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Thursday 14 November 2019

Bernard worked so hard and used every bit of talent

With his medals and memories, my brother retires on his terms

Alan and Bernard with the Sam Maguire after the 2015 victory over Kerry.
Alan and Bernard with the Sam Maguire after the 2015 victory over Kerry.

It's funny how we tend to measure a sportsperson's career by success and accolades, when the things that really resonate are the memories.

My first footballing recollection of my brother Bernard is of him as a seven or eight-year-old up in St Oliver Plunkett/ER when our Dad was manager and the pair of us running up and down the line under the floodlights with the rain spilling down on top of us.

It seemed like the most natural thing in the world to go on and play for your club and try and get on the Dublin panel, but it was never as straightforward for Bernard as it was for me.

The thing about Bernard is, he was always small for his age.

The first time we played together in Croke Park was a Cumann na mBunscol final for Scoil Thomáis when I was in sixth class and he was a skinny little fella from fourth, playing corner-back.

By the time he started in secondary school, Bernard was actually better known as a hurler.

He was on a minor hurling development panel for Dublin and never made a county squad for football until he was at Under-21.

Granted, he was on the panel when we won an All-Ireland Under-21 title in 2003, but he didn't see any playing time and what a lot of people don't appreciate about Bernard is that none of what happened for him came easily.

There was no guarantee he would play for Dublin.

No real expectation even.

I went in under Tommy Lyons in 2002, just two years out of minor and straight into the Dublin forward line.

Bernard tore his cruciate at the stage of a footballer's career when it is easy to get sidetracked and go off and do other things, or half-arse the rehabilitation and never really resume at the same level.

One of the really vivid memories I have of Bernard is his first goal for Dublin against Laois under Pillar in 2007.

He started wing-forward that day in a team that wasn't exactly weighed down with raw scoring power inside.

That's where he was at the time: good enough to get into the team - just not quite good enough to get picked in his natural position.

In 2008, he came on as a sub for me after I went off injured in that miserable All-Ireland quarter-final loss to Tyrone in the rain, Pillar's last game as manager.

He would have been 24 at that stage and still not a regular starter.

Later that year we got to the county final and lost in a replay to Kilmacud Crokes.

In the replay, Bernard scored 0-10, seven from play off Paul Griffin, who was still in his pomp at the time and the best man-marker in Dublin football.

He kicked them from all over Parnell Park that night.

Right. Left. On the run. Over his shoulder.

So that was probably the moment we all started thinking: 'This fella is going to another level.'

It's been well documented that Pat Gilroy played a huge role in Bernard's development over the following years, and it's true.

I remember one particular team meeting early in 2010 when Pat was trying to get his point across that defence started from the front and the new increased workload would be shared evenly among every player.

No exceptions.

Now Pat could be droll - not in any malicious way. But he could use sarcasm brilliantly to prove a point.

And Bernard was his target audience.

"So basically, the other 14 players will do all work," he said, unveiling his new game plan.

"And you just stay inside and they'll give you the ball."

Bernard sat there, nodding along. Music to his ears.

And then Pat paused.

"Eh, I don't think so, Bernard. That's not the way it's going to work."

Pat was probably harder on Bernard than he was on any other player, but his work-rate, both on and off the ball, went through the roof then.

He became ferociously strong. And when he tackled, he immersed himself in the game more, touching the ball more often.

I've no doubt that in the years between 2010 and '15, he was the best inside forward in the country.

The knock-on effect of his rise meant I was moved out into more of a link/play-making role and naturally, we had a certain understanding.

Bernard is an out-and-out striker. Close to goal. One touch. Bang.

We never spent any great time talking about how we would link up.

But when I looked up with the ball in my hands and spotted Bernard, I didn't need a second glance. I'd know precisely where he was going and what sort of ball suited him best.

He was always our go-to guy.

In any tight game, regardless of the scenario, we'd find a way of getting him on the ball in the scoring zone because he was just so accurate off either foot.

Again, he worked harder than anybody in training to achieve that. None of it was particularly natural.

Like most people, I suspected the end had come last year when he tore his cruciate again, but all he wanted was to go out on his own terms, having thrown everything he possibly had at it, rather than let injury write his ending.

And given how little he played and the status he had earned as a footballer, it would have been easy to throw his toys out of the pram this year.

Privately, he was frustrated. But I guarantee he didn't show any of that in a Dublin dressing-room.

And in the end, he took his place in the squad on the day that team became immortals.

He got to go out on his own terms.

And aside from the medals and the awards and even the memories, he can retire satisfied that he squeezed every last drop out of the talent he had.

There aren't many footballers who can say that.

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