Saturday 22 October 2016

Fenton ticking all the boxes

Whelan comparisons inevitable but this Raheny rookie is writing his own story

Brian Fenton celebrating the semi-final replay over Mayo
Brian Fenton celebrating the semi-final replay over Mayo

Brian Fenton is 22, in his first year as a Dublin senior footballer, and on the cusp of appearing in his maiden All-Ireland final.

Fenton also happens to be from the same Raheny club that produced Ciarán Whelan. And he's a galloping midfielder too: 6'3", the same as Whelan's imposing frame.

Cue the inevitable comparisons.

"That's not for me!" protests Whelan, who goes on to speak glowingly and at length about Dublin's rookie midfielder.

"Ciarán was a different player but, if he can be half as good as Ciarán in his career, he will have done well," suggests his manager, Jim Gavin.


And yet here's the thing: tomorrow in Croke Park, Fenton will get to do what his famous clubmate never quite managed during a career stretching from 1996 until 2009 - feature in an All-Ireland senior final.

Here's another thing: in an era when the Parnell Park conveyor belt has churned out multiple marquee teenagers, the Raheny man qualifies as something of a hidden gem. Or maybe just a late developer.

Four years ago, a much-touted Dublin minor team under the management of Dessie Farrell reached the All-Ireland final. Fenton, then in his final year as a minor, wasn't part of the set-up.

Around that time he had ongoing knee injury issues. He was also studying for his Leaving Cert. And on the same day that Dublin reeled in Kerry to end 16 years in the senior wilderness, their minor counterparts suffered a late sucker-punch defeat to Tipperary. That team included Jack McCaffrey, Ciarán Kilkenny, Cormac Costello, Paul Mannion, John Small, Eric Lowndes and Emmet Ó Conghaile, to name seven who would progress into the senior fold … but Fenton was not among them.

He wasn't involved with Jim Gavin's All-Ireland U21 winners the following May either. Two years later, however, he would come with a late burst onto Farrell's All-Ireland winning crew, starting the U21 semi-final against Cavan and final against Roscommon.

The seeds were being sown for senior elevation.

"We would have analysed that we would have needed midfield cover for this season and we would have spotted him playing club championship. He had been in and out of underage panels, and on teams and off teams," explains Dublin selector Declan Darcy.

Management were impressed by his "dynamic" skill-set. "When you looked at him in a raw state, he had all the fundamentals for Croke Park," Darcy expands. "He ticked a lot of the boxes. He is big and he is strong, can move fast, can use both feet.

"So, it was a question of exposing him to enough football so that we could use him at the start of the championship season."

By the time Dublin arrived in Clones for the final round of the Allianz League, Fenton had made four appearances off the bench. Then he was parachuted in for his full NFL debut at wing-forward; some three minutes and 15 seconds into the contest, he was rifling a shot to the Monaghan net.

He was up and running. Then he retained his place for the league semi-final and final, the Leinster SFC opener against Longford, and the next five championship games too. That's nine appearances on the spin.

Whelan had suspected all along that he would come across Dublin's radar.

"Did I think it would happen so soon? Maybe not," he admits, adding that Fenton is in the same age bracket as McCaffrey and Kilkenny who have been on the squad, all the while developing, for three or four years.

"He went in at the start of this year and, within the space of six months, has developed into a serious midfielder," Whelan expands. "I watched him early on in the league - I love the simple things that he did. He was very composed from the very start. He didn't try and rush in to be the hero, or get forward or get scores which he's well able to do. He kept things very, very simple."

Off the pitch, he describes a "thorough gentleman" with a "great attitude", laid-back in his own way but evidently determined to succeed.

Key Players

"I always remember him knocking around the club as a kid," Whelan recalls. "I knew he was playing on a very, very strong minor team and he was one of the key players on it … they won the Féile U14 Dublin 'A' title and got to an All-Ireland final and were beaten in Carrick-on-Shannon.

"Then he came out of minor, and I was looking after the senior team. But he had a couple of rough years with injuries," he points out.

"When I was managing Raheny, I would have spoken to our management team about him being the one with the real potential, the one I reckoned could step up to senior (county) level."

So it has transpired, at belatedly breakneck speed, even if he remains a work in progress.

The drawn match with Mayo introduced Fenton to a whole new world of intensity.

"I'd say he learned a terrible lot from that game, and obviously he was very, very effective in the replay," says Whelan. "It didn't faze him, even in the first game - he kept plodding away and he kept hanging in there."

Darcy cites "youthful exuberance" as another reason for his resurgent replay form.

"When you are at that age, all you want to do is go out and play football the best that you can. And I think he is in that bubble at the minute. He is in a great place, he is not over-thinking it but he is an intelligent guy," he surmises.

Last word, on All-Ireland weekend, to a former Dublin midfielder who never made it this far.

"I'd do anything to be back, 22 years of age, and to have a foothold in the middle of the Dublin park!" says Whelan.

"I think he'll embrace it and, if anything, he probably has a better opportunity than I had … I don't want to build him up too much, but he obviously has ten years of top level football, at least, to look forward to and he's definitely in a very good starting position. I think there's plenty of good days ahead."


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