Donegal ace Patrick McBrearty - proving that class is permanent

Donegal Patrick McBrearty celebrates his goal with Caolan Ward against Armagh last month <br />Picture Margaret McLaughlin.
Donegal Patrick McBrearty celebrates his goal with Caolan Ward against Armagh last month
Picture Margaret McLaughlin.

THE very best forwards in the country make a friend out of tight spaces. They are the most patient of breeds who can easily survive in extreme hinterland conditions and don’t require constant nourishment.

All it takes is 14 or 15 possessions per game to unpick the defensive lock. Just when you think they’re boxed in is when they’re at their most venomous.

Pound-for-pound, Patrick McBrearty is one of the very best forwards in the country.

Just ask Chrissy McKaigue, Padraig Hampsey or Aaron McKay. Ask anybody, in fact, who’s been placed on McBrearty sentry duty in recent times.

There is absolutely no security found in being touch-tight to the Kilcar man. His short, sharp looping runs off the sideline are an educational feast for any young forward or coach.

His movement and Donegal’s off-loads to him are so well rehearsed these days that they are virtually unstoppable.

The Patrick McBrearty of today is definitely a more refined version than the teenager who won an All-Ireland under Jim McGuinness in 2012.

In his youth, his worldview was different. Donegal’s great white hope wanted it all, wanted every ball that entered the opposition’s half of the field.

Spool forward to 2022 and his movement is smarter, more patient. He has become a more rounded footballer. A better footballer.

How? What was the process?

There is something wonderfully inarticulate about experience. You just accrue it over time.

In a GAA Hour podcast, aired last August, McBrearty was asked about the genesis of his now trademark looping run and the reasons behind developing it.

He fired back: “When I lost a yard or two of pace two years ago!” – a reference to his cruciate injury he sustained in 2018, the only serious set-back he’s suffered during his 12-year senior inter-county career.

“Everyone remembers the day he hit 11 points against Cork at Croke Park (in 2016),” recalls former Donegal forward Brendan Devenney.

“So he has that in him. He’s obviously the main man and teams are trying to nullify him. I think he’s top, top drawer, a serious operator. He never gets too emotive in a game. He seems to play all the games in the same style.

“You’d never see McBrearty in a dust-up or brawling, he just gets on with his game.”

A five-time Ulster winner and proud Celtic Cross owner, McBrearty is a 28-year-old with high mileage but remains essential to the Donegal effort.

Tomorrow, Declan Bonner will attempt to guide Donegal to their fourth Ulster final in five years against a Cavan side who shocked them in the provincial decider two years ago.

McBrearty was Donegal’s best forward against Cavan, scoring four points (0-2 frees), before his surprise withdrawal on 56 minutes.

If they manage to avenge that defeat in Clones tomorrow, McBrearty will be in line to make his 10th Ulster final appearance – although his 2018 final was cruelly cut short by the cruciate injury against Fermanagh.

Given how they handled the significant threat of Armagh in their opening provincial tie last month, pundits are talking up Donegal's chances of landing an All-Ireland.

“Jamie Brennan looks a good player but I don’t think he’s a 1-4 or 1-5 man,” says Oisin McConville.

“That hasn’t materialised. Don’t get me wrong, I think he’s a good player. But Patrick McBrearty is their 1-4 or 1-5 man. No team has ever won an All-Ireland without somebody like that. If Donegal want to reach the heights again that’s exactly what McBrearty needs to be.”

“If Donegal are to beat a Kerry, Dublin, Mayo or Tyrone,” says Eamon McGee, a former Donegal team-mate of McBrearty’s, “they need [Michael] Langan, they need [Michael] Murphy and they definitely need McBrearty all firing. If Tyrone can do it, why can’t Donegal? But they need the likes of Paddy at 100 per cent and chipping away at the scoreboard.”


SATURDAY February 27 2022. A National League Division One game between old enemies Donegal and Tyrone.

The skies above Ballybofey are pitch black and the goalposts at the road end of MacCumhaill Park sway viciously in the wind.

Padraig Hampsey is McBrearty’s second skin for the night. The Coalisland man mirrors the Kilcar man’s every stride. Diligent and impassive.

Tyrone are moving well and open up a four-point lead. Donegal have no Michael Murphy and resemble a team running on sand.

The natives are restless.

In first-half stoppage-time, McBrearty sparks into life; he lends the ball to Peadar Mogan towards one corner of the pitch.

It’s a six-versus-two scenario in Tyrone’s favour. A split second earlier, McBrearty was boxed in.

In a blink of an eye, he sheds Hampsey, takes the return pass from Mogan, fists it across goal for Conor O’Donnell who lands a goal from close range.

The natives erupt.

In that precise moment, the game shifts in Donegal’s favour and Tyrone never manage to wrestle control again.

It was another compelling exhibit that when Murphy is not in the team, Donegal have a less visible but equally effective totem in their midst.

Oisin McConville tells the story of one of his first encounters with the Dundalk IT boys where he still coaches.

On the bus to a game one afternoon, McConville asked the 25 players to answer a few getting-to-know-you questions on a sheet of paper.

One question asked what position on the field did they think was their best.

“I had 18 wing-backs,” McConville says.

“And that’s because it’s an easy position to play. If you make one brilliant run forward you’ll get on the end of something, whereas if you’re playing inside, it’s very unforgiving because you’re not going to get a lot of ball but you’re still expected to do something wonderful with it.

“The thing that annoys me is so many players want to be providers now; out-and-out finishers are few and far between.

“You saw Con O’Callaghan for Dublin last week [against Wexford] – there’s no question of what O’Callaghan wants to do: score. That kind of player is something that’s gone out of the game. McBrearty still fits that bill.”

Local GAA journalist Frank Craig says: “Paddy is a lot more patient. Before, he wanted every ball… I don’t think it bugs him if he doesn’t see a ball for 10 or 15 minutes; he’s waiting for the right moment and is very cute about going around the corner in the same way Colm McFadden did.

“You see Michael Murphy drifting in and out and goes wherever he wants, whereas Paddy holds a high line because somebody has to keep a bit of shape. Paddy plays in moments.”


IN the opening stages of Donegal’s eagerly anticipated Ulster Championship showdown with Armagh last month, he pulls his marker Aaron McKay out of the centre and by doing so creates a corridor for Eoghan ‘Ban’ Gallagher to sprint through to point.

With his first touch of the game over a minute later, he sets up Mogan for a chance. Over 20 minutes pass before he gets his hands on the ball again. In total, he has seven possessions in the first half – a few off loads, one effort that drops short and a converted free.

In the 47th minute, Donegal work one of Shaun Patton’s short kick-outs up the field in typical Donegal fashion: not with any great urgency, which allows Armagh plenty of time to set up defensively.

Involved in the 17-pass move for the third time, Hugh McFadden off-loads to McBrearty who has peeled off the sea of orange jerseys before diving through them again.

In a four-versus-two situation favouring Armagh, McBrearty gives to Caolan Ward on his right side and accepts a return pass and palms to the net.

Another game-changing moment with Patrick McBrearty’s fingerprints all over the slick ransacking of the Orchard house.

His three-pointer put Donegal 1-10 to 0-6 ahead. It was a score Armagh never recovered from.


IN his teenage years he was a hugely talented soccer player and travelled from Kilcar to Killybegs to play for St Catherine’s, the club where Everton’s Seamus Coleman started out.

He was capped by Republic of Ireland at U15 level and went on trial at Celtic, but after the death of Tommy Burns the link with the Glasgow giants was lost.

Later, he flirted with Aussie Rules for a while but his first love was always Gaelic football.

Eleven years on from that well-worn story of him being fed a plate of pasta in between playing for the Donegal minors and seniors against Antrim, McBrearty didn’t always shine under Jim McGuinness.

He would often start in big Championship games but rarely finish them, with his performances inclined to be of the erratic variety.

In the 2012 All-Ireland final against Mayo, he was replaced by Martin McElhinney on 48 minutes.

Sift through other lofty Sunday afternoons and that was the trend under McGuinness.

In the 2014 All-Ireland quarter-final against Armagh, Andy Mallon had edged McBrearty, but the Kilcar man still popped up with the winning score.

He didn’t start the next day against Dublin but came off the bench to hit two important points, and the All-Ireland final defeat to Kerry a few weeks later was a mirror image: two points from the bench.

“There are certain places you go and they talk about you in Kerry and about footballers they fear,” Kilcar native Martin McHugh says.

“I remember Kerry people saying they were glad McBrearty didn’t start in the 2014 All-Ireland final.”

Although Donegal suffered some lean years after McGuinness left, McBrearty arguably played his best football under Rory Gallagher who'd moved into the hot seat.

“I’ve been working with Rory for five or six years now with underage teams at Kilcar and Donegal, so it’s great to have someone like him on board,” McBrearty said in 2015.

“For three or four years I was playing out of position, which I gladly did, but I’m closer to goal where I’d rather be and I’m enjoying my football.”

For a long time, he played without gloves, preferring to smear the palms of his hands in hair wax for gripping the ball. Later, Rory Gallagher disavowed him of the notion and he started wearing gloves again.

Before hitting frees, he pulls up the shorts on his left leg.

Despite the sometimes over-zealous attention he receives from opposition defenders, McBrearty rarely rises to the bait.

“I’ve always taken that with me since I was U14 and I was getting attention back then. If you were getting abuse it’s a compliment,” he said.


CAVAN boss Mickey Graham can be virtually certain that Donegal’s most dangerous forward will stay high up the field at all times in Clones tomorrow afternoon.

And he won’t take Cavan’s renowned man-marker Padraig Faulkner on any great road trips either. There’ll be a bit of hanging around the right touchline waiting on Eoghan ‘Ban’ or Hugh McFadden’s short deliveries in tight spaces before looping round.

“Even when things aren’t going his way there are moments in him and that’s why you’ll never see him replaced with five or 10 minutes to go,” Craig says.

“People say: ‘Watch his left, watch his left’ – but he’s no different than Colm McFadden. He plays on that loop and it’s very hard to defend.

“He’s still winning ball inside. In Kerry, they tried to redevelop a role for ‘Gooch’ Cooper out the field because he was being crowded out inside. You look at Jamie Clarke of Armagh - modern football didn’t suit him.”

In their Ulster quarter-final last year, Derry’s Chrissy McKaigue gave a masterclass in man-marking.

For 74 minutes, he pushed – sometimes literally – McBrearty to the extreme hinterland of MacCumhaill Park.

McBrearty managed 16 possessions in total.

His seventh and eighth possessions yielded assists for Jamie Brennan and Michael Langan. To limit the Kilcar man’s influence to two first-half assists was generally regarded as a magnificent achievement by McKaigue.

That day in a rain-soaked Ballybofey the Slaughtneil man was on the verge of breaking McBrearty’s heart – but it was McBrearty who proved the heart-breaker.

With seconds remaining, he peeled off the sideline on the stand side, accepted Odhran MacNiallais’s short hand pass before launching an epic score to win the game in dramatic circumstances.

This was McBrearty’s signature moment.

McGee says: “How many players just drop the head and say ‘F*** it! Chrissy McKaigue has me beat up a stick here.’ But the fact he was still in the game, that’s a mindset that not a lot of people have, and that’s the best tribute you could pay him – just to hang in there.”

McConville notes: “If I think of Patrick McBrearty’s career and what he’s done, I’d probably pick that moment against Derry because he was extremely quiet.

“I think the Patrick McBrearty of four or five years ago would've lashed at four or five chances. But he didn’t. He was very controlled. That was emphasized against Armagh last month when he was quiet and got 1-1 in the space of a few minutes and put the game to bed.

“I think he’s matured in a huge way. I don’t think he had that maturity in his game earlier in his career where he forced things.”

“For a terrible match, it left you with an unbelievable moment,” Devenney says of McBrearty’s winning point against Derry last year.

It seems as if Donegal’s number 13 has been around the inter-county scene for an eternity.

Still 15 months shy of his 30th birthday, Patrick McBrearty is sometimes under-appreciated on the national stage – and yet he’s still unpicking defensive locks and stealing souls with scandalous economy.

“The first thing that comes to mind about McBrearty is longevity,” McHugh says.

“He played minor at 15 or 16 years of age and he’s playing county football since and he’s only had one bad injury – the cruciate [in 2018].

“That’s a long time at the top. It’s unbelievable when you think about it.

“He’s been phenomenal for the club. They won everything through the ranks. It was always McBrearty. He had the other players there but he was the man. You see it in all the great forwards: when they get the ball in their hands there is danger – Patrick McBrearty is the same.”

As he has proved so many times before, there is a world of difference between knowing what Patrick McBrearty is going to do and stopping it.

The Cavan defence are on high alert.

Patrick McBrearty has proven himself to be one of the best players of his generation
Patrick McBrearty has proven himself to be one of the best players of his generation