GAA Football

McCole finding his way

Brendan McCole was born in New York and only moved to Ireland at the age of nine, having never had a Gaelic ball in his hands. At 16, he suffered the tragic loss of his only sibling, Kara, but has used football as a means through which he's learned to cope with the grief. The Donegal man spoke openly to Cahair O'Kaneā€¦

Brendan McCole, here in action against Conor McManus, has stepped up to the plate at full-back for Donegal this year. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

WALKING the 200 yards from Goldwin Street to join close to a thousand students filing beneath the drooping stars and stripes at the doorway of Midland School, Brendan McCole felt exactly like one of them.

He was one of them.

“A full-blown Yank, American passport, the whole shebang,” he smiles.

Up until he was two weeks short of turning nine, boyhood days for the man now occupying Donegal’s number three shirt were wondering in suburban New York tones about whether Patrick Ewing could guide the Knicks to the NBA finals or the Yankees and Tino Martinez would keep on winning World Series’.

Life was in leafy Rye, 45 minutes north of the Big Apple, dandering the mile-and-a-half to the sun-kissed beach or the amusements in Playland, best known on these shores as the shooting location for the Tom Hanks film Big.

Donegal and Gaelic football was something McCole knew virtually nothing about.

“I’d never kicked a Gaelic ball in my life,” he admits.

“I’d heard about it, heard all these stories. I just couldn’t fathom the idea of using your hands and your feet in the same sport. It didn’t make any sense.”

His elder brother Kara played baseball but Brendan was too young at that stage. His sport was basketball.

August 26, 2006. He remembers the date the plane touched down with the family of four stepping off and into a life the two boys had never known.

Their father Donie, himself born in Greenock in Scotland, had moved across and found the GAA, playing wing-back on the Donegal team that won the All-Ireland U21 title in 1982.

He was just off the plane from America for Ardara’s 1983 county final loss to St Eunan’s, and then broke his leg in the semi-final as they missed out to Four Masters the following year.

When he and wife Bernadine returned home two decades after spreading their wings, they settled in Mountcharles in the middle of her country of Inver, and Donie threw his lot into coaching with St Naul’s.

This was a whole new world for the boys.

“It’s a massive difference. You’re coming from a school with 900 students to a school with five people in your class. It’s a big transition.”

The accents were quickly shifted – “I got enough stick about it the first two weeks, that had to go as soon as possible” – and friends were made.

That Brendan McCole would end up a Donegal minor, U21 and now the county’s new resident full-back seems almost as unfathomable as the sport itself once did to him.

But the idea that Kara wouldn’t be around to see him do it is still hard to take in.

* * * * * * * * *

WHEN the McColes moved back to Ireland, Kara and Brendan shared a room for the first time.

The family have always been close, always the type to sit around the kitchen table together for meals.

Those are the day-to-day things that sometimes punch Brendan in the gut.

January 10, 2014, a Friday morning, Kara went out to work as normal.

A forklift driver at Sean Ward’s fish export factory in Killybegs, Kara was good friends with the owner’s son.

He’d started off working at their petrol pumps, before going on to work in both the bar and fish factory, all owned by the Wards.

Kara tragically died that day after he became trapped in a piece of machinery.

“It’s life-changing. It was just the two of us growing up. You go to being an only child.

“It’s a big difference when you’ve four sitting at the dinner table compared to three…Nobody coming in at two o’clock in the morning to waken you,” Brendan says, his face momentarily lighting up in a half-smile at the memory.

“Your life’s never gonna be the same. It’s a big hole to fill.

“You learn to live with it. You don’t get over it, you just learn to cope more than anything.”

The pair were chalk and cheese.

Kara’s sport in America had been baseball, and when they returned he would go on to play for Ireland.

With Brendan blossoming on the football field, by his late teenage years Kara’s attentions had turned very much to farming, lorries, working and cars.

The cars came from the father too. Donie kept rally cars when the boys were younger and although his tastes have moved on, the interest hasn’t and was passed down.

Kara was the proud owner of a beautifully polished Evo VII when he passed away. After a time the family sold the car on, but a couple of years ago Brendan gathered up the money to buy it back.

If football gives him a window, he’ll go to the Donegal Rally next month. Through the fumes, nobody sees a footballer, just another petrol-head lost with them in their world. He loves that about it.

The shock hit the family hard. Brendan has built a relationship with sports psychologist Ciaran Kearney, who joined the Donegal setup this year, and has gratefully taken any help that’s been offered.

A lot of his feelings reside with his parents.

“I don’t think it’s something any parent should ever have to go through, to bury one of your children. It’s been hard on them.

“Someone that’s 21 years of age, they have their whole life ahead of them.

“You want to see them get married, have kids, do well in life. That opportunity didn’t come and you have to learn to live with it.”

He finds the pain comfortable to talk about but difficult to describe.

Aged 16 when Kara died, Brendan wasn’t on any Donegal development squads and only got called into the minor squad in his final year. Kara never saw him fulfil that dream.

At some point this weekend, as with the timescale around every game he plays for the county, his big brother will enter his thoughts.

“It’s obviously very raw when it happens and you’re trying to figure out how to cope, what am I gonna do to learn to live with this? You just try different things.

“Football works for me so I was fortunate I didn’t have to change much. I threw myself into that.”

* * * * * * * * *

IF he’d been asked prior to the 2020 Sigerson Cup final if he knew the company he was about to take a seat with, Brendan McCole couldn’t have told you.

Upon landing in Dublin to study Education and Training, he was quickly made captain of the Freshers team which he guided to All-Ireland success in his first year.

By the time he was doing his Masters in Business Management, Paddy Christie had given him the honour of leading a Sigerson team that included his then-Donegal team-mate Conor Morrison, Dublin’s Paddy Small, Evan Comerford, Sean Bugler and Shane Carthy, Kevin Flynn (Kildare), Brian Stack (Roscommon), Michéal Bannigan and David Garland (Monaghan) and Cavan’s Thomas Galligan.

He’d lived with Galligan for a year, and the pair would end up in direct battle in the 2020 Ulster final, but not before they won together.

In captaining the team, McCole added his name to those of Jim McGuinness and Christy Toye as winning Sigerson captains to hail from Donegal.

Brendan McCole captained DCU to the 2020 Sigerson Cup, becoming only the third Donegal man in history to achieve that distinction after Jim McGuinness and Christy Toye. Picture by Sportsfile

“I didn’t have a clue until that was pointed out to me. When you come out of college, you appreciate it a lot more. You understand how seriously the Sigerson is taken.”

DCU named him their Sigerson Footballer of the Year, while he was named on the team of the tournament after playing at the heart of a defence that didn’t concede a single goal en-route to the title.

At different times shared a pad in Gaelic House with Comerford, Mayo’s Mattie Ruane and Tipperary camog Aisling Moloney.

Across the way in the Running House, where talented track athletes lived, he fell in with Claire Fagan.

Officially the fastest 10km runner ever to come from Westmeath, she was part of Ireland’s silver medal winning team at the U23 European Women’s 10,000m in 2019.

Her own long-distance running dreams have taken her to America on a two-year Masters course that she’s halfway through.

The pair have been going out for four-and-a-half years. In a sporting sense, she’s opened his film-star blue eyes.

Not fully, mind. He still “couldn’t think of anything worse” than running 10km.

But Brendan is fascinated by the mindset of professional athletes.

In a Five Minutes With piece in the programme for Donegal’s win over Armagh (in which he kept Rian O’Neill scoreless), he listed Eliud Kipchoge as the sporting hero he most admired.

The Ethiopian king of marathon running’s philosophy revolves around knowing by the time he lines up for a marathon, his heart and mind will carry him further than his legs, because he’s “running free” having done everything he had to in the previous five months.

Strength of mind is something McCole has worked hard at.

It was seriously tested by the 2019 Division Two league final.

He’d always played half-back until St Naul’s ran low on options and threw him in on the edge of the square.

He impressed and in time, Rory Gallagher would pull him into the Donegal setup with a view to being a long-term replacement for Neil McGee.

With the veteran missing for most of the spring as Gaoth Dobhair made an assault on the All-Ireland club title, McCole stepped into his shoes and did well.

The decider came and McCole kept the jersey. But isolated against Mickey Newman and 60 yards of space, it turned bad fairly quickly. Newman had two points of his own and set up another 1-1 inside the 13 long minutes McCole lasted before McGee was called for.

The forgotten element of the day was that at the same time he brought in McGee, Declan Bonner also put Leo McLoone back as a protector of the space, which McCole hadn’t been afforded.

The game turned, Donegal won but while he started the 2020 Ulster final, this spring has felt like the 24-year-old’s first real shot at it since.

This had been an outstanding season in which he’s taking on the big jobs, marking himself out when taking Ciaran Kilkenny to task – “the best I’ve marked” – in Croke Park. He came into the Armagh game in form and carried it on through a brilliant display against Rian O’Neill.

He lives at home in Mountcharles, 25 minutes from Ballybofey. His evening walk from work in former team-mate Marty O’Reilly’s sports shop to training in MacCumhaill Park is just as short as the walk he once did to school in New York. If it’s Convoy, it’s only 20 minutes.

Before a game he could spend two hours watching and re-watching clips of anyone he thinks he could end up marking. He studies games on his own, makes notes, does his due diligence.

But then came the reminder of how swiftly football can turn, when Paddy Lynch kicked Cavan into a lead after 14 seconds and used the confidence to take another two points before half-time. McCole switched off him but credits himself for digging in and soldiering on in the second half.

The work he’s done on his mindset is standing to him.

“It does, definitely. It probably would have bugged me for longer, the performance against Meath that day. I would have been down about it.

“Not embarrassed or anything like that, but obviously it’s demoralising. Now, through working with the psychologists, it’s about the next ball, get the kickout away – it’s gone, you can do nothing about it now.”

So used to Neil McGee, the county’s most-capped player in history, spring has brought full bloom to the Tír Chonaill public’s affection for seeing Brendan McCole move towards the throne at full-back.

In that same interview for the match programme a month ago, his childhood hero was listed as one Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink, the Dutch striker whose rollercoaster three-year spell with Celtic had enough high points to endear him to a generation.

He’s only been to Parkhead once and while he keeps an eye from a distance, McCole barely considers himself a fan now. His loyalty is very much at home, with Finn Harps.

As often as Friday nights allow him, he’ll be in Finn Park watching his friend Gavin Mulreany in goals.

His own flirtation with the sport went no further than the odd off-season game for local club Eany Celtic.

He’s still a Knicks fan and studied Kobe Bryant as closely as he watched anyone.

American sports still have the ability to draw him in, a remnant of the giant city he once called home and still frequents as often as he can.

Three-thousand miles separate Rye Beach and Mountcharles Pier. It’s the same Atlantic Ocean that Brendan McCole still frequents, just with the thermostat off.

But even though home will never be the same without Kara, home is Donegal. It’s little Mountcharles and St Naul’s and Clones on hot summer Sundays.

It’s Claire and Finn Park and the Donegal Rally.

Brendan McCole is really starting to look at home.

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