GAA Football

'My mindset is just to mess my man up - do whatever it takes to show I'm better than him'

Callum Brown was itching to seize his chance to impress in the All-Ireland minor final of 2017 for Derry and it is that fierce determination, allied to pace and power, which has seen him whisked away to Australia. Neil Loughran caught up with the Limavady man as he prepares from an unscheduled trip home...

Callum Brown showed flashes of his amazing potential during Derry's All-Ireland charge in 2017 - and never moreso than when brought from the bench at half-time of the final defeat to Kerry. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

ANYBODY who was inside Croke Park early enough for the minor football final on September 17, 2017 is unlikely to ever forget being wowed by the boy who would become king. Plenty have promise at that level, only the very best back it up in the big leagues.

David Clifford is the kind of once-in-a-generation player Kerry have the uncanny ability of unearthing just when the well appears to be running dry; that day he was unstoppable, bagging 4-4 and laying on the Kingdom’s other two majors in a minor masterclass.

“It was like bouncers trying to throw Jean-Claude van Damme out of a f**king disco.”

Joe Brolly’s description of Clifford’s first goal 11 seconds in couldn’t have been more on the money. However, the Fossa phenomenon wasn’t the only manchild punters left Croke Park eulogising later that evening.

Callum Brown was brought into the Derry team at half-time, by which stage the Oak Leafs trailed 3-8 to 0-5.

All hope was gone, but the Limavady teenager played every minute he spent on the field as though it might be his last, utterly dominating the Kerry defence during an eye-catching cameo showcasing his power and pace.

Three years on and Brown is Down Under, pursuing the professional dream with AFL outfit Greater Western Sydney. But memories of that day still rankle.

“I was meant to get on a lot earlier, they held off thinking something could happen,” recalls the 19-year-old, who was also on the books of Irish Premiership outfit Linfield before being lured to the other side of the world.

“I was telling them to put me on as well from halfway through the first half… it was frustrating. At half-time, I said ‘put me forward’. When we were walking back out to the field, I said ‘put me forward’. They started me midfield but I ended up going to forward and tried to do whatever I could do.”

It was those powerhouse performances like that which caught the eye of Aussie Rules scouts the following year, and in particular former Cavan midfielder Nicholas Walsh, then a coach with the Giants.

What he found was that, athletically, Brown is on a different level to most. Fitness-wise, though, there were question marks. The fact he was sprung from the bench, rather than starting in several of the Derry minors’ 2017 run suggests he hadn’t the full 60 in him, and Brown admits that was something he had to improve.

Playing as a defender in Aussie Rules, his job is to stop his man getting possession of the ball. That means being taken on a tour of the oval field and back again for the entire duration of the game, the mind having to remain as switched on as the legs are fresh.

“It was an on and off issue.

“I knew I could do it but that was just the mindset as well. The weight I was at probably made it hard – the runs I was making, it’s tiring when you’re 95kg, I’ve been playing at that weight the last three years where I’m 91 now, and that’s where I want to be.

“Physically, I notice a massive difference. It’s a similar kind of fitness to Gaelic, probably more explosive because you always have to be ready. You run pretty much two hours of a game – I don’t know any other sport that’s doing that.

“In the AFL forwards might not get 12 touches in a game, so they just have to keep moving until the end. It’s man to man, and I was still in the Gaelic mindset where you don’t have to just sit on your man, you can switch off, cover, but that’s not how it is here.

“It’s just a case of ‘where’s your man, don’t switch off’. If you find yourself on someone else, make sure someone else picks up your man. It’s a really packed game, a bit like American football in that there’s all these set-ups, formations, terminologies…

“I’m still trying to get used to all of them. I’m still trying to get in the rhythm and that’s what I’ve been doing; I’ve got a lot better, improving in every aspect of the whole game.

“My sole focus is not to let my man beat me. Even if they’ve been playing this game for 12 years, my mindset is just to mess my man up. Do whatever it takes to show I’m better than him.”

Mentality-wise, Brown has never had an issue. Always a big day performer, he thrives on pressure. And even when opponents have tried to knock him off his stride, like on the odd occasions when racist taunts were thrown his way growing up, he didn’t let them affect his performance.

“I was the only black kid in my class; in my school there was probably only three at the time.

“Obviously when you’re younger, your mates take the hand out of you, but you just take it in because they’re your mates… I just grew up with that, I didn’t take any offence to it. At school, I didn’t really care, I didn’t really take it on. I’ve always been laid back so I didn’t really let it bother me… it’s hard to explain.

“I got it probably a couple of times [playing sport] but I didn’t really act. It’s more the people who are around you who act and you just sort of take it off them. If I ever got it, all the boys would just back me up – there was never any fear going into games because I knew all the boys would have my back.”

His father Trevor lives in Luton, and Callum is determined to visit his paternal homeland of Jamaica some day. Limavady, though, is where he belongs. It’s where he will go today when he steps off a plane, having travelled back from Australia following the suspension of the AFL under the end of May.

Friends, family and Gaelic football; that’s what it will be all about for the next couple of months.

“I’m always going to be homesick in different ways and at different times.

“There’s times when you’re flat out, really into it and thinking about nothing else and there there’s other times it’s just like ‘I wish I was home’.

“When you see the Championship games starting up, you just wish you were there, playing. I always say to the coaches here, when they ask what’s the best sport, ‘Gaelic; simple as’. Nothing beats Gaelic. That’ll always be the case, no matter what.

“I found last year hard to watch at times because you do wish you were there to do something about it… I’ve always said to myself, one day I’ll be back in the colours, club and county.”

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