The Big GAA Interview: Bernard Brogan senior - Drilling for medals
JOE talks to Dublin legend Bernard Brogan senior, the father of three current All-Ireland medalists and a man not short on achievement himself.
Bernard Brogan senior is still contributing to the Dublin inter-county side in case you haven’t noticed.
Three of his progeny, Alan, Bernard and Paul, were on the panel that won Dublin’s first All-Ireland in sixteen years last September, Alan and Bernard being arguably the most important players on the side for that campaign, while Paul has been earmarked for success for a long time despite some injury setbacks.
To that haul of medals you can add Bernard’s brother, Jim, who won a medal alongside him as a player in 1977 and as a selector in 1995, and Jim’s son James, who was part of last year’s panel.
With those credentials the term 'dynasty' can be appropriately applied to the clan started by the grandfather of the family, the late Jim Senior and his wife Bridget when they moved to the Navan Road from Mayo many years ago.
The champions of the current brood still have some way to match the achievements of the great Dublin team that Bernard and Jim played on in the 1970s, but with their own fraternal bond nutured at home and playing alongside their cousins at St Oliver Plunkett’s Eoghan Ruadh, you wouldn’t bet against them building on their success of last year.
For school and club
For Bernard Senior, it all started growing up on the Navan Road with his secondary school St Declan’s and club Plunkett’s providing him with an outlet and passion for football.
“There weren’t that many sports clubs around in those days as there are these days, just Plunkett’s and one other soccer club,” recalls Brogan.
“When I went into Declan’s there weren’t that many other sports around and we had a Brother in Declan’s called Brother Carr who was very, very interested in Gaelic football.
"It was a small school then, but there were several good players and several good teams and Declan’s was very good to us in that sense.”
The symbiosis between Declan’s and Plunkett’s aided Brogan and many other footballers over the years that would go on to wear the blue of Dublin.
“Yeah I think it’s very good when a school and a club mixes through Gaelic football, down through the years there has been a group there that have kept the sport going, which counts for a lot.
"There have been clubs that have tapped into that through the work that has been done in the schools and the reward for that, I think, is that there were nine lads on the panel last season that were from Declan’s originally, that’s a big achievement.”
The big leagues
Dublin football was in the dark ages when Kevin Heffernan took charge as manager in 1973, they hadn’t won an All-Ireland since 87,000 people packed out Croke Park to see Dublin beat Galway in 1963. The greatest legend of Dublin GAA returned as manager to lead the Metropolitans back to the promised land and he wanted an initially pessimistic, and busy, young Brogan in his midfield. What did Bernard make of the great and notoriously media-shy man?
“I first met him in 1973. Dublin were in the doldrums and Kevin Heffernan sort of decided to change the way teams were managed and selected. He went looking for players and came to club matches and so on,” says Brogan.
“The first time I met him I turned him down because I was in the final year in college and I hadn’t the time. We had also gone out that year in the first round of the Leinster Championship against Louth; there was no real interest in Dublin at that stage.
"In that way he changed Gaelic football, he brought Dublin back from the doldrums,” concludes Brogan, with his voice full of admiration for the man who would go on to become a Freeman of Dublin and manage them to three All-Ireland titles.
The conversation drifts to Heffo’s philosophy on the game and what vision he articulated to the players. Suprisingly Brogan reveals it’s not dissimilar to some of those articulated by modern managers.
“He wanted something different, something the other teams weren’t doing. His notion was that we should be fitter and able to play longer. In 1974 that notion was proved right.
"The team worked very hard, played for longer than the other teams and won the All-Ireland. The backbone of that team won the All-Ireland and continued on for six or seven years."
Starting to build the momentum
After the ignominy of the exit in Leinster the year before, Dublin got off to an inauspicious start in Heffernan’s first Championship season, but before Dublin knew it they were beating Cork by 2-11 to 1-08 in the semi-finals. Brogan remembers the belief gathering apace.
“Ah yeah there was great momentum in the team. We started off against Wexford in the first round and we were lucky to beat them. It was one of those things when starting off in the Championship, teams are vulnerable at the start of the Championship because they’re not as prepared as they are at the back-end of the season, they haven’t got football under their belts. Our team got better and better as we went on and got more comfortable.”
At what point did that Dublin side realise it was exceptional and could win multiple All-Ireland’s?
“I don’t think you ever realise that, you just have to play every match,” says Brogan after some consideration. He then gives a recent example of how fleeting success can be.
“Look at Dublin this year against Kilkenny. Last year Dublin came very close to making the breakthrough, this year they were overwhelmed. All you can do is work hard and play one game at a time.”
Brogan also says that the lack of other teams around the level of Dublin and Kerry aided their shared dominance of the Championship.
“We were very lucky at the time, it was only us and Kerry…that’s just what it boiled down to. Today, it’s just much more difficult.”
The Kingdom and the Capital
Brogan and his wife Marie on their wedding day
Brogan has an association with Kerry beyond football rivalries, while working in Kerry he was introduced to his wife Marie by the former Kerry defender and current Government minister Jimmy Deenihan. He doesn’t think that the shared dominance by Kerry and Dublin was bad for the game in general in the 1970s and in fact, it raised the bar.
“I think for the players of the other counties at the time it wasn’t good, but I think for the game it was good. If you have just one team winning all the time it isn’t good, but if you have two it’s fine, I think our rivalry with Kerry brought football on a lot,” he says.
“Football now is a lot more competitive, at the start of the Championship every team thinks they have an opportunity to win a game, back then it was only three or four teams.
"Was it good for the game? I think it was, Dublin and Kerry may have dominated for twelve or fourteen years, but it changed the notion of the game.”
And Kerry, were they just another team, another match or did Dublin have an extra motivation to beat them when they played back then?
"Kerry are the pre-eminent team playing Gaelic football, so we always had that extra drive to beat them because they expected to beat you, they always expect to beat everybody. In that sense we always went out extra-motivated to beat them and we did very well against them, though I think we only beat them in one final. That just shows their level of belief I suppose…” says Brogan, trailing off thoughtfully.
That single win came in the final of 1976, with Dublin beating Kerry, the reigning champions, by 3-8 to 0-10. In many ways it was similar to Kilkenny’s win last year in the All Ireland Hurling final. Kilkenny, motivated by their loss the year previous to Tipperary, were extra motivated to beat Tipp and that spurred them on to victory. Were the Dublin team more motivated, with a greater appetite for revenge after '75?
“We were, yeah. We went into that match in ’75 thinking we could beat Kerry and we were caught on the hop by a very young Kerry team that didn’t have a lot of pedigree in the team at that stage and we expected to win, so that hurt us a lot. That helped us in’76, there’s no question about that.”
Dublin went on to win a consecutive All-Ireland the following year, beating Kerry in the semi-final before trouncing Armagh in the final. After that Kerry went on to beat Dublin in the final for the next two years as they marched to four-in-a-row. Brogan remembers the ’77 championship well.
“Yeah, as I say we had great momentum and belief and I think we could have won more All-Irelands if that particular Kerry team wasn’t against us. It was such a young team, whereas there were quite a mix of ages in our team, some of the lads were nine years older than me and that had a big impact on our team in the latter years when the lads couldn’t compete against the younger players.”
In the course of the semi-final against Kerry Brogan scored a crucial goal. The move which led to goal was started by the Dublin goalkeeper and worked its way to Brogan, who raced through and buried the ball with aplomb.
The goal makes every highlight reel of great GAA moments. Soccer has Carlos Alberto’s 1970 goal, Gaelic football has this one. For Brogan’s part, he’s not too fussed about it.
“Look, goals happen because things come together. It’s remembered because it sealed the win for us. I mean, David Hickey scored a great goal a few minutes beforehand that rarely gets mentioned, but it’s just the way the match was won.
"It got to that stage of the game and it was nip and tuck and it changed the match, that’s why it matters.”
Anyone can win one All-Ireland...
That goal helped on the way to Dublin’s third All-Ireland in four years in 1977.
“Anyone can win one All-Ireland, but it takes a great team to win two,” the manager of Kerry and Dublin’s number one nemesis Mick O’Dwyer once said.
The current Dublin team that features his sons has just won one All-Ireland after sixteen years of getting close, is that a mental barrier that has now been overcome on the way to winning more?
“It’s hard to know why Dublin didn’t win an All-Ireland in sixteen years or play in one for sixteen years which is extraordinary. We had teams that should have played in All-Irelands, but didn’t.
It’s just a bit of luck or play being a little bit loose, if people knew why it was happening we wouldn’t have been waiting so long,” answers Brogan.
“It shouldn’t have happened. We had the players to play at the top… and we did compete at the top level, but we just couldn’t make that extra little grade.”
He adds that there did seem to be a little more mental fortitude about Dublin last year.
“Even last year we were stretched to the wire, but we had that extra little bit and kept going, that’s why we won last year - we kept going to the very end.”
In terms of that mental fortitude, fitness and discipline that Kevin Heffernan instilled in the team of the seventies, is there a similarity to the team that his fellow St Vincent’s man and Dublin boss Pat Gilroy has now produced?
“There’s no question about it,” Brogan says without pause.
“The game has changed as well, the game has got very athletic and players need to run and jump better than they used to. You need to be able to go for seventy minutes; you can’t just go for sixty because a lot can happen in the last ten minutes and you can score a lot in that period, as Dublin proved last year.
"Every team works on that basis now, you have to go for the full seventy minutes to stand a chance of winning. So Kevin Heffernan, Pat Gilroy and Pillar Caffrey before that got it right, you need to be fit, fitter than everyone else.”
Raising new stars
With Alan and Bernard both player of the year winners and Paul a very polished player too, there must be fathers up and down the country wondering how to train their kids the way Bernard did. He has raised three seemingly naturally-gifted footballers. How?
“That’s just got to do with interest with my lads. When they were growing up I was playing in and managing teams, so they were immersed in it. I think that’s a lot to do with it, obviously they have the natural talent as well, but they have a great interest in it and spent a lot of time training and playing with adult teams. I won’t say that’s the secret but it’s got a lot to do with it.
"It’s also no secret that fathers and sons that are good at their sport and spend a lot of time at their sport have good fitness for it too. I mean, Stephen Roche’s son is a great cyclist, partly down to the fact that his father is a great cyclist and that’s where he spent his time.”
Was there any particular skill or training you encouraged them with? Brogan answers without pause.
“Oh, the least developed skill in Gaelic football is the kicking skill.”
He elaborates: “You hear a lot of talk today about the changes in the game, hand-passing and that, but not a lot of players can kick the ball properly.
"That can be seen in scoring forwards, there’s not that many scoring forwards anymore. If there are two scoring forwards in a team these days you’re doing very well. So the kicking skill is definitely not one that is emphasised or developed as it should be.”
Dublin have two star scoring-forwards that are brothers and that will take to field on Sunday against Wexford, but Alan and Bernard junior are still following in their father’s footsteps.