Dublin's 'Poster Boy' Bernard Brogan tougher than the rest
“I’d love one new memory of the Hill or even better, to create one more for it. Of all the privileges and thrills that go with playing for Dublin, my favourite is turning to face Hill 16 and the flag as the Artane Boys strike up Amhrán na bhFiann. Because at that moment I’m on the verge of playing football, the thing that I enjoy more than anything else; it’s when I have the most football ahead of me. Fifteen minutes into a game and grains of the sand are already pouring through the pinched centre of the hour glass. By half-time there’s as much sand in the lower bulb as there is in the upper one. But when we’re standing for the national anthem, the hour glass has yet to be turned over. It’s all still ahead of us.”
- Bernard Brogan in his autobiography ‘The Hill’
BERNARD Brogan. The Poster Boy of Dublin football. The man who could do no wrong.
And the million-dollar smile that was on so many billboards and sides of buses you’d lose track of his commercial whereabouts.
Hailing from the St Oliver Plunkett’s/Eoghan Rua club in the capital, you imagine success came easily to Bernard Brogan.
An inter-county career that bounced, bobbed and weaved along for 15 blissful years, winning seven All-Ireland titles, five Leagues, four Allstars, scoring 21 Championship goals and bagging the Player of the Year gong in 2010.
A supremely gifted footballer, dip into any highlights reel during ‘Pillar’ Caffrey, Gilroy or Gavin’s reigns and there you’ll find him playing champagne football and saluting the Hill.
Bernard Brogan. The Poster Boy of Dublin football. The man who had it all.
Everything just sparkled. And now he's written a shiny autobiography that’s just hit the shop shelves.
Only, it’s not like that at all.
He could have made it all shiny and told the reader about the famous wins, the individual awards, the adulation and those deadly nights in Coppers.
But Brogan didn’t bring any polish in the telling of his story – and that's the book's greatest strength.
Speaking to The Irish News on Wednesday morning, Brogan says: “Some people think you sail into the sunset after a golden career. Obviously it’s been an amazing journey but I wanted to tell the story that it’s not easy to get there and it’s not all plain sailing. From 2016, I was battling for every second I got on the pitch.”
Far away from the intense and addictive glare of Croke Park and the crazy commercial world he inhabited, Brogan displayed some cojones throughout his brilliant football career, especially at the latter end of it.
He was dropped for the 2016 All-Ireland final replay against Mayo.
In 2017, he couldn’t buy a start.
In 2018, he battled back from a ‘partial rupture of the anterior cruciate ligament’, sustained a few days out from a National League game against Donegal in February and remained on the fringes upon his return to fitness.
In 2019, he was dropped ahead of another All-Ireland final as Gavin’s men went for five-in-a-row.
At the beginning of his county career, he had to wait three seasons before ‘Pillar’ Caffrey entrusted him with the number 14 jersey, while Pat Gilroy gave him the roughest of rides.
Chapter 12, entitled Number 27, is one of the most fascinating of Brogan’s engrossing autobiography, brilliantly ghosted by the peerless Kieran Shannon.
The chapter’s title refers to Brogan having to settle for being 27th man for the 2018 All-Ireland final with Tyrone.
Traditionally, Gavin didn’t entertain the notion of players travelling with the team who didn’t make the 26-man match-day squad.
“Jim believes that anyone who has no chance of playing just isn’t going to be on the same wavelength as those who are and their presence can dilute and even contaminate the focus of the group,” Brogan writes.
And yet, Gavin decided to break with that tradition in 2018, making room for Brogan on the bus as number 27.
While bitterly disappointed not to make the 26, Brogan was grateful even though he wouldn’t play a second of the final.
“Today I’m Limbo Man,” Brogan writes. “Unfortunate not to be on the 26, but fortunate enough to be here to drop that bag off and more importantly be with my boys on the biggest day of the year… So I’m going to try and embrace this and make the best of it.”
He recounts a desperate moment when the Dublin squad reach the Croke Park dressing rooms before throw-in and he can’t find his jersey.
“Jesus, this is embarrassing,” he writes. “I’m meant to be running out on All-Ireland final day and I’ve no bleedin’ jersey…”
But the cold sweats subside when he spots the number 27 between 20 and 21. Panic over.
BERNARD Brogan always had the intentions of writing his autobiography. 2018 was meant to be his swansong but with the cruciate playing havoc with his last dance in sky blue he made himself available for the following year.
“I met a publisher in the middle of my career and he asked me if I was interested in doing a book,” Brogan explains.
“He said you’ll have more success and you’ll do interviews with the media but a book is your words and it will sit on the mantelpiece, you sign off on it, it’s there for your children and grandchildren...
“It was a really enjoyable experience doing it. [Ghost-writer] Kieran [Shannon] and me blew the hours out a few times. I obviously wanted it to be right. I was the first of that group [to write a book], I was a bit nervous. I wanted it to be insightful, I wanted it to be respectful to the management and players.
“It’s an honest book. I didn’t want it to be a game-by-game autobiography; it’s about my journey and the last couple of years and me learning. It’s easy to talk about things when they’re good – ‘we played, we won and we had a good night out…’ – but it’s more about some of the challenges and the lessons I learned when things weren’t going my way.
“I genuinely learned so much about the selflessness, about respect, what it means to be a team – all those things.”
And yet, here he is, telling the reader about the time he accused Jim Gavin, Dublin’s impassive five-in-a-row manager, of “ageism” and how younger members of the squad were showered by positive discrimination in the pursuit of game-time.
“I had that row with Jim,” Brogan says matter-of-factly.
“He built that culture on everyone getting a chance and sometimes when you get familiar with people and you know what they’ve done… When I played in an A versus B game and I scored four or five points, he might go: ‘Ah, sure, I know Bernard can do that.’
“But if a young lad does that it might spark a ‘Wow’ and that guy might get a chance the next day. So every now and again I was reminding him that I’m still here.”
Despite the creeping years, Brogan did feel under-valued by Gavin – and it showed in the lack of opportunities he got.
“Fundamentally, when you’re a high-performing athlete you have to back yourself. I never said a word to any manager at club or county that I played under; just near the end there was a bit of back and forth with Jim and me. I felt I had to say my piece.
“A lot of players would have asked the manager why they’re not playing, whereas I would have done my talking on the pitch. Especially last year, I owed it to myself that I just didn’t want to peter out.
“I believed I could add value and if I didn’t think I could add value what was the point of me being there? I’m 35-years-of-age, I’ve two babies at home, my wife [Keira] is sacrificing her days and evenings five times a week to mind them. I wasn’t there to swan around, I was there to play and I did believe that I got to a level where I could actually play near the end of the campaign.
“Bryan Cullen came up to me and said: ‘I wouldn’t say to you but you’re actually moving well and you’re not far off. You need a bit of luck now.’"
Brogan adds: “When young lads come in you want them to feel part of it and give them energy but when you are playing well, like 15 v 15, I’d be the lad at the top pitch kicking ball on my own as if I was only starting out at 19 or 20-years-of-age.
“That was tough; very, very tough – not being in the A versus B game. Players felt sorry for me, genuinely. But there was no agenda with Jim or the management team. I was 34/35 at this stage. It was just a battle, an interesting battle and that’s why I wrote a lot about it. People have had those battles in the workplace where they believe they’re performing but they’re not getting the love.”
Dublin’s Super 8s dead rubber against Tyrone at Healy Park 13 months ago was a case in point.
Thrust into the action on 45 minutes, everything Brogan touched something came of it.
But it still didn’t make a dent on Gavin’s thinking as Diarmaid Connolly was brought in from the cold and the elder Brogan missed out on yet another All-Ireland final, only to be recalled for the replay victory over arch-rivals Kerry.
With Dublin easing to the finish line, Brogan’s desire for even a few seconds of game-time showed how much he bled blue.
In the dying embers of the 2019 All-Ireland final replay against Kerry, Brogan gestured to fellow substitute Paddy Andrews.
“Will we go down for one last run? There might be a blood sub yet!”
Brogan’s high point in the sky blue of Dublin was undoubtedly Pat Gilroy’s years and the early part of Gavin’s reign.
Gilroy’s treatment of Brogan at times was bordering on the tyrannical.
Poking the Plunkett’s man like someone would do to a dog with a stick, if only to get Dublin’s so-called 'Poster Boy' to track back and tackle more, Gilroy’s crude approach ultimately paid dividends
“I always wanted to prove people wrong,” he says. “I got energy from that. My close mates would always say I’d bounce back well from adversity. I actually loved it. That’s why I spoke so respectfully of Pat. I won Player of the Year and I was thankful that he pushed me. He called me out a few times.
“One of the most powerful things was he rang me before training and said: ‘Just a heads up, Bernard, I’m just letting you know I’m going to have a go at you in the team meeting tonight. I just need to call you out on a few things but I wanted to give you a heads up.’
“So I went away thinking I was on the inner circle with Pat. He tore me to shreds for not passing the ball or not tracking back. And in the group, people were going: ‘Oh Jesus.’ But by doing that, it empowered me to be better.”
In Dublin’s infamous and decidedly apocalyptic All-Ireland semi-final with Donegal in 2011, Brogan showed exceptional leadership which was another poke in the eye to those that said Poster Boys don’t show up on the tough days.
Describing Jim McGuinness’s controversial tactics as “emotional hijacking”, Brogan says: “Those games build such character. I would have always judged my own performances by scores and getting assists. That day was a different type of day.
“I scored a couple of points and got a couple of frees, but that day was about digging in and finding a way. One memory that sticks out for me from that game was it was 4-2 or something like that and I just couldn’t see how we were going to score. It was just so dogged.
“I think Kevin ‘Mc’ [McManamon] came in and brought a load of energy, he won a couple of frees and got a score and the game just swung. I’ll always remember that as a really powerful day, a big day for Dublin, to pull that out of the bag. We found a way, whereas in previous years we mightn’t have been able to do that.”
After clinching five-in-a-row last September, Brogan's career had reached a natural end with the Dubs.
He hasn’t missed the early-morning sessions but says he will miss the camaraderie that Innisfails out in Ballygriffin nurtured among the 30 best footballers in the country.
“It’s been a large part of my life – 15 years, training five or six times a week for nine months of the year. It’s all I know, really,” he says.
“But I was lucky in that I had started my businesses [PepTalk and Legacy Communications] and I was busy in life.
“I was very aware that there were challenges with retirement and idle hands can be very challenging. My identity is Dublin GAA. Even in business, when I meet people, it’s the start of every conversation. It’s all I’m known for, so there is a big part of me that’s missing.
“But I played until I was 35 years of age. I was well past my time to go, I’ve no regrets and all the success that went with it is the cherry on top. As Jim [Gavin] used to say, it’s not us that’s sacrificing, it’s our loved ones at home who have to get on with life while we’re living our dream, out running around playing football.”
He adds: “People have their perception of Dublin and they’ll have their perception of me. I’m a commercially minded person, I’ve done different commercial things but I’d like people to see the side of me in the book that’s important – the humility and I suppose just my personality. I’d like to think I’m a fairly grounded, decent lad. Because you’re in the limelight of sport, people create a perception of you.
“I’m ambitious in business as I am in sport, and I gave it my all every day I went out there. But the journey and the people I met was more important to me than the success.”
He’s already been on to Gilroy to organise the 10-year reunion of their 2011 All-Ireland final triumph.
“I was lucky enough to do it for so long. I’ve made peace with it now, but when the battle of Championship comes and I’m in the stands watching, I’ll be thinking: ‘Jaysus, I think I’ve something to offer if I was out there.’"
Brogan laughs at the prospect.
Dublin’s Poster Boy with the million-dollar smile did okay in the end. And he turned out tougher than any of us thought...
Bernard Brogan: The Hill (with Kieran Shannon), Reach Sport www.reachsport.com, Copyright Bernard Brogan 2020. Available at all good bookstores, £20