Brian Fenton hails rising Dublin star Ó Cofaigh Byrne
PwC 2018 All-Stars Footballer of the Year, Brian Fenton, visited PwC headquarters in Dublin on Friday to reflect on the Dublin football team's historic five-in-a-row.
Still visibly buzzing after the experience, the masterful midfielder was in typically genial form.
Incredibly, he has never lost a Championship match with Dublin since his debut season of 2015, but he's refreshingly unaffected by the incredible run of success he hsa been a part of.
He's just as hungry for conintued achievement as ever too, and believes the same is true for every member of this all-conquering Dublin panel.
Q: Congratulations on your 2019 PwC Football All-Stars nomination.
A: Thank-you! They were just announced this morning and it's always a real privilege. I think particularly after last year's success and maybe winning Player of the Year last year that people might expect certain high standards of you all the time. For me, a big driver was to be that consistent performer and live up to it. So, to be nominated again is such an honour. I know how good of a night it is and how much of a privilege it is to be nominated. So, yeah, it's great. It's really incredible to think that you're still being nominated and that you can run that success in with the team's success over the last few years is just amazing.
Q: You'll be passing your Footballer of the Year crown to one of your Dublin team-mates.
A: Yeah, they'll have a tough act to follow, to be fair (laughs). It's like the Rose of Tralee, you have to travel the country and be an advocate for loads of stuff! They'll have a lot to live up to!
Yeah, it's nice that it's the three lads (Stephen Cluxton, Jack McCaffrey, and Con O'Callaghan). It probably couldn't happen to three nicer people. If you were to ask any of my team-mates who you would pick just for being a good person, I think those three lads would come out on top.
We all know Jack and his personality. People maybe don't know Stephen and Con as much. They're getting to know Con more. They're just three genuinely amazing people. I don't think the three of them are that pushed about personal accolades, but I'm sure even for their clubs and families that it's such an amazing honour. Even to be nominated is an amazing honour and a credit to them all.
The two lads, Jack and Con, are probably relatively new to it compared to Clucko. You're looking at Clucko saying here's someone who has not just performed well this year, he's someone who has changed the modern game as we know it. And changed the role of a goalkeeper for future generations. He's changed the platform from which teams get their possession and their offensive platform from.
It's a credit to the two lads, but, jeez, it would be such a testament to Clucko if he was to pick it up this year. Just a testament for everything he's given the game in general. Not only have his performances been off the charts this year, he's probably been our best player, but it would just be a nice cap-stone for him, maybe.
I'm not saying he's retiring or anything like that, but it would just be a nice acknowledgement.
Q: Everyone is speculating about his future because of the way he walked around Croke Park and applauded the Dublin supporters and waved to them as if in farewell. He arguably played better than ever this year, though, so looks like he still has plenty more left to give?
A: It's incredible. I know Stephen, luckily, quite personally and I know he was maybe a bit disappointed about how last year had gone for him. He got injured in one of the early games in Leinster against Longford and had missed a couple of games and then, potentially, there was a bit of self-doubt there about whether he was up to it.
And he just came out this year and the saves he pulled off not only from open play but from penalties. His kick-outs. I don't know, like, it will be probably only when he's gone that everyone will realise how much a blessing he was for Dublin. I don't know do we really fully even as an Association appreciate what he has done.
For us as a team and for the game in general as a spectacle. He's been responsible for new rules that have been brought in to curb him. It's almost like, 'let's prevent this short kick-out with this rule to force him long', but he is the best at going long. He might not have the boot of Rory Beggan or Shaun Patton from Donegal, but the pin-point accuracy is just incredible.
Q: You're on the end of a lot of them so I presume you get him a big Christmas present every year?
A: Yeah! It's like, 'I love you so much, Stephen, please never leave me!' He's the first man to avoid the limelight, as you know, and he's the first man to deflect any sort of personal accolades. But he's just the summation of what we try to do and why we do it and he's just an absolute pleasure of a man to know.
Q: Speaking of pleasure, the emotion on the Croke Park pitch after the final whistle blew in the All-Ireland Final replay was almost visceral. There was just an incredible buzz between all the Dublin players. Was this All-Ireland extra-special because of the five-in-a-row and the burden of pressure that entailed?
A: I think so. For me, definitely. Now, don't get me wrong, I've been a blubbering mess after ever All-Ireland. It was the same physically this time, but I was talking to someone recently who was observing the celebrations and he described it like when we won the first one in 2015 or the lads previous to me in 2013.
The sense that it hadn't been done before for a while or we had a year off. Not to disregard the years in between, but with the expectation and the, I don't know, just how the drawn game had gone. And being so close to the fine line of losing. I think just that euphoria and that relief that came after the final whistle was just, as you described, almost visceral. You can't describe it.
People ask you what were the celebrations like afterwards, but it's those 180 seconds or 90 seconds after the game where it's just...and Jack spoke about it after when he said you'd just love to bottle it up and maybe if you're in a dark place later in life you could just open it. I don't know how you're describe it, the relief, the emotion, and just seeing people.
Meeting Jonny (Cooper) and his struggles after the first game. And meeting the lads who have struggled maybe all year. Bernard Brogan being there as part of the day having not been part of the squad the first day. All of this just comes on top of you when that whistle goes. You try to take it in and you can't, but it's just such an emotional moment that will hopefully live long in the memory.
Q: There was a nice moment shortly after the final whistle too when you and David Moran shook hands. There's clearly a lot of mutual respect there.
A: Of course! David is one of the best in the game and I'd have such respect for him. He'd be a few years older than me and I remember, and this is so embarrassing actually. I remember I wasn't on the Dublin team in 2014 when Kerry played Mayo in an All-Ireland semi-final replay down in Limerick. Kerry won the game and it was an awesome game, end to end.
But I remember tweeting that day, we had won the U-21s that year but I felt I was still stratospheres away from the senior set-up. I remember tweeting 'David Moran has had one of his best games ever in a Kerry jersey', or something like that. So, coming in and competing against him the following year in 2015 was surreal. Not only are you in awe of your team-mates, you're in awe of opposition players.
I had such respect for him because his kick-passing is second to none. His fielding. His complete leadership of that team this year has been incredible. I think it's a testament to him and it was one of his best years in a long time. So, yeah, there's serious, serious mutual respect for him.
I actually met his Dad at Anton O'Toole's funeral. All the Kerry boys came up and you're trying to say hello to them and recognise that you'd play against David. There's a mutual respect there that goes beyond words, I think. As much as you'd want to hate them, you do have to respect them as players and the talents and the challenges they're going to bring you.
He had a serious game in the first game and the second game. He was trying to drive it on when we were maybe in control in that second game. The mutual respect, I'm always a big fan of it and you see it in underage games where they line up teams of kids and they get them to shake hands which I'm such a big fan of. You see it in rugby, just that mutual respect after the game that you have for players.
We're ecstatic and you don't want to step over the line but you have to pay your respects to your opponent and shake their hands.
I had a couple of nice moments with a couple of the lads from Kerry. Dara Moynihan is a young player for Kerry who was Man of the Match against us in the League which hurt. But he plays with a club called Spa which is my Dad's club in Kerry. My Dad grew up on the same road or boreen as they call in in Kerry as Dara's family.
I would have been out on that road many a summer with Dara. He owned a quad at the time and I was up and down the road on this quad with him and my Dad would be out on the road trying to slow us down and bring me in. I would know Dara very well, his father Timmy has a farm on that road. I would have been over on the farm as a child milking cows and stuff and putting on the machinery onto the cows and walking the farm.
There's just nice connections there that go beyond sport. And there's such a respect there. Later in life we'll probably be dragged to many a Q&A and many a pre-game discussion or night before and hopefully we'll get to spend some time together with those boys because there's such mutual respect there.
Q: You'll really reflect on your career later in life, but while you're on the journey do you have time to really take stock of what you're experiencing and achieving? Frankly, it's ridiculous that you're never lost a Championship match. You're playing with the greatest football team of all time. Have you reflected on it all much?
A: I don't think you can because there's just so much going on. Even if you have a great game someone will text you saying, 'Jesus, what was the story with that pass', in a friendly sort of way. But you don't have time to reflect on it because you’re just wrapped up in it and you're still playing.
You can't let that seep in because you want more. And you're eager for more success. You don't let it seep in. I've a contact in RTE and I was very lucky to get all Dublin games over the last few years on a USB which my Dad had been plaguing me for.
I'll arrive in some evening after training and he'll be sitting there watching matches the unbelievable replay we had against Mayo in 2015, the semi-final against Kerry in 2016, just really spectacular stand-out games. I might go in and as much as I hate watching them back you love watching them back. Because you're sort of sitting there thinking, 'Jesus, that was actually such a critical moment or an important score'.
Because I suppose when you play in a season and you watch games back it’s with an analytical and critical view on the game. But when you get to watch games back from two or three years ago you get to appreciate them a little bit and you realise how lucky we were to come out of such battles. Or what a great game or spectacle it was.
Maybe in that regard, a small bit (of reflection), but in an overall sense I don't think so. It'll be when I maybe have my own kids in the future and maybe I get involved in my club in the future that it'll be talked about. But certainly not for a while.
Q: Has being a part of this high-achieving, high-performing Dublin team changed you as a person?
A: It's amazing how it has changed me as a person. Not only does it change your life and your social life and the opportunities that are afforded you, it also probably impacted on my career. In football you're always demanding a certain standard from yourself. There's a certain sort of culture where you set your targets and your short-term goals and long-term goals.
You want to hit them and you're always accountable to them. You want to improve. There's that constant sort of...it's almost like what I'd image happens here in PwC where we are today. I'm sure that's what they do - they set their targets and their goals and they achieve them and then ask themselves how they can grow the business even more, how can they get better.
I think for me as a person, that's just infectious and has come into every aspect of my life, not just in sport. You want to improve in your career and life in general, you don't want to get stuck in a rut where you're maybe doing a job you don't love. You want to see that progression and promotion whether it's in business or life or whatever. You want to see that upward trajectory.
That comes from sport. It seeps into you. It's the lads around you. Everyone is the same, we're competitive. You don't want to be any less well off than someone else, you want to be competing and successful whether it's on the pitch or off the pitch. That's something that I've taken off the pitch with me.
Q: The rest of the country will be hoping this Dublin team takes a breather after winning the five-in-a-row or that their mentality softens subconsciously after the achievement of winning the five-in-a-row. I get the feeling that's not going to happen you, though. Especially as I heard that Peadar Ó Cofaigh Byrne was seriously putting it up to you in training during the latter part of this season?
A: Oh my God, who told you that?! Peadar Ó Cofaigh Byrne is an animal! I was getting slagged for weeks that I couldn't win a throw-up over him because he's almost 100 kilos, he's 99.9 kilos, I think, which I slag him about, but he's heavier than me. He's tall, he's 6'6'', and he's broader than me.
He's an absolute beast, but he's mobile as well. So you're going to see a lot more of him. It's been great because going into training I'm thinking about the lads slagging me and knowing I have to go out and do Peadar just to get the fellas who were slagging me back!
It's just a vicious circle, really, but it's great when you have to be looking around like that. Darren Gavin was there in the early part of the year doing really well before he got injured.
Dublin might have retirements or some might think as a team we'll take stock after a win like this year, but I don't think so. I think players who are coming up are so eager to get involved in it, and players who are there already are so keen to keep it. So everyone is fighting their own corner and the players around you are still fighting standards and you're going to be called out for any complacency or sense of ego creeping in. That's just not accepted.
So, no, I don't think so. Now, look, we might have this chat again in 12 months and the wheels will have fallen off, but I don't think so. I think with the players there and people moving on and the lessons they have taught the younger group of us, the younger cohort, I think Dublin football hopefully is in a very good place.
Now, don't get me wrong, that Kerry team is coming and it's probably unfortunate I'll have to end my career losing in semi-finals and quarter-finals to this outstanding Kerry team with all their young talent. But we'll keep trying to row our own boat in Dublin and see what happens.
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