GAA Football

'I had my turn - I gave it everything I had for as long as I could': Gary Brennan

Gary Brennan was among the best midfielders in the country during over a decade's service to Clare, before stepping off the inter-county stage last year. Picture by Donnie Phair
Neil Loughran

FOR over a decade, he was the totemic symbol of Clare’s resistance. Up and down the divisions, a pillar of consistency on the good days and the bad, Gary Brennan was one of those guys who prompted endless barstool ‘best of the rest’ debates about men who could have an almighty collection of medals had they been born elsewhere.

Last year, the towering midfielder – a PE teacher at St Flannan’s College in Ennis - called time on a Clare career that began in 2007. At 33, he is still playing away with Clondegad, though his days swinging a hurl for reigning county champions Ballyea have been put on the backburner for the time being.

“I haven’t ruled out going back but I’m trying to lower my commitments at the minute rather than add to them,” he laughs.

“We had a baby there six months ago, I’m in the middle of an online Masters in performance coaching at Setanta College – I’d ideally love to work in professional sport some day but, if nothing else, it will add to my own coaching - and then we’re building a house in Limerick at the minute.

“I’d a flag up on the site but it wasn’t long being pulled down…”

Brennan’s wife Niamh (nee Mulcahy) is a former camogie star with the Treaty and, in truth, by the time they tied the knot in the winter of 2019, county commitments were already slipping down the pecking order for both.

That was until plans to go travelling the following summer fell by the wayside – “such was the shock of the two of us stopping playing that Covid decided to take over the world” – and Brennan was coaxed back into the Banner fold by Colm Collins.

He had originally taken a year out, unsure what the future might hold. This time, after playing the conclusion of a bizarre 2020 campaign, there would be no going back.

“Ah, I wasn’t fully fit, I’d got injured in club championship and I kinda regret going back not totally fit.

“I maybe didn’t do myself justice going back at that stage.”

Little more than a year on, Clare have hauled themselves into an All-Ireland quarter-final – and their former captain couldn’t be happier.

By pure coincidence, he ended up a few seats away from former team-mate Gordon Kelly inside Croke Park 11 days ago; they could have been forgiven for feeling as though they had seen this movie somewhere before.

Back in 2016 both men played when Clare secured a first-ever All-Ireland quarter-final appearance with a brilliant six point win over Roscommon. Brennan was immense in Salthill. Although the Banner were swatted aside by Kerry the next day, he was nominated for an Allstar – and deemed unlucky by many not to get one.

Six years on, though, it wasn’t quite so straightforward. Trailing by five with two minutes of normal time left, the gig was up. Or so it seemed. Until, bit by bit, Clare closed the gap before Jamie Malone – who bagged a goal in the 2016 win – popped up with the winning score five minutes into added time.

Cue pandemonium.

“In my time, we would have had a bit of a habit of losing great games,” said Brennan.

“Watching them against Roscommon, it was like they forgot to come out for the second half at all. I was watching it with my father and I said to him ‘if we time it we could just get it right and might come with a good finish - there has to be 15 minutes in us anyway’. But I can’t pretend I saw what was coming. I don’t think anybody did.

“It’s one we won which we weren’t supposed to win, and we beat two counties ranked above us in the League to get to where we are. We haven’t often done that in Clare.”

Brennan was delighted for younger brother Cillian, even though a hamstring injury kept him sidelined, delighted for the players, many of whom he soldiered alongside for years. And delighted for the man wearing the bainisteoir’s bib.

The job Colm Collins has done since taking up the reins in Clare nine years ago might have flown beneath the radar at times, but there has been a queue forming to pat him on the back in the wake of this latest triumph.

So what is it about him? Brennan pauses for thought.

“What is it that Colm has done… sometimes when you sit back and thinking about it you’d be like ‘what exactly has he done?’ It’s difficult to describe - some people want there to be some magical trick or something, where in reality it’s a lot of simple things done well.

“He came in at a time when we had missed out on Division Four in two of the previous three years, so we were going close but not finishing the job. We had played in a Munster final two years before.

“He came in with a very clear idea, especially based on the [2012] Munster final [against Cork], because we went out and played some nice stuff but got opened up for three goals and the game was over. He was very keen to put more structure on the play, to have more cover at the back and not leave ourselves wide open.

“He knows what his strengths are - dealing with people, managing the group, setting the tone and being a figurehead I suppose – but he also got good people in around him, like Paudie Kissane, Mick Bohan, Alan Flynn, Brian Carson, now he has Gerry McGowan. The learnings taken from each of those are still being used.

“Colm would also be involved with the supporters’ club, working away behind the scenes. There was a car raffle last summer, I was down at Spanish Point one day and he was there selling tickets.

“He’s not someone who just delegates all the jobs, he’d be in the trenches too. His number one priority at all times is Clare football.

“There’s no sentimentality, no ego… that’s a big thing.”

It’s not hard to see why Brennan was his go-to guy for so long.

Despite having retired relatively recently, there have been no ‘what ifs’ or ‘what might have beens’ as Clare prepare to meet the Oak Leafs. Instead, Brennan’s journey has come full circle.

On Saturday he will be there supporting Cillian and a group of men to whom he still feels connected. There are no regrets at stepping away, only pride at what they have achieved since.

“I was absolutely thrilled for them, that’s the honest truth. If I stepped away and Clare football went backwards a step, I would see that as a bad sign on me.

“When I started off in 2007, Cillian didn’t miss a match, coming along with mam and dad in the car. He was doing his Leaving Cert, bringing his books in the car and going to matches in Fermanagh, Cavan or wherever up around the country.

“So it’s nice to be on the other side of that now, following and supporting him. I had my turn at it, I’m quite happy - I gave it everything I had for as long as I could.

“I know the work they’re putting in and I know how hard it can be when you are seen as the second sport in the county. I’m just glad to see them getting their rewards.”

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GAA Football