GAA Football

'Get me out of here'. John Brennan reflects on his two years in charge of Derry

Derry manager John Brennan during the Dr McKenna Cup semi-final against Antrim in 2011.
Andy Watters

“GET me out of here,” thought John Brennan as the curtain came down.

It was Saturday, June 30th, 2012 and it was the end of the road for him after two seasons as Derry manager.

As Longford hammered the final nails into the Oak Leaf coffin Brennan longed for Lavey and home, he was glad it was all over.

His time at the helm hadn’t produced a major breakthrough but there was success. The previous year Derry contested their first Ulster final since 2000 (they haven’t reached one since) and Brennan’s team held its own in Division Two.

However, an uneasy relationship with members of the county board meant the bainisteoir’s bid never felt entirely comfortable on him.

Ill-feeling dated back to 2004 when he had allowed his name to go forward for the manager’s job. He had won county championships with Lavey, Loup and Slaughtneil (Derry), Cargin (Antrim) and Tyrone’s Carrickmore but he lost a vote 9-8.

Then, after the notion had gone off him, he was offered the position in 2010.

“I didn’t want the bloody job,” he says. But he threw everything - all the know-how he’d gathered from his playing days in football and rugby, the managerial experience from his working life with BT and a track record of success at club level - into it and the Oak Leafers responded.

Derry began 2011 by beating Tyrone in the Dr McKenna Cup final and afterwards Brennan enjoyed a few drinks with his players. Perhaps that’s not what you might expect from a man who was nicknamed ‘the beast’ during his rugby days?

“Are you a beast?” I asked him when we chatted at Tullylagan House Hotel in Cookstown recently.

“I wasn’t. At least I didn’t think so,” he replied.

Do you like the nickname?

“I don’t care about it. It has died a death over the last number of years.

“Joe Brolly was one who called me it, he was going on about it one day and I emptied him. He got a boy sent off, he had no reason to do it because they (Dungiven) were winning the match by four or five points.

“He went to the referee and he sent our boy off. At the end of the match I buried him, I hit him in the guts. I like Joe, him and me are friendly. He wrote about it and said he was deserving of it and so he was. He was deserving of it.”

If you push him hard enough you’ll see where he got the nickname from, but in this era when football is becoming a bit of a dull science, Brennan – now well into his 70s – stands defiantly as a bulwark against the coaching-manual generation.

A genuine football man, he’s good company. Our conversation started over a morning coffee but our stomachs are rumbling for lunch before it ends.

“You have to have a bit of craic,” he says and his players will confirm that life with him is never dull but, make no mistake, he’s a fierce competitor too. If you were up against him you’d see another side of John Brennan, but then, that’s how winners roll.

“I like winning,” he says, but it comes at a price. For every man holding a cup there’s a clique of sore losers.

“See if I’m annoying people that’s brilliant, because if you’re winning you’re annoying people,” he adds.

“If you’re successful in life you’ll have no friends. But if you have had misfortune and you hit the drink and you’re lying in the street, then it’s ‘poor Andy or poor John, come on we’ll give him a hand’.

“If you carry the real world to the football world, the same theory applies. If you’re winning, it’s f**k him.”

Maybe it’s news to John, but he does have friends.

Paddy Bradley was a vital part of Brennan’s Derry side and man of the match in that McKenna Cup final win over Tyrone.

“The persona that comes across is that he’s not wise and he’s a disciplinarian, and he is to an extent, but he’s somebody you’d trust with your life,” said Bradley.

“I know different boys who went to him with personal issues and he’s the sort of boy who would put the player first. He understands that footballers are human-beings too and, while football is important, they have a life outside of it.”

Bradley was flying that season and with the McKenna Cup in the bag, Derry turned their attention to Division Two. They began with another victory over auld enemy Tyrone.

When they beat Kildare next time out promotion looked a distinct possibility but disaster struck when the talismanic forward tore his cruciate ligament playing for Glenullin and was ruled out for the rest of the reason.

Despite his loss there were wins against Sligo, Meath and Antrim, but Derry missed out on promotion on scoring average.

Still, that upward momentum continued in the Ulster Championship and a confident display against Fermanagh set up a semi-final clash with Armagh.

The counties had met off the field several weeks earlier on what Bradley, who missed the trip because of his injury, refers to with a chuckle as: “That famous night in Meath?”

Coincidentally Armagh and Meath stayed in the same hotel. The Orchardmen, under curfew, and tucked up in their beds, the Derry panel (Brennan included) let their hair down until the wee small hours.

When questions were asked the morning after, Brennan defended his boys to the hilt and they repaid his loyalty by running Armagh ragged at Clones on June 19. On the pitch afterwards they recalled that night in Meath and the huddle roared ‘Yeooooooooooooo’ as it broke up and men in red and white looked forward to the Ulster final.

But again misfortune struck.

First Gerard O’Kane was injured in a club game and then Eoin Bradley, who had become vital in his brother’s absence, also tore his cruciate.

The loss of ‘Skinner’ punctured Derry’s balloon.

“If we hadn’t lost Skinner we would have won that Ulster final,” says Brennan.

“Skinner was up there (he points skyward) and Mark Lynch and the other boys were up there with him but when he got injured the ass dropped out of them.

“If Skinner had been on we would have been six points up at half-time instead of level. I know it’s hypothetical, but nobody ever convinced me otherwise.

“After half-time we had a plan to hold them for the first 10 minutes. I can remember Maurice Deegan (referee) running from the halfway line and then throwing his arms out giving a penalty.

“A high ball and Murphy and our ’keeper clashed – the ball went wide and he gave a penalty. They got a point after it and then we were chasing it.”

The rest is history. Donegal won their first major honour under Jim McGuinness and went on to change the face of Gaelic Football, Meanwhile, Brennan gathered his troops to take on Kildare at Croke Park six days later.

“I got the boys assembled at Toomebridge on the Friday. We had a bite to eat we headed on to Dublin and booked into the hotel,” he recalled.

“You want to do your best for the boys, but the next thing I heard (from a county board official) ‘They’re getting two meals in the one day?’

“But anyway we should have beaten Kildare. Enda Muldoon scored a great goal in the first 10 minutes and the referee disallowed it.”

Seven days earlier Derry were on the eve of an Ulster breakthrough, now they were down and out, but surely there was a platform to build on for the 2012 season? Unfortunately that’s not the way it panned out. The retirements of Kevin McCloy, Enda Muldoon and Kevin McGuckin derailed the side and Brennan thought long and hard before agreeing to stay on for a second year. He still regrets his decision.

“I don’t know why I didn’t walk away after the first year,” he said.

“My heart wasn’t in it and I couldn’t wait until it was over.”

His appetite wasn’t helped by the controversy that was whipped up after he attended a rally in Derry to support long-term friend Martin McGuinness’s candidacy for President of Ireland.

Brennan, Stephen Kenny (Derry City manager) and others were invited along to a rally at Free Derry Corner in the Bogside.

“I know Martin for years and I have time for him and he has time for me,” he said.

“I was there in a personal capacity but there was a photograph in a local paper of me at the microphone and I think I said something to the effect that it would be brilliant for Derry to win the Ulster Championship the following year and for the President of Ireland to present the Anglo-Celt Cup.

“It was implied that I was shouting Sinn Fein propaganda and I was picked out but there wasn’t a word said about Stephen Kenny. The abuse I got over that on the phone and texts, oul silly messages on the house phone…

“There was ones in the Derry County Board who were actually contemplating getting me suspended for 24 weeks.”

He felt that county board officials with long memories saw their opportunity to settle the grudges they held for half-imagined insults he had long forgotten.

“That soured me with Derry, I had no backing at all. I was out on my own but I knew that within the county board there was people who would have wanted to give me the 24 weeks,” said Brennan.

“I don’t have any dealings with those people because they’ll take you down and beat you. They have it prepared, they’re thinking: ‘the next time I see him I’ll be ready for him’.

“They’re prepared and you’re not and if you’re not prepared you’ll lose.”

The storm blew over and Brennan returned to the sanctuary of the training pitch but the momentum was lost. Wins over Meath and Monaghan were enough to keep his side in Division Two, but things began to unravel.

“We struggled to stay in Division Two and the set-up was hopeless, there was no professionalism at all,” he said.

With the League put to bed Derry travelled to Ballybofey to take on Donegal in the Uister quarter-final. The previous year this had been a competitive clash, but nine months on Brennan felt like he was heading into an ambush.

“Jesus, that night in Donegal…

“It was a horrible wet day and we only had six of the team that started the Ulster final. I knew in my heart of hearts ‘we haven’t a hope here’ and if Donegal were any use at all we were going to get a hiding.

“People criticised and criticised but we had no chance.”

That’s how it panned out. Donegal – who went on to win the All-Ireland – won by 10 points and Derry made that fateful trip to Pearse Park to play Longford. The end of the road.

“We had a chance of a penalty to draw it but we didn’t get it,” said Brennan.

“Anyway I went in to do one year and it was the worst decision I ever made in my life staying on. The players weren’t there.

“I should have walked – I should never have stayed for 2012. My heart wasn’t in it and I couldn’t wait ’til it was over. I remember thinking ‘get me out of here’. I remember going to Longford for the match and I could not wait to get home and the next year was the first year I stayed out of football completely.”

Antrim’s Cargin coaxed him out of retirement to take their senior team and the Erin’s Own men have replaced St Gall’s as top dogs – they’re chasing three in-a-row this year.

It’s not a surprise because John Brennan is a winner and that has beyond doubt for years. Looking back on his time with Derry he has some regrets, his county will have some too…

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