton Curse’. 

A week after his mother died, he was in training with Dessie Farrell’s Dublin U21s. Early in the campaign he struggled to log game-time as he battled with Shane Carthy, Emmett O Conghaile and Patrick O’Higgins for a spot at midfield. 

After failing to get a run in the 2014 Leinster U21 final, Fenton sought out his manager for a word.

“Dessie, you’re giving me nothing here. I think I deserve few minutes or a subs role.”

dessie-farrell-and-brian-fenton-celebrate Farrell dropped Fenton from the Dublin minors but they enjoyed All-Ireland U21 and senior success together. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The following week he missed a training session to attend a physio ball in UCD. A call arrived from Farrell.

“What’s the story? You talked to me last week. Do you want this?”

“Of course I want this.”

By then Fenton had started to find his form on the training pitch. Farrell took a punt by starting him in the All-Ireland semi-final against Cavan. He did well, holding onto his place for the final two weeks later in Tullamore.

Dublin defeated Roscommon that afternoon and the victory, plus his fine performance, put Fenton on a platform to showcase his talent. From being dropped from the minor squad three years earlier, Fenton was now one of the main men for the U21s.

He recalled thinking, ‘I’m back in the mix here.’

That gave him a taste of the big time. He saw it as a stepping stone.

Later that summer, Donegal stunned champions Dublin in the All-Ireland senior semi-final. 

The week before Christmas, Fenton was due to play the final league game of the year with the Raheny U21s.

He had plans to host a party for all his team-mates after the game. He was busy getting the house in order and making sure they had enough supplies for the big night when his phone buzzed with an unfamiliar number.

“Hi Brian, this is Jim Gavin here.”

The rest is history. 

For more great storytelling and analysis from our award-winning journalists, join the club at The42 Membership today. Click here to find out more >

About the author:

Kevin O'Brien

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