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Friday 15 December 2017

John Small's journey back to the big time with the Dubs

Ballymun defender making the most of his second crack at Dublin senior squad

John Small, Dublin
John Small, Dublin

MAYBE Ger Brennan saw something of himself in John Small when he was asked to appraise him and maybe not.

But plenty have.

"I've been very impressed by John," Brennan offered. "He's a really tough guy, works really hard."

Brennan was busying himself preparing for an All-Ireland club semi-final.

Small, meanwhile, was wearing the number six jersey which has become the Brennan's preserve since 2010, save for his injury absence last year, during which he became the most pined-after footballer in recent Dublin history as Donegal poured gleefully through the central channel of the defence he, in normal circumstances, guards wolfishly.

Yet for a man turned 22 just last month, Small has already been through a fair whack of the highs and lows for an elite footballer.

His Man of the Match award against Donegal in Croke Park a couple of Saturdays back confirmed him as a senior of rich potential but his ascent hasn't been without turbulence.

Centre-back on the Dublin minor team that squandered a six-point lead over Tipperary in the 2011 All-Ireland final, so strong were Small's performances that season he became the first of a group that contained the likes of Ciarán Kilkenny, Cormac Costello and Jack McCaffrey, to be called into the senior panel.

Not just any senior panel either - Pat Gilroy's All-Ireland winning squad.

Thus, Small made his Dublin debut in Dr Cullen Park on January 8th 2012, as a half-time replacement for Brennan on a team still wiping the sleep from their eyes after the long, bubbly winter of 2011/12.

From there, his advance to seniordom looked inevitable.

And yet…

Dropped by Gilroy, Small nevertheless started in the Jim Gavin-managed 2012 Dublin Under 21 team against Wexford in their Leinster first round win, but along with McCaffrey, was left out of the team for the next round and stayed benched through their subsequent All-Ireland win.

By consequence or coincidence, he then failed to make the starting line-up in Ballymun Kickhams as Paul Curran's team went to the All-Ireland club final of 2013, an underwhelming involvement which, given the proximity of both competitions, precluded his selection with Dessie Farrell's Under-21 side, the one that went down in flames to Longford in Parnell Park.

Yet here he is, starting Dublin centre-back and easily Gavin's find of the winter/spring thus far, particularly in the context of their obvious deficiencies against Donegal and the uncertainty over Brennan's fitness.

"He went to senior, had a dip in form - that's a cycle that players go through, but he's come back stronger for it," explained Gavin.

intelligent

"He's a mentally tough guy, his situational game is very good, he's got very good game sense which you need for centre half-back, and he's very strong and intelligent on the ball.

"He has all of the attributes but again, he's only beginning his career in a senior jersey and he'll have a lot of challenges and a lot of ups and downs along the way, but his first steps have been good."

So good that he is, on form, undroppable and it's up to those more grizzled half-backs, Brennan included, to dislodge the man in possession.

"He brings a lot of physical attributes," notes team mate Jonny Cooper, not unfamiliar with the terms of reference for a centre-back himself.

"It compliments his own playing style as well. Centre-back, there's a lot of traffic in that particular zone.

"He's a young man. He's well able to cope with all those challenges from a physical side of things. I suppose, in a football sense, he would be up there.

"He's been around a number of years. He hadn't really broken through.

"I think that has stood to him. He's obviously picking up bits and pieces in the last couple of games.

"He probably has a lot to learn but he's getting a chance.

"And like everyone else, when you get that chance you have to take it.

Cooper concludes: "It's your jersey to lose and he's doing all the right things at the moment."

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