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Dublin: 8 °C Friday 10 July, 2020

'The minute I don't enjoy it, I certainly won't play' - 15 seasons, 166 games and still driving Wexford on

Wexford’s record appearance holder on why he keeps going at inter-county level, the highs of the early years and coping with the current shutdown.

Brian Malone in action for Wexford against Dublin's Diarmuid Connolly.
Brian Malone in action for Wexford against Dublin's Diarmuid Connolly.
Image: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

ON THE MORNING after the 2008 All-Ireland football semi-final, Brian Malone walked through the doors of Blackrock College in Dublin.

The start of working life, tasked with teaching history from that September.

The day before had been spent in Croke Park, helping to anchor the Wexford defence as they went toe to toe with Tyrone, Mickey Harte’s side eventually snuffing them out in the manner that champions do against underdogs.

It was the closing chapter to a thrilling year for Wexford football.

And after that electrifying experience on the pitch, that Monday morning in the corridors and classrooms brought a jolt of reality.

“Not one student or teacher even knew I’d been in that game. That was a bit of a comedown.

“Whereas had I walked into a school in Wexford the next morning, everybody would have been wanting to chat about it. A huge difference. We’d a great bunch of players there, really talented. We probably achieved more than people would have expected a Wexford football team to achieve. It was very enjoyable, I certainly started at a good time.”

He’s been drawn back to reliving that summer of late. No current action results in past reflection.

Last week he tuned in to a webinar organised by Wexford GAA. His old manager Jason Ryan was sharing memories of their championship run, former team-mates Mattie Forde and David Murphy both joining in.

They have all exited the Wexford senior football stage with some time now.

But Malone is an enduring presence. He’s into his 15th season, 166 games lodged in the bank spanning league and championship, and still getting himself right to hit the pitch again whenever the green light for return is given by the GAA.

If he was flying below the radar in the southside Dublin rugby stronghold twelve years ago, that’s become an established setting over the years. In February he hit a milestone in Wexford colours. It wasn’t one he’d been gearing up for or expecting much of a reaction to.

But on a Saturday night when the Fraher Field in Dungarvan took a battering from the elements, he matched the appearance record of 164 set by Colm Morris when facing Waterford. He pushed clear as a record breaker with two further outings by the end of the month.

It sparked a fuss locally. There was a jersey presentation from the Wexford county board and a Sunday morning gathering to salute him organised by his club Shelmaliers.

“I really was surprised. There was never much said about 100 appearances or anything up along. It’s not really something players talk about, I couldn’t tell you what players in other counties have that many.

“There was a big deal made, the whole club and community came over which was unbelievable. I certainly didn’t expect anything like that.

“I was saying that I didn’t put any care about it but when I saw things like that and I got a lot of compliments from people, which is strange when you’re still playing, it was certainly lovely to get.”

At the beginning the days in the limelight with Wexford came thick and fast. Taking down Ulster forces in Down and Armagh in Croke Park in 2008. Pushing Galway to the exit door in Salthill in 2010. Four contests in five seasons generated a spiky rivalry with Dublin.

ronan-clarke-and-brian-malone Brian Malone in action for Wexford against Armagh in 2008. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The highlight is not hard to pick.

“Definitely the first championship game (in 2008) against Meath in Carlow. As most people know now we were 10 points down, 20 minutes to go and we pulled it back. The scenes after that and just the feeling after…yeah, that was probably it.”

Malone started the move that culminated in Forde flighting over that wondrous winning point. Championship magic.

Source: PJ's Classic GAA Videos/YouTube

The flipside is that the afternoon of greatest disappointment springs to mind easily as well.

“2011 when we lost to Dublin that day, we were really in the driving seat, we just didn’t see it over the line. That was definitely the biggest disappointment we had over the years.

“That was a sliding doors game, the start of Dublin’s real dominance whereas we went the other way. We started to slip. We know how far ahead Dublin are but we always said if Dublin had not been in Leinster for the last 10 years, it would be an unbelievable championship.”

The numbers capture the shift in the landscape. In that standout 2008 campaign, Wexford played six games with five of them in the environs of Croke Park. Over the last three seasons they have played seven championship matches. Their last win in Leinster was back in 2014.

If it seems from the outside an example of perseverance with scant reward, the challenge is never portrayed as starkly by Malone.

“Looking back over the years, there have been family weddings and holidays and occasions where you have to avoid or miss or you couldn’t enjoy them as much as you’d like to. But on the other side going out to play the next day in front of a large crowd in a big game and you win that and it makes it all worthwhile. There has been sacrifices along the way but I think the end justifies the means.

“You wouldn’t do it if you didn’t enjoy it because it just takes up too much of your time and your thinking. The minute I don’t enjoy it, I certainly won’t play.

“Things have changed. A couple of years ago our main goal was to win Leinster. Now our main goal is to get out of Division 4 and win first round of championship. While your goals change, your desire to achieve them doesn’t. I would train and try as hard to achieve those. It’s not that you care about it any less.”

brian-malone-and-tomas-quinn-compete-for-a-high-ball Brian Malone in action against Dublin's Mossy Quinn in 2011 Source: Colm O'Neill/INPHO

He spent a year in Dublin but has been based at home teaching in St Peter’s in Wexford since. That cuts out the travel. Pat Quigley originally and Robbie O’Callaghan latterly as principals helped foster a Gaelic Games culture in the school.

A career unblemished by injuries also explains why of the 112 available Wexford fixtures between his debut and the end of the 2014 season, he was only marked absent once – a 2010 league game against Fermanagh.

“Very lucky really. I’ve never pulled a muscle, like a hamstring seems to be pretty common that nearly everyone playing GAA does at some stage. A few strains and broken bones but nothing major.

“But I’d say I played a good few matches that I definitely shouldn’t have played looking back. It was crazy. I remember doing my collarbone, I just played the following week and the week after and the week after. I couldn’t bring my arm above shoulder level, I was literally playing some games with one arm. I never really said nothing to the physio because I knew they’d pull me out straight away. I got by anyway.”

The length of county service has seen Malone face a wealth of attacking talent both within the Wexford ranks and elsewhere.

“Mattie is a household name in Ireland and particularly in Wexford, he’s someone I always would have looked up to and still do. I’d have to give an honourable mention to Ciaran Lyng, I’ve grown up with him, we’re the same age, we played since U10 together. I’d definitely put him up as one of the most difficult guys to face, so fast, so elusive and so accurate.

“Outside of Wexford, we went on a few years there playing Longford about three times every year, I always ended up marking Paul Barden. I always found him very difficult because he’s so strong and fast and accurate. Then sure when you’re playing Dublin it doesn’t matter who you’re on, you’re going to have your hands full.

“I remember in 2008 in a league we went down to play Limerick, this player scored 2-6 and we’d never heard of him before and it was Ian Ryan. He went to be a brilliant player for Limerick, Adrian Marren the lad from Sligo and David Kelly were other ones. There’s always these guys that are not as heralded but they’re incredible footballers.”

paul-mannion-and-brian-malone Paul Mannion and Brian Malone in opposition in the Leinster championship. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

There have been a few hurling adventures. A run to the Leinster senior schools final with St Peter’s in 2003, Eoin Quigley amongst his team-mates with John Tennyson and Cha Fitzpatrick amongst the St Kieran’s opponents. 2007 brought an All-Ireland intermediate medal at the expense of Waterford. At home county senior medals were secured with Shelmaliers after replays in hurling (2014) and football (2018).

“It’s a record we’re incredibly proud of. We’ve knocking on the door in both of them for a long time and I didn’t know were we ever going to get over the line so to do it in both has been fantastic. I keep both of them going. In our parish and in a lot of the clubs around Wexford, you play both and that’s just it. There’s a lot of people in the same boat.” 

Football on the senior stage has remained a constant. The winter brought a burst of glamour to their setup, Paul Galvin’s arrival as manager after a celebrated playing career.

Malone can recall a challenge match one year down in Fota Island where Wexford and Kerry crossed paths but that has been his solitary collision with the Kingdom.

“I wouldn’t say Paul is too familiar with it now, he’s probably forgotten it,” laughs Malone.

“It was in January and they were just back training for the first week having been on a team holiday whereas we had two months training in us and were going pretty well.

“Paul is not long out of the game himself. I suppose we thought he probably wouldn’t be interested in managing maybe at this early age. So when we heard he’d got the job, lads were very excited. The fact that he is young, he’s really in touch with the way the game is played and what’s required and the fact he was so successful himself. We’re delighted he came on board.”

Their league progress was steady rather than spectacular. The Malone name was a fixture on the team with younger brother Glen increasing the family representation. The setup was content and set for the fight for coveted promotion spots before the 2020 schedule was ripped up abruptly in mid-March.

Over the last few years after championship aspirations have been quenched in June qualifiers, Malone has wrestled with the decision as to whether he should return to commit to the cause. His wife Beth played ladies football with Wexford, they have two young sons now (Caolan 2 and Rian 8 months).

brian-malone Brian Malone in action against Derry last summer Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

“Since I was 30 at the end of every year, I’ve thought is that probably it? But then when it comes into the winter, I’d be fed up already and itching to go back training.

“She’s always been incredibly supportive. Don’t get me wrong, it is difficult with two young children. My wife loves putting the Wexford jerseys on the lads. After a game, Caolan comes running on the pitch and gives you a big hug, things like that are definitely a motivating factor to keep playing. Those are the memories you’ll have forever. As long as I’m able and have that support, I’ll try and play as long as I can.”

The last few weeks, as uncertainty rages over the resumption of action and there has been a routine robbed of training and games, have provided enough insight as to what eventually lies ahead.

“I was listening to Donnchadh Walsh taking with the GPA there a couple weeks ago, he was saying this is good preparation for retirement because this is essentially what it’s like. It’s true. We’re here now with no games. I’d say the coronavirus will retire a good few players in that they probably won’t go back whenever football returns.

“But it’s just a complete empty void at the moment, there’s no club to fall back on. You want to play sport, a game of soccer or anything.

“At the moment when the weather’s like this, I am itching to go back and I really do miss it. I’ll get back and play as soon as it comes around.”

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Fintan O'Toole

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