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Saturday 24 August 2019

Brennan: Meath are far too long away from the top table

Ben Brennan father’s Mickey regaled his son with stories of Down’s victory over Meath in the 1991 All-Ireland football final
Ben Brennan father’s Mickey regaled his son with stories of Down’s victory over Meath in the 1991 All-Ireland football final

The year 1991 is remembered with still palpable glee for one reason, and one reason only, for the majority of people from Meath.

Four games. The Dubs. Kevin Foley.

Even citizens who weren't born or old enough to remember the saga that enchanted the nation have strong visions of the iconic moments of those games.

Meath co-captain Donal Keogan was all of three months old when Meath and Dublin had that opening bout but to him, the games are as prominent in his psyche as any he is old enough to actually remember in the first person.

"I don't know why, I was fascinated with those four games," he admitted.

"I remember one year just watching the tapes and I could nearly recite the commentary I watched it that much."

For Ben Brennan, it's completely different.

The lens through which he views one of Meath's greatest sporting moments in smudged with a foreign agent.

The St Colmcilles forward was born in Down in November 1991, when the county was still tipsy from their All-Ireland final victory over Seán Boylan's jaded team.

He lived there until he was five.

"My cousins are from Down, all the family are from there," he explains.

"I've an older brother and a younger brother, we were all born in Down. I suppose that's where I get my football from."

His father, Mickey, played with Teconnaught, a Junior team in Down and to this day, he reminds his son that his adopted home hadn't a chance in the '91 final.

"He always lets me know and he'd be saying that 'as soon as we got to the final there was no way we were being beat, ask any man in Down and there was not a chance Meath were beating us that day.'

"He would follow Down," Brennan goes on, "but he'd come to more Meath games nowadays, not necessarily as a Meath fan but as a father I suppose. Like any father, if I'm not playing he's giving out and this sort of craic."

And for most of his football adulthood, Brennan wasn't playing.

He made his senior Championship debut just last summer in Meath's half-shock Leinster defeat to Longford, a two-point loss in Pearse Park that in all truth, probably spared the team a pasting in the next round against tomorrow's opponents, Dublin.

"I came in at 25 or 26, I had no airs or graces about me, I can't say 'oh, it was only Longford,' Brennan says.

Green

"These lads have been playing inter-county football for years, I was coming in green behind the ears.

"I suppose it's lessons learned and it's probably made us a bit hungrier.

"It gives you the insight that if you're not at 100 per cent at this level you open yourself up to losses."

The reasons it took him so long to crack a place in the squad are varied but in no way complicated.

Brennan openly admits he is not the sort of player to catch the eye of a manager with his fitness in the immediate aftermath of the festive season.

"I've been in a few times probably in training camps in winter," he explains.

"But I suppose I'd winter well, as a man would say!

"So the auld winter football probably wouldn't suit me.

"But when Andy first came in he brought me in, I did the winter training and he kind of just spelt it out to me, he goes 'you're not going to kind of get on unless you pull up your socks, this is what you have to do - get the nutrition right, get the fitness up' and that.

"Because everybody at this level can play football, it's all the other stuff away from the football pitch needs to be in order for you to get up to the standard."

The other force that held him back from a young exposure to top grade football was a simple deficiency of interest.

"It's probably weird to say, but I never kind of had aspirations," Brennan freely admits.

"I wasn't pushing for that. I was always pushing to get the club up to senior because we hadn't been there since 1988.

"Every year within the county it was going to be Colmcilles' year in the Intermediate.

"But we were always the underachievers, so that was sort of my aim, to get us up there. We started by getting promotion to Division 1 for what I think was the first time ever and the next step was to get the intermediate.

Exposure

"I suppose when you are winning things you are in the spotlight.

"And if you are captain you probably get that little bit more exposure, maybe not warranted but suppose just lucky the way it's landed for me.

"I suppose," Brennan goes on, "it's probably not too common to be making your debut at 25 or 26, but it's as good a time as any at the same time. "

St Colmcille's won a Leinster Intermediate title in 2016 and lost the All-Ireland final the following February to Westport by just a point, with Brennan prominent up front.

But it was in his role coaching his club's minors that Brennan first came across James Conlon, the jinky inside forward who scored 0-5 from play in Meath's Leinster semi-final against Laois.

"It's just good to have someone that does what he does," Brennan notes.

"He's something different.

"In an age where it's all about athleticism and how big and strong you are, it's good to see just skill-base and a bit of agility, it's just something different.

"I suppose that's probably why he catches the eye."

Together, they'll provide much of the energy to the Meath attack that attempts to do what most are simply assuming is impossible in Croke Park tomorrow.

Either way Conlon says, Meath's first visit to a Leinster final in five years needs to be the start of something rather than the culmination of their slow progress in the past three years.

"I think we are too long out of the loop from the top table," he insists.

"I suppose we've made great strides this year getting to Division 1 but I suppose you are judged on your championship like every other team.

"We're back to a Leinster final, that's where we wanted to be but from here on in is the real test."

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