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Monday 10 December 2018

Fenton's Long way back to when it began

Three years on from debut, he's Dublin's main man

Formidable: Brian Fenton in action for Dublin against Wicklow during the Leinster Championship match in Portlaoise
Formidable: Brian Fenton in action for Dublin against Wicklow during the Leinster Championship match in Portlaoise

When Brian Fenton stepped onto Croke Park for his championship debut, against Longford on the last day of May, 2015, it's fair to say that he wasn't the centre of Hill 16 attention.

He was a coming star, for sure, but one of many in the Sky Blue firmament.

Three years and multiple honours later, Fenton returns to where his odyssey began: an early-summer Croker date with Longford.

The one big difference? Now nobody need ask who is this 6'4" specimen in the Dublin engine-room.

His unblemished record alone makes him unique: to stay unbeaten after three full championships is unheard of in the modern game.

Start of an era: Brian Fenton in action against Longford’s Kevin Diffley on his SFC debut back in May 2015
Start of an era: Brian Fenton in action against Longford’s Kevin Diffley on his SFC debut back in May 2015

Dublin's recent demolition of Wicklow in Portlaoise signified another coming of age: 21 SFC games not out, incorporating 19 victories and a brace of deadlocks with Mayo.

But there is far more to Fenton than being statistically unique. He wouldn't have started all those games in such a pivotal position, for one of the greatest teams in history, if he was merely plugging a gap or because his face fitted.

By the end of his maiden campaign, he had progressed rapidly from being merely relevant to a fully-fledged revelation. He was 'Man of the Match' in the All-Ireland final against Kerry. That November he was collecting his first All Star.

A year later, another Celtic Cross and another All Star followed.

Last season, critics might argue, his form plateaued - if only because the initial benchmark was so high. After completing his All-Ireland hat-trick, he was still good enough for another All Star nomination.

Maybe that relative dip explains what has followed in the first five months of 2018. Fenton has been staggeringly good through the entire league and on to Dublin's Leinster SFC opener against Wicklow.

Dovetailing

Ciarán Kilkenny's form, dovetailing between the '40' and closer to goal, has been equally stellar. Curiously, just like Fenton, Kilkenny won his brace of All Stars in 2015 and '16 before settling for a nomination last autumn, partly because of his final day struggles on Lee Keegan.

Fast-forward to early June and they are the two form players on the country's premier team. Fenton complemented his first championship goal with three points from play against Wicklow while Kilkenny amassed a staggering 1-7.

Both players were born in 1993 - Fenton turned 25 in March, Kilkenny will do so next month. They are the leadership axis now driving Dublin's quest for immortality.

As former Dublin forward Ray Cosgrove remarked this week, if the duo can replicate that form over the next few months, "it'll be a toss-up of a coin between the pair to see who'll be Footballer of the Year".

Fenton's first summer goal may have been a while coming but it merely underlined a newly prolific trend. He tallied 1-9 during the league, which means his seasonal haul stands at 2-12, all from play, in eight starts and one sub appearance.

Maybe it's a throwback to when it all started: Fenton had made several cameo appearances in the 2015 league before making his full debut, in Clones that April, and announcing his arrival with an early goal.

He held his place for the Division 1 semi-final against Monaghan (again) and final against Cork. Jim Gavin clearly liked what he saw; the rest is history.

Many observers now view Kerry, bolstered by an influx of decorated underage heroes, as the county most likely to have any chance of stopping Dublin this summer.

But first they must seek to stymie Fenton's ability to dominate the skies, devour the turf and set his forward colleagues in motion with his usually pinpoint deliveries.

Easier said than done. "He's one of the best footballers in the country at the moment," says Bryan Sheehan, who called time on his Kerry career at the end of last season.

Prime

"He's come in at a fantastic age, ready for this level of football. Whereas I know for a fact, when I was 24/25 years of age, I was nowhere near the level he is at. You were probably hitting your prime at 27/28 - he's right in his prime now, and there is still a lot more in him.

"He's very athletic as well," Sheehan adds. "The modern-era Gaelic football midfielder is Brian Fenton. David Moran is similar ... fantastic engine; gets up and down the field; gets through an awful amount of work; both of them fantastic kickers of the ball as well; fielding ability."

But whatever about Moran recapturing his peak form for Kerry this summer, right now there is no mistaking the country's main midfield man ... the rock from Raheny.

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